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Pakistan's historic election could bring change to military ties with US

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May 11, 2013: Pakistani women wait to register their names and cast their ballots at a polling station on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan.AP

Pakistan’s historic election today could have immense consequences for the region and the so-called war on terror.

It will be the first time in Pakistan’s 65-year history that a civilian government has completed a full term and passed along power in democratic elections.

Previously, the military has got involved either through coups or influencing presidents to dissolve parliaments.

The generals still hold great power in Pakistan, but at the moment they are prepared to stay in the background as politicians squabble over who has the right policies to benefit a country which, some have called, a failed state because of its poor economic performance, political instability and ongoing violence.

The election campaign has raised concerns for the international community as some world leaders have questioned Pakistan’s role in the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Opposition leader and leading candidate to be the next prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, has warned he will stop Pakistan’s involvement in the war on terror.

Asked whether he would stop military cooperation with the United States in the war, in an interview with the BBC he said, “Yes, we have to.”

His argument is that it is necessary to stop the fighting in Pakistan and bring peace there.

Sharif believes the present government’s policy of not stopping the U.S. from conducting operations against terrorists on its territory is only encouraging more radicalism in Pakistan and elsewhere.

The fear is if the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League takes power and he cuts ties with the U.S. military it could allow militants more freedom to operate in Pakistan and make it more difficult for foreign troops in Afghanistan as they prepare to leave the country in 2014.

Another leading candidate in the Pakistan election, Imran Khan, a former international cricketer and now Chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, which draws its support from large sections of the poor, has warned if he wins the election he would go even further by shooting down U.S. drones if they enter Pakistan territory.

Addressing a campaign gathering he said, “If we are voted to power, there would be no drone attacks in Pakistan. We won’t accept dictation from the U.S. The PTI government would formulate an independent foreign policy.”

Khan also claimed Wikileaks has shown that all Pakistani politicians were ‘slaves’ of America and said if he took power he would refuse all U.S. aid.

Pakistan is currently one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid in the world, and the Obama administration is planning to increase it to $1.4 billion for the fiscal year beginning October 1.

Pakistan has received some $18 billion from the U.S. since the September 11 attacks, after it cut its support of the Taliban in Afghanistan and agreed to work with the U.S.

There is a concern in western diplomatic circles that if one of these politicians wins the election today it will mean a game changer for the War on Terror.

But current polls suggest there won’t be any clear victor in the election.

Sharif and Khan may instead be part of a ruling coalition.

And even if they are part of a new government, some analysts suggest it won’t mean a seismic change in policy for Pakistan in the war against Islamic militants in the region.

Omar Hamid, head of Asia Pacific Region for country Risk and Forecasting at IHS Jane's Defense Weekly, told Fox News: "There is likely to be no majority and on any major issues there is likely to be no radical policy changes.

“Imran Khan says he would shoot down drones but I don’t see that happening. The Pakistan military controls the war on terror and would have to sign off on that."

To be sure, Pakistan has a powerful military.

The present government seems to have passed foreign policy to the Pakistani military.

And it’s not certain a new coalition government would be powerful enough to wrench that back from the generals. If they try, then the military could, as its done before, intervene.

The Pakistani military has had a testy relationship with the U.S. military since Usama Bin Laden was killed by U.S. Special Forces in his compound in their garrison town of Abbottabad in 2011 but has shown no indications it wishes to cut ties with the U.S. military.

However, the various pronouncements by Pakistani politicians vying for power over what they would do about the country’s defense ties with the U.S. has increased concern in the region that it could become more of a bastion for terrorists.

Afghanistan will potentially be the country most affected if Pakistan does, after this election, stop supporting the War on Terror and if critics are right a new independent policy from the U.S. allows militants to operate more freely there.

Afghanistan, for all its problems, has a thriving journalistic community with many independent publications giving a platform for debate.

One of them is the online newspaper ‘Daily Outlook Afghanistan’. In an editorial today it discussed the election by its southern neighbor:

"Pakistan is making history today. Its 180 million masses are going to polls making the first ever civilian transition of power in country’s history.

"We hope a successful civilian transition of power will bring stability in Pakistan, where foreign policy will be set by civilians, not the military."

The Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai has been watching the election campaign closely but has not got involved in the debate over Pakistan’s future defense policy despite it potentially having a huge impact there.

The relationship between the two countries remains tense.

It hasn't been helped by fresh clashes, including artillery exchanges, between their troops on the border over the past week.

And Karzai recently urged the Taliban to fight Afghanistan’s enemies rather than "destroying their own country."

His comments didn’t mention Pakistan directly but were widely seen as directed toward that country.

Hamid, of Jane’s De fence Weekly, also said the Afghan government doesn’t want to get involved in Pakistani politics and it still relies on its military there to keep the pressure up on the militants, despite the recent clashes.

China has close military ties with Pakistan but hasn’t favored any particular faction during the election.

Stability is a major concern, and China sees Pakistan as a key partner in its attempts to exploit Afghanistan’s mineral riches.

Investing in Afghanistan is for the very brave. But that hasn’t deterred China because of the potentially massive profits to be made. Some estimates suggest Afghanistan could be sitting on a trillion dollars worth of minerals.

China is already investing in the country’s infrastructure to help get them to market.

It has, though, recently had to pull its workers out of a huge copper mine south of Kabul because of the security situation there.

According to one analyst Fox News spoke to, China is prepared to play the "long game" in Afghanistan and wait for the security situation to settle down.

And he suggested China would then ask the Pakistani military to lean on the Taliban to give their engineers access to the mineral riches.