Pak PM Nawaz Sharif Under Multi-Tasking
Pakistan made history on June 05 when PML (N) leader Nawaz Sharif was sworn in as the new Prime Minister of Pakistan. Sharif’s government took over from another democratic government led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which also created a record for being the first civilian government to have completed its full five-year tenure.
It is not that the PPP did not have its anxious moments. Although army chief Gen. Kayani did not attempt a coup for various reasons, he kept a firm grip on the country’s foreign and strategic policy. India, Afghanistan and the US remained the army’s preserve. The army has also had its fair share of trouble. Its establishments suffered attacks from terrorists, especially the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), it was indicted for extra-judicial killings in Balochistan and its worst moment of shame came when American Seals killed Al Qaida Chief Osama-bin-Laden in a high walled house in the army town of Abbottabad. Within the country it lost face for failing to prevent the American attack. Internationally, it suffered the ignominy of secretly protecting the world’s most wanted terrorist in its safe house while professing to the world it was committed to fighting terrorism. Kayani’s face was saved by the United States who needed the army for own counter-terrorism efforts. Has the army been chastised?
Over the last five years, Pakistan’s Chief Justice Iftikhar Ahmed Choudhry-led judicial activism specifically targeted President Zardari. To settle old scores, Justice Choudhry pursued Zardari on corruption and money laundering cases, seeking to prosecute him for money stashed away in Swiss banks. Zardari escaped for the time being under an immunity clause as the President, but two prime ministers were ousted by the Supreme Court for contempt of court (For not acting on court orders to take up the Zardari case with the Swiss government).
Iftikhar Choudhry, who is slated to retire later this year, may not sit by idly especially with his main adversary, former President Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan facing several charges including treason.
These are the issues that Nawaz Sharif will have to take care of, including selecting a successor for Gen. Kayani who will retire this year after a three-year extension brokered by the Americans.
This is Nawaz Sharif’s third term as Prime Minister. He was removed in a coup in 1999 by his chosen army chief Pervez Musharraf and was in exile, protected by Saudi Arabia, finally returning to Pakistan in 2008 through the good offices of the Saudis and the USA.
After 14 years in political wilderness and unpredictable future, Nawaz Sharif may have emerged much wiser as a politician. He does not belong to a family of rich land lords that most Pakistani politicians, especially from Punjab do. He is from an industrialist family, mainly involved in steel and sugar industry. He, therefore, has links to the agricultural sector also.
Sharif is no intellectual but he is wily and street smart. And he must have honed his skills further; otherwise he would not have made a comeback. Where corruption is concerned, the Sharif brothers, especially his younger brother and Punjab Chief Minister Shabaz Sharif, are no angels. An acolyte of Nawaz Sharif, who had to flee Pakistan with his family when Sharif fled, told this writer that the problem with him was that he did not want to share the loot with anybody.
But Sharif has demonstrated that he is like a rubber ball in a pool of water, eventually he will bounce back. He became the first Pakistani Prime Minister to be elected three times, another record. This time he takes over the country when some aspects of politics in the country may have changed to make a military coup more unlikely. Yet a recent opinion poll suggested that over sixty per cent still have a positive opinion of the army. Unbridled corruption among civilian political leaders, which is responsible for the nation’s current economic woes, would have caused this mindset. The Sharifs would do well to wear this public view as a talisman.
In his acceptance speech on the floor of the Parliament, Nawaz Sharif emphasised that the US drone attacks must end, and other countries must respect their sovereignty. He had to make this populist statement as Pakistanis are both frustrated and infuriated by the drone strikes, which, while taking out top terrorist leaders, are inflicting collateral damage, killing innocent civilians.
How he will handle this issue with the Americans is another question. Washington insists some of these drone attacks will continue as they target terrorists who plan to harm the US. Under the current economic conditions Pakistan cannot do without the US aid, which comes in billions both for civilian and military support. It may have to ask for a new International Monetary Fund (IMF) tranche, to which the US holds the key. This is a key challenge for Nawaz as to how to balance between the US which is crucial for financial aid, the Pakistani people who hate the US as the worst enemy of Pakistan, and the terrorists of Waziristan with whom he wants to broker peace instead of going into confrontation.
Taking on the issue that has most impacted industry and society, namely the huge power shortage, Nawaz Sharif promised improvement soon. This is easier said than done. A recent USAID-funded, survey carried out by the National Planning Commission, showed corruption in this sector led to the energy industry debt of $9.1 billion at the end of 2012. Even for reducing corruption, international assistance will be required. International Power Producers (IIPs) burnt their fingers when Nawaz Sharif was in power last time.
The army received a signal when Nawaz said “dictatorships weakening the federation and giving rise to terrorism and sectarianism”, and the abrogation of the constitution will not be tolerated”. In fact, terrorism and sectarianism were fathered primarily by Gen. Zia-ul-Haq and Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto. But it is also true that the Sharifs have their soft spot for Islamists.
Very astutely, Nawaz went out of the way to try and carry all political parties together to reconstruct the nation. He did not apportion blame to any individual or party. He instituted a good working relationship with Imran Khan’s Tehrik-e-Insaf Pakistan (TIP), whose promise of a tsunami in the election did not materialise.
WHAT THE PAKISTANI EXPERTS SAY
With Pakistan’s historic general elections held recently political party manifestos have come under greater scrutiny among voters, policy experts and media commentators. On foreign policy, there are broad areas of convergence reflected in party manifestos, many of which advocate the parliament’s supremacy in a policy sphere traditionally controlled by the military. There is talk of trade with India, better relations with Afghanistan and regional neighbours, in addition to resetting the relationship with the U.S.
The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which has won a landslide victory in the general elections, promises a non-aligned policy based on independence and sovereignty of the State over issues of defense and foreign affairs. The PML-N stands for a peaceful and negotiated settlement of all outstanding issues with India, including the Jammu and Kashmir dispute, and the party has also displayed an eagerness to normalise relations with India via increased trade with New Delhi.
The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) manifesto had promised that its government would work with Pakistan’s neighbours and allies to build a strong and stable region, focusing on trade, economic partnerships, trans-regional and intra-regional agreements.
The Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) underscores an independent foreign policy that builds relations on the basis of dignity and self respect; one that benefits the common masses and helps achieves prosperity. Emphasising on the need for peaceful negotiations on external issues, the PTI seeks regional integration with Afghanistan and India, and a relationship established on the basis of self respect with the U.S.
The Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) manifesto stated that the party would review the country’s foreign policy if it came to power, adding that previous rulers have been running the State under foreign dictates. The party has strongly spoken out in favour of talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan and a cessation to violence in the country.
The MQM’s foreign policy calls for a peaceful resolution of the Kashmir conflict, among other demands.
Foreign policy is expected to be a bugbear in Pakistani politics and it remains be seen how political parties fine tune their differences to make their ambitions materialise. In this backdrop, Second Opinion asked foreign policy experts what the incoming government should prioritise over the coming months.
Dr. Rifaat Hussain, Visiting Professor, Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University, argued that the new government should pursue a policy of ‘bilateralism’, defined as amity towards all and animosity toward none, and that Pakistan’s national and public interests should be the driving force of this policy. He argued that Pakistan must ensure that its policies truly safeguard its national sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, in addition to creating international conditions that are conducive to the realisation of citizen’s welfare.
Relations with India would be critical for the new government, according to Dr. Hussain, because of the long history of conflict between India and Pakistan. “Opportunity costs for maintaining antagonistic relations with New Delhi have to be thought through,” he advised and recommended that Pakistan should enunciate a policy of nuclear last resort and give up supporting violence directed against India by Jihadi militant organisations. Furthermore, Pakistan should make every effort that its territory is not used for carrying out violent acts against its neighbours. Such commitments must be reciprocal, he pointed out, and enshrined in a policy document to be jointly signed by both Islamabad and New Delhi.
Dr. Hussain advised that the new government should pursue a policy of peaceful coexistence with Afghanistan and cease claiming any special rights in that country. In his view, Pakistan should try to have a non-aligned Afghanistan and fundamentally commit itself to a peaceful, stable and secure Afghanistan.
He also proposed that Islamabad should prevent the emergence of a hostile axis of Washington-New Delhi-Kabul against itself. This necessitates isolating areas of friction and pursuing cooperation with Washington, he advised, adding that Pakistan should stop treating the U.S. as an enemy country in terms of public perception and recognise the limits of American influence in Pakistan. “America is a global player and Pakistan must ensure that it does not end up on the wrong side after the 2014 American withdrawal from Afghanistan,” he cautioned, underscoring the need to “turn inward” and build its economic strength. “Pakistan should give up the illusion of a special relationship with United States and treat American policies in the region on merit…such a strategic rethink is long overdue,” Dr. Hussain stated.
Samina Ahmed, South Asia Project Director for the International Crisis Group, recommended that the new government’spriorities should focus above all on normalising relations with neighbouring India and Afghanistan. She argued that it was not only essential to implement pledges made to fully normalise economic ties with India, but that the new government must also take steps, with some urgency, against anti-India oriented jihadist groups. She noted that any steps taken to expand economic ties and to improve bilateral relations could be derailed should another major terror attack take place which is traced back to Pakistan. With the 2014 deadline for the end of international combat operations in Afghanistan drawing nearer, Samina Ahmed pointed out it was in Pakistan’s interest to clamp down on cross-border attacks, which would only be possible if the new government has the capacity and the political will to shut down insurgent safe havens. According to her, this would not only help stabilise Afghanistan but would also bear counter-terrorism dividends for Pakistan by preventing home-grown militants from using Afghan soil to attack Pakistani targets. Ensuring a cordial and mutually beneficial relationship with the U.S. should be a key priority for the new government according to her, given Pakistan’s dependence on U.S. support for assistance from the IFIs, as well as U.S. diplomatic support for a continuing and sustainable democratic transition. But that relationship too will depend on the new government’s willingness and capacity to deny havens to violent extremists on its territory. She admitted that this was an uphill task but one that would have to be addressed, not just to assuage U.S. security concerns but also because of Pakistan’s own security dilemmas, evident in the spike and increasing reach of anti-state actors countrywide.
Defence Analyst Air Vice-Marshall (retd) Shahzad Chaudhry noted that all three countries—India, Afghanistan and the USA – have a very special relationship with Pakistan, and that relations with these three shall be of the highest priority for the new government.
He recommended that Pakistan should engage with Afghanistan for developing a blue-print for peace in Afghanistan. Whatever mutual responsibilities exist must be identified and a line of action developed with frequent recourse to share progress. Trade and control of smuggling across the border should be simultaneously tackled after understanding on key issues is developed between the two nations. He stressed that both nations must commit not to let their soil be used by any group or force to interfere, subvert or attack the other neighbour. In his view, pipeline diplomacy for the region to transport oil and gas should become the binding linkage to develop and nurture interdependencies.
With regards to the U.S., AVM Chaudhry reasoned that Pakistan must build further on its bilateral ties and create mutual interests across the spectrum of full relations. According to him, Pakistan must work closely with America to develop and enact a blueprint of peace in Afghanistan and in the region as well as enabling and supporting America’s orderly withdrawal from the region. He pointed out that America’s concerns with extremism as the source of terrorism within the region were genuine and needed to be addressed in close coordination with them. “Creating positive triggers of socioeconomic activity, education and inclusion of the areas under strife” are necessary in his view, for which Pakistan needs American support. Trade and investment were the keys to a sustainable relationship and need to be strengthened and reinforced, he said.
Pakistan’s relations with India were “plagued by both history and geography”, AVM Chaudhry observed, adding that working with India could unleash the great potential of economic progress between the two neighbours, but “pettiness rather than statesmanship” tends to dominate the execution of this complex relationship from both sides. He felt that such attitudes were now entrenched in societal response and explained how media, especially in India becomes a negative contributor to such disposition. Without resolving the vexing issues of Kashmir, Siachen and Sir Creek, AVM Chaudhry felt it was impossible to “break the logjam of infertility in ideas and the latent potential that remains unrealised in terms of collaborative projects in education, environmental improvement, ecological sustenance, water sharing and preservation, poverty and disease elimination and trade and investment.”
Moeed Yusuf, Senior Pakistan Expert at the United States Institute of Peace noted that there seemed to be a growing interest in Western capitals about the implications the general elections will have on Pakistan’s foreign policy orientation. According to him, that interest is perhaps triggered by Pakistan’s self-acclaimed and much touted ‘strategic shift’ that has continued to receive attention in Western capitals (and in India and Afghanistan). He argued that the shift is only partially understood and there is no sense of whether it is likely to have any longevity.
Mr. Yusuf pointed out that Pakistan’s continuing civil-military disconnect on a number of foreign policy questions notwithstanding, a convergence had begun to emerge during the last PPP-led government. At its core, it entailed a subtle recalibration of the country’s regional outlook coupled with a status quo approach on relations with China and the U.S. The next five years are likely to see a consolidation of this trend, characterised by the following:
(a) Positive movement with India, despite vocal and perhaps violent challenges from the right wing. The leadership of major parties seem to be fairly sanguine on Pakistan’s options, albeit there is a need to employ the correct “political jargon and face savers” to pursue this fully.
(b) Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy could take one of two very different directions depending on what transpires in Kabul post-2014. The current desire, according to him, is to see Pakistan reduce its reliance on hardcore Islamist Pashtuns and open up with the Northern factions. However, there is also a parallel hedging strategy to be operationalised incase Afghanistan falls back into civil war.
(c) Pakistan had for long been firmly in the Saudi camp—with all its attendant economic benefits and ideological repercussions. This has now begun to undergo some correction for two reasons. In his view, the ideological repercussions seem to have caught up with Pakistan and decision makers in Islamabad now seemed to be taking the Iranian option more seriously, despite Western opposition.
(d) There is zero dissent on Pakistan’s all-weather friendship with China, despite the latter’s clear signalling that it would not bail Pakistan out with free handouts on a regular basis. Despite this, future policy would continue seeking Chinese investment and increasingly use Beijing as a buffer against the geo-political squeeze Islamabad feels it is under.
(e) More of the same with the U.S., as neither side can afford to alienate the other. He predicted more “lip service to decreasing dependence on the U.S.” in Pakistan, which will not come about as it entails forgoing the assistance that flows from Washington.
(Jinnah Institute, Islamabad )
In a circular telegram (May 06) to all Pakistani diplomatic missions, he put “economic development” and “peaceful neighbourhood” as the two priorities, as well as realising the vision of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah. He would have kept in mind that Jinnah was Shia and not a Sunni, he was married to a non-Muslim, and in his personal choices was anything but what the Pakistani leaders have been pushing since his death.
The foreign policy contours laid out by Sharif said Pakistan and the US have much commonality, a message that he will not get into confrontation with the US and an appeal to understand his situation. Washington is expected to make conciliatory statements, but a quiet understanding will be reached—one for Pakistani public consumption, and one unstated agreement that will allow the US to pursue its national security interests. That should take care of the bilateral relations.
Strategic ties with China will remain high as ever between the two “all-weather” and “time-tested” friends. New Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s recent visit to Pakistan last month when Sharif was Prime Minister-in-waiting saw “China’s endorsement of Sharif. Li took a business delegation with him looking for avenues to invest in Pakistan, laid out concrete plans for a connectivity corridor between Pakistan and Kashgar in Western China through road, rail and fibre optical communication, reactivating the Chinese-built Gwadar port, which has come back under Chinese management. All these will bring investments from China, facilitate trade, but most importantly create an all-weather Chinese connectivity to the Gulf and West Asia. Oil and gas pipelines for China’s imports from the region are on the cards. For all its friendship, China has given very little financial aid to Pakistan. Instead, it has empowered Pakistan with conventional and nuclear arms to counter India; this will continue. Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia are made in heaven. Riyadh has helped out Pakistan in more ways than one, especially in maintaining political party balance, energy and finance. Pakistan, too, has reciprocated handsomely including in assisting the nascent Saudi nuclear capability.
Relations with India may have to be taken together to an extent by Nawaz Sharif because of the army. According to him, relations with India need to be pursued progressively for normalcy, while actively seeking solutions to all outstanding issues, including Jammu and Kashmir. There is an eye out for the army, which is chary on relations with India, though it has downgraded the threat from India below that of internal terrorism. A state of confrontation with India is the army’s bread and butter and substantiates its position and eminence among the common Pakistani. To disturb this will be at Nawaz’s own peril.
But Nawaz is a businessman and understands the keen interest of Pakistani business to work with India. Good business with India will help Pakistan immensely, and his own family business will benefit. He is also aware that India will welcome this move, and activate the SAARC
Afghanistan will be tied with India one way or the other. Prime Minister Sharif could not, or decided not to, come up with any new idea on Afghanistan. He reiterated the cliché of Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process—a concept which has no meaning, but was created by America to find a template to keep Afghans happy. The Pakistani hardliners and the army see India’s influence in Afghanistan as a threat to Pakistan’s control of the country through its surrogate, the Afghan Taliban. As the Afghan military Chief Gen. Shir Mohammed Karimi told the Afghan Senate recently, “Pakistan was concerned over Afghanistan’s relationship with India.” At the same time, the Afghan Taliban has begun to detest the Pak army and its intelligence wing, the ISI for trying to control them including through the confinement of some of their leaders.
As the draw down of the US and NATO forces from Afghanistan approaches in 2014, countries around Afghanistan including China are disturbed. The Central Asian states including Russia are making joint military preparations for an Afghan meltdown post-2014. US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, however, asserted recently that the US would not abandon Afghanistan and they had a security agreement with Kabul. The huge amount needed for Afghanistan’s reconstruction and upgrading of the Afghan national army is being spearheaded by the US.
There are too many foreign interests to make Afghanistan stable. Of course, the Taliban will have to be given a say and position in a new government. The Taliban and the old Northern Alliance are ideologically so different that continuous clash is initially inevitable.
India will be a significant player and its role will have to rise above civilian assistance. If Nawaz Sharif accommodates India, the Pak army will surely oppose. Gen. Kayani had once said at a NATO conference in Brussels that Pakistan had nothing in common with India either historically, culturally or in terms of religion. An intellectually uneducated statement, but viscerally anti-India. Whatever good intentions that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif may have towards India, he will have to work within the bounds created in Pakistan over decades. How can he deal with the Pak army and ISI-created and controlled anti-India terrorist organisations like the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) and others whom Kayani called assets of the Pak army? The Sharif family’s own connections with radical Islamic groups is another question.
Certainly, India should welcome Nawaz Sharif’s initial good intentions towards India. But India should not go overboard for two reasons. One, sudden over-friendliness towards Sharif may go against him in Pakistan as selling out to India. Next, Sharif will have to work within the confines he has inherited and must be seen at home to have stood up to India. Sharif is now Pakistan’s leader, and India is still seen as the main external enemy. India should work considering these realities.
By Bhaskar Roy
(The writer is a New Delhi-based strategic analyst.)