Pakistan’s New PM Sharif Urges Talks with Taliban
With Pakistan in crisis, its new leader has promised much, if he does not deliver soon he will be looking into the political abyss
NAWAZ SHARIF, LEADER, PAKISTAN MUSLIM LEAGUE (N) (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): These big challenges that we face, the difficulties are great. And we will solve these problems, God willing. We aren’t afraid.
HASSAN GHANI, TRNN CORRESPONDENT: Nawaz Sharif–is he the answer to Pakistan’s problems, or just more of the same? As usual, it’s complicated.
It was 14 years ago that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government in this parliament was overthrown by General Pervez Musharraf in a military coup. Nawaz Sharif was arrested, and later exiled to Saudi Arabia. Today, in an ironic twist of fate, Nawaz Sharif is back in government, and Pervez Musharraf is under house arrest.
So although he entered politics under the wing of a general in the 1980s, the leader of Pakistan’s new government has a confrontational past with the army.
The military is immensely powerful in Pakistan, with vast economic interests and huge political influence. In fact, the previous government for the most part allowed the army to dictate foreign policy. Nawaz Sharif says that has to change and power must be restored to the civilian administration. But his approach is likely to be more tactful this time round, tempered by his previous experiences, and the military is expected to be more receptive.
TALAT HUSSAIN, SENIOR JOURNALIST, EXPRESS NEWS: His relationship with the army in the past has not been all that rosy.
GHANI: Talat Hussain is one of Pakistan’s top journalists, with a reputation for honesty and integrity. His political talk shows and reports from the field are watched by millions of Pakistanis every week. He believes Nawaz Sharif, the military, and public opinion have all evolved, making another ouster of a government led by Sharif highly unlikely.
T. HUSSAIN: The issue with Nawaz Sharif right now is that he has to go beyond his past grudges. There’s ample room for him that will allow him to do that, because the army over the last five years has changed remarkably. An independent media, a new judiciary, a very vibrant “in your face” kind of civil society–the old days of coups are gone, the generals being hoity-toity and not listening to you, and “you listen to our command” is gone. It’s a completely new Pakistan that way. And Nawaz also knows that.
But Nawaz also knows that in dealing with hardcore problems, such as counterterrorism, such as stabilizing the Balochistan border, he has to keep the army on its right side. So you would see, I would say, a fairly healthy relationship between Nawaz Sharif and the army, which will also have its change of guard and command in the next couple of months.
GHANI: One likely bone of contention is Nawaz Sharif’s plans to negotiate with Taliban groups operating inside Pakistan to bring an end to the regular bomb attacks and violence that have plagued the country for years. It’s a policy shared by Imran Khan, whose party won enough seats in the elections to be a significant force in opposition. But it’s also a policy that has polarized Pakistani public opinion.
ZAHID HUSSAIN, SENIOR EDITOR, NEWSLINE: Well, the military’s already shown its skepticism about these negotiations.
GHANI: Zahid Hussain is an award-winning print journalist who runs Pakistan’s Newsline magazine. He also reports for foreign publications, such as The Times of London and The Wall Street Journal.
Z. HUSSAIN: In various statements, Taliban have clearly asserted that they do not want–they see democracy as anti-Islam, and they do not recognize the Pakistani constitution we have seen in the past too. TUhere have been negotiations with the Taliban and it never succeeded. There have been five peace agreements with the Taliban in the Tribal Areas, as well as the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but it has not worked.
GHANI: But negotiations are already taking place in neighbouring Afghanistan and now seem inevitable in Pakistan.
T. HUSSAIN: Well the whole world is negotiating with the Taliban. The Americans are negotiating with the Taliban. The Doha, you know, offices are to be opened. I think, if my information is correct, the Northern Alliance and the Taliban have already had a meeting. It’s going to be a formal meeting eventually in the next couple of weeks, not even months. The Americans have endorsed it, the Saudis have endorsed it, the Iranians are part of it, the European Union has endorsed it. It’s a question of formalizing it. So, it’s not just, you know, a political party talking about talking to the Taliban. The whole world is talking to the Taliban. I think Nawaz Sharif, and also in the province where Imran Khan is likely to make his government, they will be the beneficiaries of this peace process, because they wouldn’t have to deal with it. The wheels are already rolling. All they have to do is to make sure that they keep on rolling in the right direction.
GHANI: Sharif has also pledged to bring an end to U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, although he’s been vague on when or how. It’s an objective he may be able to achieve, with the U.S. looking for Pakistani co-operation as it pulls out of Afghanistan next year.
Z. HUSSAIN: The Americans will also be under pressure. They are already from the international community over that issue. It’s not a very popular action. And I think probably as the Americans are planning to leave Afghanistan by 2014–and they need Pakistan’s support badly for some kind of political settlement with the Taliban. So in this situation Pakistan can pressurize the Americans.
GHANI: But although in public, in the run-up to the elections, he capitalized on growing anti-U.S. sentiment, Nawaz Sharif has been careful not to overstep the mark, and post-elections he’s pledged continued close relations with both the U.S. and U.K. governments.
Z. HUSSAIN: One thing is very clear, that it is not going to be hostile relations with the United States. If you look actually at 1996, last government, his relations with United States was not bad. It was a different situation altogether. I don’t see any major change in U.S.-Pak relations under Nawaz Sharif.
T. HUSSAIN: He’s–he has a constituency that is right of centre, yes. But he was also the one (and people often forget that) who started the first “get Osama Bin Laden” operation in collaboration with the Americans under Bill Clinton, amply documented in Steve Coll’s book Ghost Wars. So when people say that, you know, he’s kind of pro-Taliban, I am not really too sure of that.
GHANI: At the same time, Nawaz Sharif has welcomed closer ties with the Chinese, who are already a major investor and trading partner, potentially diluting U.S. influence.
But the real test of his independence will be whether or not he presses ahead with the planned gas pipeline from Iran. Pakistan certainly needs the gas, but the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have warned against it, the U.S. threatening sanctions. Talat Hussain believes Nawaz Sharif certainly has options. Whether he takes them or not is a different matter.
T. HUSSAIN: What would the Americans do? Tighten the squeeze on Pakistan? Okay, fine. They have $80 billion or $90 billion worth of military equipment to pull out of Pakistan in the next one and a half years. If you want to tighten the squeeze, well, frankly, find another route. They have to leave Afghanistan with a face-saving device. That’s why they’re talking to the Taliban. Guess what? Who’s helping them do that? It’s Pakistan. So frankly, it’s not exactly the Americans saying, don’t go for the Iran gas pipeline, or don’t do this.
The Saudis also frankly have become a distant influence. Pakistan, in the last five years, for different reasons, did rely on the Saudis, but not really in a big way. Pakistan relies on the expat community that is based in Saudi Arabia. But, frankly, considering how their labor policy is changing, a lot of that is going to be shunted out of Saudi Arabia anyways.
So I think Pakistan is becoming increasingly inward looking, and internal pressures are going to be dictating the terms. And it’s not a country without options. You know, really, it’s a big country, at a very critical time for global community, when Americans want to leave Afghanistan with a good face, and they want to pull out of Pakistani territory in the need of a support. So we too probably will have a few cards to play. If Nawaz is smart about it, frankly, he can let everybody think that he is the dearest and the closest to them, and secure national interests. I mean, that’s the way the game is played.
GHANI: So what of Nawaz Sharif’s decades-long relationship with the House of Saud? Will his personal interests overbear on policymaking?
T. HUSSAIN: I think Nawaz Sharif has a traditional relationship with the Saudis, and that relationship is going to stay there. But remember, the same Nawaz Sharif family has also done something quite remarkable in the last four or five years, that is, building up a relationship with the Turks. The Turks are really big. And if you were to look at even the family investments, many of those investments have gone into Turkey as well.
So, you know, it’s not that, you know, they are putting all their personal or business eggs or country’s policy eggs in one basket of the Saudis, because all politics have been proven to be local. No foreign power, no matter how important it is, can be allowed to hold sway over the domestic needs. If the domestic need is to get gas from Iran, that’s how it’s going to be.
So I think Nawaz will also have to fine tune quite a lot of how he conducted the foreign policy, because the imperative of public pressure and delivering services to the people is too much. Gone are the days when you would look at, you know, foreign governments saying do this or don’t do that.
GHANI: The 63-year-old veteran politician is also one of Pakistan’s wealthiest industrialists. His party has built significant infrastructure and transport projects in the cities of his provincial heartland, Punjab, which have had a major impact.
ADVERTISEMENT VOICEOVER: He introduced real change through privatization, deregulation.
GHANI: But he’s also a fan of the free market and wants to privatize the railways and the national airline. He likes grandiose projects which are eye-catching but ultimately benefit relatively few, like his plans to build a bullet train service across the country and the motorway he built during his previous administration.
Z. HUSSAIN: He is basically fascinated [by] big projects like this. When he built the motorway, there was huge controversy around that, whether the government should have invested so much money on just motorway, which is being used by, you know, hundreds of cars every day, or that money could have been diverted to other places, more backward areas of the country where you don’t have any roads at all.
GHANI: But although Nawaz Sharif is big business, his party relies for much of its support on rural Pakistan. And having seen the fury of voters against the outgoing government, and with a fierce political competitor like Imran Khan now in opposition, the new administration will have to take reviving the economy seriously.
T. HUSSAIN: He’s got a good economic team. And the dichotomy between the rural areas and the urban areas in an agricultural country like Pakistan doesn’t quite hold. The urban area’s prosperity depends on the produce in the rural areas. So I think he will have to really manage the both. It’s not a question of one versus the other; it’s really an all-inclusive. Both have to be the wheels that roll the national economy.
In urban areas, which are very, very important for the present leadership of Pakistan Muslim League (N), Nawaz, that is, there the competition is very stiff with their opponents. They cannot take anything for granted. And the voters’ wrath against the previous government has been absolutely breathtaking. And Nawaz Sharif knows that if they continue to misgovern like their predecessors, they will also be shown the door and obliterated, literally obliterated.
GHANI: Part of his plan to improve government spending is to end the arms race with India. He’s tried to build bridges in the past. That will allow him to reduce the country’s massive military expenditure. But it’s a route fraught with risk, putting him again on a collision course with the country’s military establishment.
Where he can and is likely to succeed is to end load-shedding, or power outages. The incredible mismanagement of Pakistan’s electricity supply has meant some cities are crippled, with up to 12 hours of power cuts a day. In rural areas it’s worse. The issue was a major rallying point in the election campaign.
T. HUSSAIN: This country is not underproducing. It has enough capacity. It’s not an issue of capacity. It’s a question of this capacity not being optimally utilized, because the companies that produce electricity and those companies that supply them oil and gas, frankly, they are never paid properly on time. Therefore the cycle of payment is interfering with the cycle of production. So, number one, he needs to get that cycle right. If I understand his close associates well enough, they have been working on it for almost a year now. So in the first 100-days plan that they have, they have a game plan ready. So I think you will see reduction in load-shedding, which is going to be an immediate relief, eight hours of load-shedding reduced to four hours in the first six months–not exactly a bad achievement. But if eight hours of load-shedding is to be degenerating into twelve hours of load-shedding, then Nawaz Sharif would have collapsed in the first year.
GHANI: And, of course, the ultimate question: what about corruption?
T. HUSSAIN: I think the barometer of success for Nawaz Sharif, apart from immediately addressing issues like electricity breakdowns, and law and order, and police, and creating some sort of a momentum towards creation of jobs and giving people hope and sustaining–apart from doing these things, the trajectory of his government and policies is going to be very important. If he’s seen to be genuinely moving in the direction of eradicating corruption, then, frankly, not many people are going to be asking in the first year, how much corruption have you been able to eradicate, if the progress and the trajectory is good.
GHANI: Nawaz Sharif knows that Pakistan has changed. Pakistanis expect more from their leaders, and the honeymoon period will soon be over. If he doesn’t start delivering quickly, he too, like the outgoing People’s Party, will be left staring into the political abyss. Time is not on his side.
With cameraman Arsal Jalib, this is Hassan Ghani, for The Real News, Islamabad.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.