January 3, 2011 / 11:21 PM / 8 years ago

Analysis: Political unrest may bring U.S., Pakistan army closer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Pakistan’s political turmoil may push the United States to rely even more on the Pakistani military rather than on the weakening civilian government, South Asia analysts said on Monday.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani’s political woes deepened on Sunday when the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party pulled out of his ruling coalition because of government fuel price increases.

Already grappling with a homegrown Taliban campaign of suicide bombings, severe economic difficulties and the damage wrought by last summer’s floods, Giliani could face an early election if he cannot shore up his coalition.

The Karachi Stock Exchange’s benchmark 100-share index fell 1.44 percent, or 173 points, to end at 11,849.46 after the MQM’s decision, which adds to uncertainty over the government’s struggle to meet economic policy conditions of an $11 billion International Monetary Fund loan.

The central U.S. goal in Pakistan is to deprive Taliban militants of sanctuaries in the western part of the country used to help fight U.S.-led forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

While analysts said that the Pakistani military has been the main U.S. interlocutor on security issues, the government’s

weakness could further sideline civilian leaders in a country that has long lived under military regimes.

Shuja Nawaz of the Atlantic Council think tank said that if Pakistan’s economic troubles brought about political unrest, the country’s leaders — civilian and military — will focus on domestic concerns rather than on U.S. security priorities.

“Given the political upheaval inside Pakistan, then the only stable entity that remains is the military, so the U.S. will put all its eggs in that basket, or will be seen as putting its eggs in that basket” said Nawaz.

This could undercut U.S. efforts to shore up civilian rule, he said.

“My fear is that although U.S. higher-level policy is geared toward building a longer-term relationship with Pakistan ... quite often politics will dictate short-term measures, and particularly military measures, that need to be taken to satisfy domestic political requirements in the U.S.,” he said.

‘A BIT OF A SIDESHOW’

Facing public discontent over a war now in its 10th year, U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged to begin pulling U.S. forces — now nearly 100,000 — out of Afghanistan in July.

Some analysts argued that given the Pakistani military’s primacy on security matters, the United States would simply keep dealing with them.

“The civilians never had much impact on policy toward Afghanistan to begin with ... except around the margins,” said Brookings Institution analyst Stephen Cohen. “They have been a facade behind which the military has sought shelter.

“So, I think that we’ll continue to deal with the military. We’ll talk to civilians where we can and if we think it makes a difference, but I have no idea what ... the administration expects of them,” he added.

Pakistan’s political crisis erupts at a time when ties between the U.S. and Pakistani military and intelligence services have been under strain, illustrated vividly last month when U.S. officials said they withdrew the CIA’s station chief in Islamabad after his name surfaced in the Pakistani media.

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the political developments in Pakistan were a domestic matter for the Pakistanis to deal with.

“We understand that the government is dealing with a political challenge within its coalition. We’re watching it closely, but meanwhile we’re focused on our long-term partnership with Pakistan,” he told reporters.

“The political situation is a bit of a sideshow to some of the genuine issues the U.S. has with Pakistan. The real concern is the Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan that are prohibiting the U.S. from achieving our goals in Afghanistan,” said Lisa Curtis of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.

“Really what’s happening with the civilian political leadership doesn’t have any direct bearing on that issue — it’s the military that controls that issue,” she added.

Additional reporting by Missy Ryan and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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