Fatemeh Aman in Washington
Following on Nawaz Sharif’s victory in the May 11 national elections in Pakistan, many analysts are indicating cautious optimism on the prospect that the new prime minister can strengthen bilateral relations with the country’s neighbours, particularly India.
While entrenched interests among Pakistan’s powerful security establishment constitute one prominent obstacle to any such optimism, a more significant hindrance could be scepticism among the country’s other two neighbours – Afghanistan and Iran – over Sharif’s own past, including his dealings during his two previous stints as prime minister.
Better relations with India
For the moment, Sharif himself is attempting to stoke this optimism. During his election campaign, Sharif pledged to revive India-Pakistan relations, which soured during Pervez Musharraf’s presidency from 2001 to 2008, and during a post-election phone call Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed his wish for a “new course” between the two countries.
Following through on this vow, however, will be very difficult. Pakistan has long used ethnic tensions against India, as against Afghanistan, and changing this policy will require both a new mindset and a new set of convictions.
Sayeed Salahudeen, chief of the Muttahida Jihad Council (MJC) and the Hizb-ul-Mujahedeen, a powerful separatist Kashmiri militia group believed to be based in Pakistan, has already warned Sharif not to abandon the “Kashmir cause” over “friendship with India”. As long as “Kashmir is under India’s occupation”, Sulahudeen continued, “the national security of Pakistan, the safety and security of its borders, and its economic stability is at stake.”
Pakistan’s support for Kashmiri militants has been an essential part of Pakistan’s approach towards India, and any attempt to end this will take time. During his election campaign, Sharif stated that the Kashmiri conflict “needs to be resolved peacefully, to the satisfaction of not only both countries but also of the Kashmiri people.”
Sharif also promised a full investigation into the Kargil conflict, the 1999 incident in which Pakistani soldiers and Kashmiri militants infiltrated Indian side of the Line of Control, setting off a major crisis between the two nuclear powers. Sharif, who was prime minister at the time, has long claimed that Musharraf, as the military commander, had acted on his own, although another Pakistani army general insisted in January that Sharif himself was not as ignorant about the plans as he has said.
The new prime minister has also said he plans to investigate the alleged involvement of Pakistan’s powerful Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency in the 2008 Mumbai bombings, another key action that would please India but thoroughly aggravate powerful elements within the Pakistani establishment.
The India-Pakistan conflict is today deeply rooted, and governments in Pakistan, both civilian and military, have for decades viewed India as a strategic rival. Indeed, the potential “threat” from India has consistently been the army’s justification for its massive budget.
While civilian governments have generally opposed increasing military expenditures, the military-intelligence establishment continues to exert considerable influence, particularly in foreign and security policymaking. Sharif’s post-election statement that the prime minister would now be “the army chief’s boss” was an attempt to mitigate this concern, but it remains unclear whether he will be able to effectively follow through.
Sharif appears to hope that expanding economic ties between the two countries will weaken resistance to enhancing relations between the two long-time rivals. India’s economy has grown at a much more rapid pace than Pakistan’s over the past decade, and building stronger commercial ties to its giant western neighbour offers Islamabad perhaps the most direct route to getting its own economy out of the doldrums.
While Sharif has established a certain credibility regarding his desire for better relations with India, the same does not hold true for Afghanistan where the new prime minister does not enjoy much popularity.
This is due not only to his support for warring jihadi factions in 1992, but also because Pakistan under his watch became the first country to recognise the Taliban as the legitimate Afghan government in 1997. In addition, Afghans have yet to forget Sharif’s attempt to impose Sharia law in 1999, the same set of decrees the Taliban brutally imposed in Afghanistan.
In his congratulatory message to Sharif, Afghan President Hamid Karzai expressed his hope that the two countries would be able to cooperate “to root out terrorism”. However, this was viewed mostly as a formality.
“If Pakistan’s political officials want to show good faith,” an Afghan news website states, “they have to confront terrorist groups inside Pakistan that are organised by ISI.”
Indeed, concern over an uncomfortably close association between Sharif and the Taliban intensified during the candidate’s pre-election gathering in Lahore. If he won, Sharif promised, he would pull Pakistan back from the U.S.-led international “war on terror” coalition. If such a statement were not meant to “blackmail” the United States, an editorial in Afghanistan’s Hasht-e Sobh newspaper stated, it means “he is serious in what he is saying.”
In a separate interview with the Hasht-e Sobh, Mahmoud Karzai – Hamid Karzai’s brother and a possible presidential candidate for Afghanistan’s 2014 election – accused Pakistan of attempting to annex Afghanistan, the prospects for which the country “tasted during Taliban rule”.
Such rhetoric refers to an old dispute over the British-drawn boundary that divides Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as Pashtun tribal areas, though the region continues to be prone to frequent violence and remains a source of tension between the two countries. Whether Sharif can dispel such suspicions will yet another challenge he faces in improving ties with his neighbours.
Iran and Saudi Arabia
Iran, which also accumulated its share of complaints about Islamabad’s behaviour under Sharif in the 1990s, is not expected to play a primary role in Pakistan’s regional policies, barring a major event such as a military crisis or controversy around gas pipelines.
Contrary to some analyses, any Iranian scepticism regarding the new Pakistani government is not related to the Islamabad’s alleged support for Sunni insurgents in Balochistan province, on the Iranian side of the border. In fact, Iran and Pakistan have established a cooperative relationship on this front.
Rather, scepticism stems, again, from Nawaz Sharif’s support of the Taliban during the 1990s, as well as his close associations with Saudi Arabia which, among other support, gave him safe haven during the years he was exiled from Pakistan after his ouster by Musharraf in 1999.
Iran and Afghanistan almost went to war in 1998, after Taliban militants murdered Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e Sharif. Because of Sharif’s support for the Taliban, as well as his close ties to Riyadh, Tehran’s chief rival in a region that has become increasingly polarised along sectarian lines, Iran’s hard-line media has reacted with concern to his return as prime minister.
Among other things, Tehran is concerned about the fate of the cross-border natural-gas pipeline between Iran and Pakistan despite strong U.S. opposition. Pakistan desperately needs Iranian gas to meet its growing energy needs, and outgoing Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inaugurated the final construction phase of the pipeline in March.
Pakistan received 500 million dollars to start building the pipeline in its territory, running through Balochistan into Karachi, and the deal is clearly to Pakistan’s advantage.
However, if a story by one influential Pakistani newspaper is true, that deal could now find itself in jeopardy. The Dawn newspaper has reported on Sharif’s rumoured suggestions to Saudi Arabia that “he may be open to reviewing the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline.”
According to the Siasat Daily, Nawaz Sharif on 21 May 2013 pledged ‘positive change’ in Pakistan within 100 days.
Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) chief Nawaz Sharif vowed his government would continue its work for the betterment of the people and would bring about positive change in the first 100 days of his government. The Daily Times quoted Nawaz, as saying that the PML-N was all set to rid the country of all sorts of problems and crises, including energy shortage and terrorism, despite meagre resources and a heavy debt burden left by the previous government.
Nawaz also announced to cut expenditures of the government by 30 percent after forming the government. He further assured the next Sindh government that his party’s government in Centre would help out the Sindh government in solving the problems in the province indiscriminately.
Nawaz said that the PML-N would establish a coalition government in Balochistan and resolve the problems faced by the locals. Commenting on the issue of heavy electricity load shedding across the country, Nawaz said that his government would try to overcome the issue of load shedding in the minimum possible time.
Talks with Pakistani Taliban
Pakistan’s prime minister-elect Nawaz Sharif called for peace talks with Pakistani Taliban militants at war with the government, potentially charting a course that could put him at odds with the country’s powerful army. Speaking to the newly elected members of national and provincial assemblies belonging to Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), he said that Taliban offers to talk should be taken seriously.
Nawaz Sharif said “terrorism” was one of the most serious problems plaguing the country and any offer by the Pakistani Taliban to talk “should be taken seriously.” ”All options should be tried, and guns are not a solution to all problems,” Sharif said. ”Why shouldn’t we sit and talk, engage in dialogue?” Sharif said the practice of toppling elected governments through street violence and agitation must be stopped now.
The PML-N chief said the federation will extend an all-out support to Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), given they show resolve to eradicate terrorism and control the prevailing unrest in Karachi. He said the PML-N respects mandate of other parties and they have the right to form governments in their respective provinces.
“The first 30 days in government will show the nation our direction,” said Sharif.Sharif has pushed for talks with the banned Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) in the past, but this is the first time he has done so publicly since the election. The Taliban has been waging a bloody insurgency against the government for years that has killed thousands of security personnel and civilians. The militants say they are fighting to enforce Islamic law in the country and end the government’s alliance with the United States.
The Pakistan army has launched multiple operations against the Taliban in their strongholds along the border with Afghanistan, but the militants have proven resilient and continue to carry out near-daily attacks. Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who met with Sharif for the first time since the May 11 election, laid out strict conditions last month for any potential peace deal with the Taliban.
“We sincerely desire that all those who have strayed and have picked up arms against the nation return to the national fold,” Kayani said in a rare public speech. “However, this is only possible once they unconditionally submit to the state, its constitution and the rule of law,” said the army chief. The Taliban have shown an inclination to negotiate with Sharif, who is known to be a devout Muslim and whose party has been criticised for not cracking down on Islamic militants in its stronghold of Punjab province.
Source: Weekly Holiday