Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N) leader Nawaz Sharif begins his third term as prime minister, facing mounting domestic issues and difficult relations with Washington and Kabul
Sharif takes over at a time when Pakistan is living through an increasing militancy within, which most Pakistanis believe is a consequence of an unpopular partnership with the United States in the ‘war on terrorism’. Solutions to these problems are urgently needed and will have a wider regional impact.
Domestically, fixing Pakistan’s tanking economy, which feeds religious extremism, social unrest and criminal activity, is his major immediate challenge.
During the just-concluded elections the militants, branded as Tehreek-e-Taliban-e Pakistan, effectively thwarted the election campaign of the three coalition partners in the previous government. While over 100 people were killed during the bloody election, campaign polling went off smoothly enough except for one bombing incident killing 11 people.
A relatively high voter turnout at 55 per cent, compared to 44 per cent in the 2008 elections, overwhelmingly voted for the PML-N and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI). Both condemn the US drone attacks, are against Pakistan’s participation in the US-led war, and seek new terms of engagement with Washington.
On the external front, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and the Afghanistan situation pose a major challenge affecting Pakistan’s own peace and stability.
The main contentious point between Washington and Islamabad is the United States’ secret drone attacks over Pakistan’s tribal areas that have killed 4,700 Pakistanis during the last six years. While the attacks traumatise civilians they have killed only 2 per cent of high-value targets and breed radicalism, according to a recent study by the law schools of New York and Stanford universities.
Documents presented in the Pakistan Supreme Court in March reveal that Pakistan lost over 49,000 civilians with its military suffering 15,681 casualties fighting the war against terror. This is many times more than the combined losses of others. Damages in destroyed infrastructure are staggering, causing much social unrest in the country. By voting for the two major parties opposed to this war, the Pakistani public has firmly demonstrated that it has no appetite for a US-sponsored military campaign.
Nawaz Sharif believes that the drone strikes over Pakistan’s tribal areas is a direct infringement of Pakistan’s sovereignty and must stop immediately. His political rival Imran Khan, vowing to shoot down drones, blames US actions for rising extremism in Pakistan. Both state publically that fighting the militants is not the way to resolve terrorism. Sharif has stated that talks with the Taliban is the only option. Similarly PTI, which emerged as the leading party in the sensitive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan, is seeking consensus to begin talking to the militants.
The United States will be worried with such an approach, especially if it leads to the Pakistani army’s withdrawal from tribal areas creating a power vacuum, which the militants could easily exploit to launch attacks against the coalition forces. The army cannot keep sacrificing its men in a war without end with little public backing. Washington would be wary of a repeat situation when overland NATO supplies were torched on the way, some allege with implicit consent of Pakistan’s security forces. In a process of withdrawal, this would be a nightmare for the United States.
Appeasing Washington by publically condemning and privately condoning drone attacks, like the previous regime did, will not work and dent Sharif’s credibility with the people.
There are layers and interests — both local and foreign — that complicate militancy in Pakistan. Its current phase corresponds to the troubles in Afghanistan. Sharif should be mindful of examples of earlier botched agreements with the militants, which failed to understand that for any agreement to succeed Islamabad must also be seen to disassociate itself from the US war. If that does not happen, no bargain can hold.
Relations with Washington depend also on the Afghanistan situation leading to the American withdrawal. After contemptuously refusing to talk to the Taliban insurgents for years, the United States is belatedly seeking to talk to them, leaving little time for a negotiated settlement.
The US departure from Afghanistan will create an enabling environment for peace within Pakistan that everyone needs to support.
Despite campaigning on opposing ‘America’s war’, a visibly chastened Mr Sharif stated on 13 May that he would support ‘our friends’, the Americans, as they prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan. With this commitment to ‘our friends’ Pakistan too expects that its voice, expressed through an overwhelming vote, will be heard loud and clear and more importantly respected in Washington. Nawaz Sharif will need wisdom and understanding from the United States, as well as no small amount of good luck, to steer Pakistan out of its complex challenges.
Sajjad Ashraf is an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, and a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. He is a former member of Pakistan’s Foreign Service.