Nawaz Sharif’s New Government: Beyond Pakistan

On the economy, as we have seen, Nawaz Sharif is a man in a hurry. The 15-day deadline he gave his cabinet colleagues to develop action plans for their ministries underscores the priority he places on early, visible improvement in Pakistan’s economy and administration – and on creating a contrast with Asif Zardari’s record. In foreign affairs, he will seek to maintain Pakistan’s position in Afghanistan, manage and if possible repair ties with Washington, and contribute to his economic goals, including if possible moving forward with trade opening with India. The accent will be on continuity, albeit with a more strident tone in his objection to U.S. drone attacks, and on avoiding confrontation with the Pakistan army. For the United States, the challenge will be not to treat Pakistan as an extension of its Afghan problem.

Continuity in foreign policy: Foreign affairs played a much less prominent role than economics in the election campaign despite the efforts of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf to highlight anti-American themes and benefit from prevailing popular antagonism toward the United States. Sharif’s letter to all Pakistani diplomatic missions on foreign policy priorities hits familiar notes on his highest priority issues – peace and stability in Afghanistan, finding policy convergence with the United States, the importance of China, normalizing ties with India without forgetting Kashmir – and adds a plug for economic diplomacy. In the near term, Sharif is unlikely to undertake major new foreign policy or security initiatives unless events – especially developments in Afghanistan – force him to do so.

The military will continue to play the lead role on all these issues. Sharif’s extensive consultations with the chief of army staff (COAS), General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, almost certainly confirmed that he will continue to respect their sensitivities, regardless of who succeeds Kayani when the general’s second three-year term ends in November. Sharif told an interviewer during the campaign that if elected he would choose the next senior-most general to replace Kayani. He said he did not expect Kayani to ask for a second extension of service. The prime minister, who has the authority to select the COAS under a recent constitutional amendment, will in any event not repeat the politically disastrous move he made in 1999 when he tried to place a general he considered sympathetic to him in the position.

Working with Washington: Cultivating good relations with the United States will be important for Sharif. Reports circulating during the election campaign that Washington “could not do business with him” are simply wrong. The George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations had generally friendly relations with Sharif  during his earlier terms as prime minister, although the United States strongly opposed two of his major acts –  his decision to stage nuclear weapons tests following India’s and his acquiescence in the Pakistan army’s intrusion into Indian-administered part of Kashmir. There will be other challenges now, but the Obama administration can certainly develop a working relationship.

Sharif is likely to be most interested in U.S. economic assistance and promotion of private trade and investment. Washington should be as forthcoming as the political atmosphere in the United States allows. It should be reasonably supportive of Pakistan’s efforts to find funding from the IMF and other international sources. The United States should also look for other areas of cooperation. One is antipiracy. In December 2012 the Pakistan Navy assumed command of an Indian Ocean antipiracy task force, and it has assigned a ship newly acquired from the United States to this operation. This kind of cooperation can help persuade Pakistanis that our interest in them is not solely prompted by our Afghanistan concerns.

But maintaining and improving U.S. –Pakistan relations won’t be easy. As U.S. involvement in the Afghanistan war winds down, Congress and the American public are likely to become increasingly unsympathetic to continuing the massive assistance we have provided Pakistan since 2001. At a time of fiscal stringency and sequestered budgets, there will be sharp questioning about “why we should help people who hate us?” In dealing with these attitudes, the administration should highlight the importance to vital U.S. interests of a nuclear-armed Muslim country of 180 million threatened by a determined, violently anti-American Islamic insurgency. U.S. relations with it should not be viewed exclusively in the context of our objectives in Afghanistan, as the lumping of the two countries in a separate State Department office divorced from the bureau that deals with the rest of South and Central Asia seems to suggest. Pakistanis’ apprehension that the Americans have once again discarded them “like a used Kleenex” when they were no longer needed could make them become even more antagonistic to the United States and complicate efforts to maintain useful ties.

But while the United States should try to be as forthcoming as it can, it must avoid the trap of mutual delusion that has bedeviled U.S.-Pakistan relations in the past. Both need to acknowledge that there are significant differences in our core interests and that these will make it difficult to salvage a relationship still recovering from the setbacks of a disastrous few years. Repairing the damage starts with respect and candor about what goals the two countries really share and what is actually doable.

One “carrot” the United States should not put forward is the prospect of a civilian nuclear deal similar to the 2008 one with India, as we understand some have suggested. This is a terrible idea for many reasons. One of the most compelling is that it would be a non-starter in Congress, where it would very quickly lead to a dead end and confirm Pakistanis’ suspicions that the Washington is again leading them down the garden path.

Different goals in Afghanistan: Washington and Islamabad have contrasting objectives as they approach the drawdown of U.S. and other combat forces from Afghanistan next year. Pakistan’s primary aim will continue to be the establishment in Kabul of a friendly, preferably client-type government that will have minimal political and security ties with India. This objective will shape its approach to negotiations. The overriding U.S. objective will remain a stable, broadly representative Afghan state that will not fall under the domination of Islamic extremists or again become a staging area for international terrorist activity.

The decision that Washington eventually reaches with the Karzai government (and internally) about the strength and objectives of a postwar U.S. military presence in Afghanistan will impact its relations with Pakistan. One issue could be the degree of importance the United States attaches to using Pakistani land routes to supply its remaining forces and remove redundant troops and equipment.  The Pakistanis will want ample compensation for these routes.  If the United States decides to use Pakistan rather than the central Asian countries and Russia, with which it has agreements, it should be careful not to give in to extravagant Pakistani demands.

India – progress possible, but no breakthrough: When he was last in power in the late 1990s, Sharif sought to improve India-Pakistan ties and worked out a plan for a comprehensive dialogue with his Indian counterpart. This fell apart when the Pakistan Army moved into Indian Kashmir a few months later. As the scion of a prominent Punjabi industrialist family, Sharif has taken a particular interest in expanding trade and investment with India. Many (but not all) prominent Pakistani businesspeople support his view. The army seems to be prepared to go along, within as yet uncertain limits.

For the last year, progress toward liberalization has been halted by violence along the cease-fire line in Kashmir and other bilateral problems. Pakistan has not yet implemented its undertaking to give India normal trade relations (long and confusingly called Most Favored Nation status).  Direct bilateral trade remains below its potential, though a substantial volume of goods passes through third countries. A recent, more encouraging development was India’s reported offer of cooperation in the politically vital Pakistan energy sector.

Substantial improvement in other areas seems a long shot at this point. India and Pakistan have greatly different objectives in postwar Afghanistan, and the withdrawal of coalition combat troops next year could sharply exacerbate their dispute. A worst-case scenario could include an India-Pakistan proxy war in Afghanistan as New Delhi and Islamabad assist their Afghan favorites’ quests for power. Whatever happens in postwar Afghanistan, the beleaguered Congress Party-dominated Indian government led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be hesitant to undertake serious negotiations on longstanding disputes including Kashmir that could potentially damage the party in next year’s election. Nor does there appear to be a serious, broad-based Indian peace lobby prepared to campaign hard for better bilateral ties.

Washington has long encouraged improved India-Pakistan relations but has largely confined itself to cheering from the sidelines. This seems to be the best course, at least until the Indian elections hopefully bring to power a stronger government willing to make unpopular moves.

In the meantime, the United States will have plenty of other items on its Pakistan agenda. It needs to deal with these in a candid, realistic way that takes account of the continuing importance of Pakistan to major American interests in post-Afghan war South Asia and beyond.

Howard and Teresita Schaffer

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