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US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland. - Reuters File Photo
US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland. - Reuters File Photo

WASHINGTON: The United States does not want to return President Zardari to power or block Nawaz Sharif or Imran Khan from winning the forthcoming election, said a senior US official while talking to a group of Pakistani journalists at a recent diplomatic reception.

Other US officials are equally enthusiastic in denying the general perception in Pakistan that the US government wants to influence the electoral process in Pakistan to bring in a friendly government.

As Dawn reported on Saturday, US Secretary of State John Kerry skipped a planned visit to Pakistan this week to avoid accusations of meddling in the May 11 elections.

Hours after Secretary Kerry landed in Kabul on an unannounced visit, a senior US official confirmed that he wanted to visit Islamabad as well but did not because Pakistan “enters a very historic period on this electoral process and we wanted to fully respect those institutions and the on-going process.”

US officials, while talking off the record, say that they are aware of “the conspiracy theories circulating in Pakistan” and regret that the Pakistani media “do little to dispel such baseless theories.”

At a recent briefing at the State Department, spokesperson Victoria Nuland also regretted that “the Pakistani people don’t have good information” about US policies towards their country and stressed the “need to work harder to get that message out.”

The message the United States wants to send out during the election season is “we have no favourites among Pakistani politicians and we are looking forward to work with whoever is elected on May 11.”

Secretary Kerry’s decision to skip Pakistan during his South Asia visit is not the only indication of Washington’s eagerness to maintain neutrality during the elections.

In her latest briefing on the Pakistani elections, Ms Nuland pointed out that although under the Kerry-Lugar arrangement, the US has set aside about $6.5 million for helping the electoral process, the fund remains unused because Washington awaits a request from Islamabad.

In private conversations, US officials also dispel the Pakistani perception that the US believes Nawaz Sharif or Imran Khan have links to the Taliban and if they are elected, they will bring in the Taliban.

The US officials point out that Nawaz Sharif is a former prime minister. They have worked with him and do not equate him with religious extremists. Therefore, they will have no problem working with him again if he is re-elected.

Similarly, they do not see Imran Khan as a religious extremist either and will also be willing to work with him if he wins the election.

The US administration, the officials say, will also have no problem working with a PPP-led government if it is re-elected.

But as a Washington think-tank – Centre for Strategic and International Studies – pointed out in a recent report, some Pakistani religious parties do alarm US policy makers. Yet, the Americans know that such parties are unlikely to get more than a handful of seats in the election.

They point out that groups like the Difah-e-Pakistan Council can continue to raise noise against Pakistan’s partnership with the US in the war against terrorism but cannot be an effective player in the political arena.

They also note that efforts to revive the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, which ruled the former Northwest Frontier Province from 2002 through 2007, have failed too.

Maulana Tahirul Qadri has also failed to make much of an impact after the first rally that apparently shook Islamabad.