Tough Decisions

Written by Talat Masood  •  Cover Stories  •  June 2013 PDF Print E-mail

Major foreign policy challenges lie ahead for Nawaz Sharif and it remains uncertain whether he will be able to maneuver them in Pakistan’s favor.

In his two previous incarnations, our third time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been heavily preoccupied with domestic issues. He has engaged in foreign policy when circumstances practically forced him, otherwise his interest was minimal and it was mostly reactive. There were however a few occasions such as when Pakistan conducted the nuclear tests in 1998 or when the Kargil fiasco triggered a serious international crisis.

This time the PML government of Nawaz Sharif is assuming power when the country is faced with acute domestic and foreign policy challenges. On the domestic front is the ongoing insurgency in FATA, increasing terrorist attacks, an acute energy crisis and a faltering economy. Combating these domestic issues will need peaceful borders and international support both at the economic and political level. Equally demanding attention of the government is the external scenario; especially relations with India, Afghanistan and the US. And the external and internal situation is intertwined.

From the recent statements of Nawaz Sharif it is amply clear that he has accorded high priority to moving forward with India on the peace process. He plans to build from where his efforts at reconciliation were abruptly cut off in 1999, following the military coup. The Indian leadership has responded positively, but cautiously. It seems they would be closely watching the political government’s control over foreign policy and especially matters that affect India. In his pre election interaction with the Indian media, Nawaz Sharif has expressed his determination to pursue the judicial case against the perpetrators of the Mumbai incident and control the jihadi elements in Pakistan. To what extent he would succeed in taking along the military on these sensitive issues would be of great significance for the Indian leadership. If Nawaz Sharif can demonstrate that he can take calculated risks on the India-Pakistan track and move faster than other politicians it would be reassuring for the Indian leadership. He has strong credentials to build a positive relationship with India and be a reliable partner in the quest for peace. If he is able to build a reputation for better governance, is personally uncorrupt and takes incremental steps to bring the military under institutional control of the executive then he will manage to facilitate building bridges with India.

It is expected that Nawaz Sharif will impress upon his Indian counterpart that no substantive and enduring relationship can be forged without movement on core issues, even if these are kept on the backburner for a few years. With Indian elections not far away in 2014, Prime Minister Singh’s space for maneuver on the core issues of Jammu & Kashmir, Siachen and Sir Creek in the near term will be very limited.

Meanwhile, the two countries should press forward on less contentious issues of trade and commerce, easing of the visa regime and cultural exchanges and create an amiable environment. The visit of Mr. Lamba as a back channel emissary of PM Manmohan Singh, soon after the elections was good signaling and a welcome development that needs to be followed up.

With the ongoing withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, managing relations with Afghanistan and the U.S. for the new government would be crucial. President Karzai’s rather aggressive and unpredictable behavior toward Pakistan, especially since the last few months, makes matters more complex. By scape-goating Pakistan for all of Afghanistan’s woes, President Karzai, whose term of office expires in 2014, hopes he will rehabilitate his political standing and deflect attention from his government’s poor record in governance and corrupt reputation.

No doubt, President Karzai has certain expectations from Pakistan that remain unfulfilled. He has been pressing Pakistan to release the Afghan Taliban and use its influence to bring them to the negotiating table. About ten to twelve Taliban leaders were released last year but the process has since stopped. The Taliban leadership refuses to engage in dialogue with the Afghan government and wants to deal directly with the U.S. More importantly, President Karzai wants Pakistan to ensure that the Pakistani Taliban do not join the fight with the Afghan Taliban in the event that peace efforts fail. Nawaz Sharif will try to improve relations with President Karzai and reach out to the Northern Alliance and other power centers in Afghanistan. Addressing the concerns of Afghan leadership would be a difficult task for the new government.

The peace overtures and offer of talks to the Pakistani Taliban by Nawaz Sharif would be welcomed by the Afghan regime provided these result in their joining the political mainstream and not be diverted to fight side by side with their Afghan counterparts.

From the PML (N) government’s side, it will be wary to any excessive strategic space being provided by Afghanistan to India. Already agreements exist whereby the Indian military is providing training and supplying weapon systems for the Afghan security forces. Despite the restricted space for maneuver, the new government will make serious efforts at improving relations with Afghanistan.

At a time when U.S. forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan, relations with it acquire special significance. The use of drones will be a major irritant. The policy on drones announced recently by President Obama restricts its use worldwide with the exception of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Despite protests from our political leadership, drone strikes in the tribal region will continue during the withdrawal phase from Afghanistan to keep pressure on the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda residing in the sanctuaries of the tribal region. The responsibility of their use will rest with the CIA. It is possible that the frequency of strikes may be reduced to partially mollify the political leadership, but will not completely stop.

Pakistan will have to come up with a more holistic approach towards dealing with the TTP. Nawaz Sharif opposes the use of drones and is in favor of dialogue with the Taliban. If Washington were to accede to Pakistan’s demand on drones, which of course is unlikely, and the government engages in dialogue with the TTP unconditionally, it would be giving them complete freedom to expand and consolidate their position.

The ability of Pakistan to provide safe passage to weapons and equipment of U.S. and NATO forces during the withdrawal phase will be an important factor in building confidence and trust with these countries.

The U.S. also expects that the Pakistan army undertake military operations in North Waziristan against the Haqqani network but of late has been restrained in pressing on this demand in public. Unless Pakistan regains control over these ungoverned areas, the relationship with the U.S. and Afghanistan will remain tense and unpredictable. The sanctuaries in North Waziristan and other parts of the tribal region have become the haven of terrorists and criminals that are destabilizing the country and are a threat to its neighbors. No responsible government can afford to ignore these hard realities.

The new government will have to effectively address these issues if it wants to sustain the support of its people and regain credibility abroad. 

Talat Masood is a retired Lieutenant General in the Pakistan Army Corps of Engineers. General Masood holds a Masters degree in Defense and Strategic Studies and has also served as a visiting fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.  He was a consultant for the leading U.S. defense manufacturer United Defense, Limited Partnership (UDLP) for five years. He currently writes on national security, weapons proliferation, and has been covering Pakistan and India's nuclear program.

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