Analysts warn the political turmoil in Pakistan spurred by protests in the capital has resulted in a setback for the country’s foreign policy priorities as well as its image as a stable democracy.
Recent mass street protests in Pakistan's capital Islamabad have reinforced the worst kinds of stereotypes about the country, says veteran Pakistan-watcher Marvin Weinbaum, of the Middle East Institute.
“...that the country is volatile, that the country has not ever been able to resolve the differences between civilian and military government rule, that Pakistan is a dangerous state, therefore, because of the fact that it is a nuclear state,” he said.
The protesters, led by opposition politician Imran Khan and Canada-based cleric Tahirul Qadri, allege rigging in the last general election and blame the government for a culture of corruption and nepotism. Their critics claim that Pakistan’s powerful military is behind them. The military has ruled the country either directly or indirectly for most of its existence and is widely believed to control its foreign policy.
While Pakistan grapples with its internal turmoil, the South Asian nation is losing opportunities that were likely to come its way, says former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter.
“...and the more unsettled a situation you have in the international media, the harder it is for international investors to take advantage of what could be a very advantageous situation in Pakistan,” he said.
The protests come at a time when the region faces significant changes in its political and strategic landscape, and Munter feels that Pakistan needs to focus on the bigger picture.
“The impact will be simply that the foreign policy will, I believe, take kind of a back seat to the domestic issues, and this is not the time that the foreign policy should,” he said.
But the foreign policy of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is what some believe caused this crisis in the first place. He is seen to have made too many friendly overtures towards India, and that, supposedly, made the military unhappy.
“There is an underlying feeling that the military really doesn’t want to see anything that resembles a rapport with India,” said Middle East Institute's Marvin Weinbaum.
Meanwhile, the United States is counting on stability in Pakistan, both for its withdrawal from Afghanistan and for the long term stability of the region.
“There’s clearly a great deal at stake for the United States here. But the United States is constrained from really expressing itself on these issues," Weinbaum said. "It can only use what quiet ways it has to suggest that, for heaven’s sake, find a political way out.”
Last year’s general elections in Pakistan and the peaceful transfer of power from one civilian government to another had raised expectations that Pakistan was on its way to becoming a normal democracy.
The recent turmoil has shattered some of those hopes and reinforced the idea that Pakistan has much work to do to balance its civil-military relationship.