Earlier this spring, Nawaz Sharif threatened to topple Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari's government. Since taking power in September, Zardari had been promising to reinstate Iftikhar Chaudhry, the chief justice of the supreme court, whom Pervez Musharraf had sacked on March 9, 2007. But Zardari, who feared that Chaudhry would try to either curb executive power or dredge up corruption cases, balked repeatedly. This annoyed Sharif--and many of his fellow countrymen--to no end. So, to coincide with the two-year anniversary of Chaudhry's suspension, Sharif planned a "long march" to Islamabad, backed by thousands of lawyers and demonstrators. On March 14, 2009, the eve of his final push toward Islamabad, Sharif described the street protests as a "rare moment of Pakistan's history." Added the two-time former prime minister, "It's [a] prelude to revolution."
Ever since the United States allied with Pakistan after September 11, the thought of Sharif returning to power has filled American leaders with discomfort. He is often described as being chummy with--and sympathetic to--the Islamists, and he firmly opposed the Bush administration's war on terrorism. Which is why it's curious that, at a time when the Pakistani Taliban are exhibiting considerable strength, American officials have begun to court Sharif, believing that he might be able to combat the militants more effectively than Zardari. Apparently, they have convinced themselves that Sharif finally "gets" the threat posed by Muslim extremists. But every aspiring Pakistani leader in the past decade has claimed to get the threat--and it has made little difference.
Sharif's political beginnings were rather ignominious. He rose to power during the 1980s as a protege of General Zia ul Haq, the military dictator who overthrew and later hanged Benazir Bhutto's father in the late 1970s. Sharif, whose family's influence grew out of its significant industrial holdings, ran an iron foundry until 1983, when he became finance minister, and later chief minister, of Punjab. He was elected prime minister in 1990, and, during his two terms (which were interrupted by Bhutto's second prime ministership), managed to alienate the United States, which had been a cold war ally. In May 1998, he tested a nuclear weapon (ignoring pleas from the Clinton White House). Shortly after that, he tried to impose sharia law nationwide, drawing sharp condemnation from women and religious minorities. "We made a nuclear explosion in May," said Sharif, who nearly provoked a war with India a year later. "Now we will make another social explosion with this bill." Sharif was toppled in the October 1999 coup that brought Musharraf to power. A year later, he and his family went into exile in Saudi Arabia. He spent the next seven years shuttling between Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom, scheming a way to return to office--and his home.
Sharif, a bulbous man who left Pakistan bald and returned with hair plugs, has lately tried to refashion more than just his look; he has tried to sell himself as a liberal democrat. Throughout the spring of 2007, he unambiguously opposed Musharraf and championed Chaudhry's cause more vigorously than any other politician. Both positions earned him the respect of lawyers, university students, and, yes, many Islamists from the mainstream parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami. Faced with such opposition, Zardari relented and agreed to reinstate Chaudhry on March 16, two days after Sharif warned him that he would face a revolution. He had no other choice. The army had refused to clash with those marching toward the capital, the information minister had already resigned in protest, and Zardari looked weaker than ever.
Sharif's opposition to Zardari is not entirely a function of democratic principle. In the early 1990s, Sharif's father was allegedly manhandled by goons on the orders of a Zardari aide. Later that decade, during Sharif's tenure, Zardari was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured. He holds a policeman named Rana Maqbool, a Sharif crony, personally responsible. When Sharif's brother Shahbaz, also a politician, tried to make Maqbool the top police officer for all of Punjab last year, Zardari intervened and struck down the appointment. And, in terms of politics, Sharif feels that the Pakistan People's Party, formerly led by Bhutto and now by Zardari, has sacrificed its agreements, alliances, and principles again and again in order to gain power.
Today, however, it is Sharif's power that is growing. In a survey conducted by the International Republican Institute and released this week, 75 percent of Pakistanis named Sharif as the leader they liked, compared to just 19 percent for Zardari. If elections were held next week, 62 percent said they'd vote for Sharif's party, the Pakistan Muslim League, versus only 17 percent for Zardari's. "After sixteenth of March, the dynamics of Pakistani politics changed very fundamentally. Restoration [of the judges] was a major victory for Mr. Sharif and his party," explains Ahsan Iqbal, a member of the national assembly and the information secretary for Sharif's party. "All the polls show that he is way ahead. He enjoys the same popularity level like Mr. Obama. And Mr. Zardari enjoys the same unpopular levels of what Mr. Bush enjoyed."
Undoubtedly, this is why every senior American visitor to Pakistan lately has called on Sharif. Senator John McCain and Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke have both visited him at his house, where two stuffed lions welcome guests into the foyer. (Sharif's followers call him "the lion of Punjab," even though his party's election logo is a tiger.) In April, Sharif and his brother had lunch at the American Embassy in Islamabad with Holbrooke; Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Anne Patterson, the American ambassador to Pakistan.
In a recent e-mail exchange, Sharif explained his new popularity: "We have seen some change of policy to reach out to democratic leadership by the new Obama administration. ... We discuss the problems very frankly and there is a better understanding that extremism has to be addressed through a multi-pronged strategy than relying just on the security dimension." On the question of whether Zardari can effectively counter the Taliban given his slumping popularity, Sharif wrote, "Without ownership and support of the people we can't win the battle for hearts and minds. ... Let us not forget, it is also a battle of ideas about future visions for the society."
But is Sharif finally willing to wage such a battle against the Taliban? He's certainly completed the rite of passage required to get U.S. backing. If you look back over recent years, you can detect a pattern, whereby Pakistani leaders on the cusp of gaining power give interviews to Western news agencies, break from the normally flippant attitude of Pakistan's political establishment, and admit with great candor that the Taliban is a real problem. Doing so conveys to Washington that this guy (or gal) really grasps the severity of the situation. Musharraf did this after the September 11 attacks. Bhutto stumped for months before she planned her return in October 2007, repeatedly announcing her willingness to cooperate with Washington against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. In August 2008, as Zardari prepared to take over as president, he admitted to the BBC that the Taliban had "the upper hand." And, last month, Sharif told USA Today that the Taliban are "now threatening to get out of Swat and take other areas into their custody. So we've got to avoid that situation."
None of these statements was disingenuous. All these leaders realized the dangers posed by the Taliban and their cohorts. Zardari, of course, was reminded of this painfully by his wife's assassination. And, in fact, on the same day that Bhutto was killed, gunmen first opened fire on a gathering in Rawalpindi that Sharif was attending, killing four of his party workers. In other words, no one has been immune.
That said, Pakistani leaders know that nothing pleases the Americans, or keeps their dollars coming, like a dose of anti-Taliban realism. The Bush administration gave Musharraf more than $10 billion for help in the war on terrorism. And the Obama administration has called for billions more, albeit spread more evenly among economic and civilian institutions than Bush-era funds.
Yet herein lies the fundamental quandary of the U.S.-Pakistan alliance: Any leader that resolves to bomb the Taliban into submission will be discredited domestically as an American stooge. And no Pakistani politician can lead a counterinsurgency against the Taliban without popular support. If the experiences of Musharraf, Bhutto, and Zardari over the past eight years are any indication, Sharif's very willingness to play ball with the Americans could undo the support he's amassed. Perhaps the very fact that we're starting to feel comfortable with him should make us nervous.
Nicholas Schmidle, a fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of To Live Or To Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years In Pakistan, which was released this week.