International Sovereignty and Domestic Politics

In a strong statement issued earlier today, the government of Pakistan reasserted its right to “defend our national territorial integrity,” asserting it would “not compromise on any violation of our sovereignty.”  The statement, issued by Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, follows confirmation by an anonymous official at the Pentagon that U.S. special forces crossed into Pakistan to carry out operations against al Qaeda.  The Bush administration has not officially acknowledge the operation, which took place on Wednesday and resulted in the death of up to 20 people, including noncombatants, according to the Pakistani government.

So why all the fuss?  For one, the principle of sovereignty is important for states.  In fact, the weaker the actual sovereignty of the state, the more vigorously the state asserts and defends it.  Pakistan has long had problems asserting control over tribal groups along the northwestern broader with Afghanistan.  And the U.S. government maintains that the Waziristan region of Pakistan is likely home to much of al Qaeda’s senior leadership.  In recent weeks, Washington has become increasingly frustrated with Pakistan’s unwillingness (or inability) to address the issue of tribal support for al Qaeda.  It has launched a number of missile strikes over the past several months (August 13 , March 17, and February 28.  But Pakistani opposition to the strikes seems to be growing.

The question of how the U.S. strike will play out in the domestic politics of Pakistan is just as important.  Now Pakistan is slowly democratizing.  The departure of Pervez Musharraf last month opened the way for the first democratic transition of political power in years.  The national vote for a new president is scheduled for Saturday.  The projected frontrunner, Asif Ali Zardari, is the leader of the more pro-Western ruling Pakistan People’s Party.  But Zadari faces stiff opposition from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and its leader Nawaz Sharif.  Both sides are now using the U.S. raid to curry political favor.  The government maintained that it would continue to cooperate with the United States, but asserted that this mission “was a complete botch up. The Americans went wild upon receiving what has turned out to be very faulty intelligence…The Americans put boots on the ground and got egg on their face.”  The opposition PML-N was equally critical, contending “The US attack on Pakistani soil is totally condemnable. The government must defend our frontiers. America has disregarded all norms of law.”  While Zadari is projected to win, the opposition may be able to use the strike to rally its support.  An ironic turn of events indeed!

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