Last week, Washington was abuzz with a remarkable act of three-way diplomacy. Upbeat Pakistani and Afghan delegations streamed in and out of government offices, enjoying the rare experience of being included in the United States' policymaking process.
Unfortunately, back in Pakistan, politics was taking a nasty turn, one that could be far more consequential than any of the meetings in Washington.
This time, it wasn't Islamist militants or al Qaeda stirring up trouble. Rather, Pakistan's government -- elected in the wake of former President Pervez Musharraf's resignation -- has gone to war with itself.
The country's Supreme Court is once again implicated in the action, having disqualified from office the leaders of Pakistan's main opposition party: former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother, the sitting chief minister of Punjab. Soon after the court's decision, President Asif Ali Zardari imposed governor's rule, effectively placing his own man in charge of his country's most populous and politically dominant province.
In response, the Sharif brothers accused Zardari of manipulating the court and have vowed to take their case to the streets. This is no idle threat. According to public opinion surveys, Sharif is now Pakistan's most popular politician. His party, the Pakistan Muslim League (N), might well succeed in mobilizing violent street rallies that would test the capacity of state security and could even deliver a deathblow to the coalition government in Islamabad.
In short, Pakistan's major political leaders are now in a no-holds-barred contest for political power. The time for unity and compromise appears to have passed; the era of stable democratic governance (and a loyal opposition) was fleeting.
Where does this leave U.S. President Barack Obama's bid to revive flagging U.S. fortunes in the region? As long as Pakistan's political leaders are struggling for their own survival, they will have little time for fighting the Taliban along the Afghan border or for rooting out the networks of extremist militants like those who attacked Mumbai last November. And as long as Pakistan's politics remain deeply unsettled, the United States will have a hard time building sustainable partnerships to confront the region's underlying challenges, from poverty and poor education to inadequate judicial and security structures.
Despite the claims of Pakistan's many conspiracy theorists, the United States cannot dictate political outcomes in Islamabad. Judging from the recent history of Bush administration efforts to navigate the messy end of the Musharraf era, Washington's leverage in the tussle between Zardari and Sharif will be limited. Still, the Obama team should be clear on the potential outcomes of this political clash and should do its utmost to avoid the worst.
At the moment, U.S. diplomats are most likely trying to help put a lid back on the crisis, urging both sides to retreat from battle and identify a compromise that could keep partisan competition out of the streets and inside the constitutional process. To the extent that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Special Representative Richard Holbrooke can support this effort, they should; a Zardari-Sharif compromise is unquestionably Washington's most appealing outcome.
But three other, less pleasant outcomes are now more likely. First, Zardari could succeed in quelling Sharif's protests, effectively sidelining his primary opponent and consolidating his own national standing. Second, Sharif could leverage street protests and existing cleavages within Zardari's party to claw his way to power. Third, destabilizing violence and prolonged political uncertainty could convince the Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, to reassert control and sideline both civilian contenders.
Of these outcomes, the Obama team will find it most natural to resist the third -- return to military rule -- having just witnessed the perils of undemocratic governance and knowing that it would throw a major wrench into plans for a closer partnership and increases in U.S. assistance. Washington should encourage Kayani to keep his men in the barracks, but if the violence gets out of hand, U.S. entreaties will fall on deaf ears. The United States must therefore prepare for that unwelcome contingency by formulating a list of its highest-priority demands for any new military regime, including, but not limited to, a timeline and plans for Pakistan's return to constitutional democracy.
And there might be even worse things than military rule in Pakistan. Sharif's well-publicized Islamist ties may not determine his policies, but from a U.S. perspective they are troubling. Washington should work to avoid the worst-case scenario, in which a Sharif-led government would curtail partnership with the United States in ways that undermine critical U.S. counterterrorism goals. To some degree, Sharif's behavior will depend on whether he feels resentful or threatened by the United States, on which political allies he brings with him to Islamabad, and on how he conducts relations with Pakistan's top military and intelligence leaders. If Sharif's stock continues to rise, Washington should move quickly to share its primary strategic concerns with him directly and then assess his response accordingly.
If, on the other hand, Zardari weathers the immediate political storm, his government could veer dangerously toward unconstitutional and illiberal measures to ward off waves of popular protest. Washington's too-close association with an unpopular or repressive Zardari regime would prove no more effective than its recent association with Musharraf. Obama would then need to strike a difficult balance between closer bilateral cooperation on issues of common interest and the appearance of overdependence upon Zardari and his party. In particular, the Obama administration might need to rethink or condition apparent plans for vast increases in nonmilitary assistance, a policy intended to support Pakistan's ongoing democratic transition, not civilian authoritarianism.
There are many situations around the world bidding to become Obama's first major foreign-policy trial. But addressing the political drama in Pakistan -- a nuclear-armed state whose cooperation on the war in Afghanistan is essential -- should be high on his agenda. At the very least, the Pakistani turmoil will test the new administration's ability to avert or mitigate a crisis while it plots a comprehensive strategy for one of the world's most dangerous and complicated regions.