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Tightrope walk ahead for Nawaz Sharif

 

By Imtiaz Gul

 Foreign Policy, June 05, 2013

 

On Wednesday, Nawaz Sharif made history by becoming a three-time prime minister of the embattled nation of Pakistan. His thumping 244-vote victory in the 342-seat house was a foregone conclusion following his party's runaway success during the May 11 general elections.

But the unprecedented success, followed by the oath of office that President Asif Ali Zardari administered, hardly brought any smiles for Sharif. His glum face during the parliamentary proceedings betrayed the enormity of critical challenges that stare him in the face: crippling power-outages, a stagnating economy, crushing inflation, massive unemployment, and the al-Qaeda-linked Taliban insurgency in the northwestern territories are but a few of the daunting issues Sharif would need to attend to on a war-footing.

During his acceptance speech after his election today, Sharif struck a conciliatory tone toward all friends and foes, promising to take them all on board in the "national interest." But he also chose to touch on an issue that has been a major source of friction with the United States: controversial drone strikes.

"The chapter of daily drone attacks should stop. We respect sovereignty of other countries but others should also respect our sovereignty," Sharif said to the thumping of desks by MPs. Sharif seemed to be repeating what is already the consensus among most of the political elite, which as of now -- at least publicly -- stands united in its opposition to the drone attacks.

With this, Sharif upped the ante, signaling that his government is ready to undertake a critical review of relations with the United States, including the thorny issue of the unmanned Predator drones that have been targeting al-Qaeda and its Pakistani auxiliaries in the rugged Waziristan region bordering Afghanistan. The new prime minister's statement not only raised expectations at home but also sent a clear message to the U.S. administration that both countries must find a way of conducting this warfare in a way that minimizes, if not eliminates altogether, the resentment and anger that such strikes fuel in Pakistan.

This should ring alarm bells within the Obama administration, especially as John Kerry, the secretary of state, is set to fly in this month for his maiden meetings with the Sharif government and the military.

U.S. officials are worried about the volatile conditions in the region being exacerbated by Afghanistan's impending presidential election -- set for April 2014 -- followed by the withdrawal of the bulk of U.S.-led NATO troops from that country in December.

For an extremely cost-effective and peaceful exit via Pakistan, the administration is anxious to draw on as much Pakistani support as possible, which will require rubbing off as many sources of friction -- drone strikes being one of them -- as possible.

Meanwhile, some of the headaches confronting Sharif and his team are servicing the whopping $60 billion in external debt, preventing further bleeding of some four dozen public sector enterprises, just eight of which cost the nation at least three billion dollars annually, containing the spiral of deficit financing (that the previous government set in motion) and the ensuing inflation.

Another worrisome specter facing Sharif is a tenacious new entrant to the parliament: Pakistan Tehreek-e- Insaf (PTI), the political party of the cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan. Khan ran his election campaign on a platform that challenges the status quo and is directed at almost all the parties who have alternated power in the last two decades. Sharif was his special target in the run-up to the elections.

The PTI not only won a respectable number of votes in the national parliament (roughly 8 million) but will also lead the government in the volatile northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (KP).

This province has seen massive bloodshed and destruction as a result of the vicious Taliban insurgency being waged primarily in the neighboring tribal regions, where al-Qaeda and allied militant groups have been sheltering.

Shah Mehmood Qureshi, a central PTI leader, says his party will serve as a real watchdog in the national parliament. "We will not allow any mischief in the name of public interest," he told the media after parliament's inaugural session. "The PTI will jealously guard the interests of those who have voted us all into this privileged position."

The heavy burden of responsibility and the fear of an extremely focused opposition -- particularly the PTI -- are not likely to allow Sharif any missteps.

Much now depends on how Sharif's government aligns the need for urgent structural reforms and the revision of foreign policy, with the agenda of the mighty military establishment. That will also be critical to Sharif's desire for improving relations with India, which remains wary of the militants who draw support from inside Pakistan for their militant campaign in the disputed region of Kashmir.

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the recently released book Pakistan: Before and After, published by Roli Books, India

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk