Foreign Policy Challenges Confronting the New Government

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By Anam Nasir

The foreign policy challenges facing the new government have been subject of much interest in the local newspapers. Editorials in the leading papers have identified Pakistan’s policies towards United States, India, Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia as crucial areas the new government stands to address. Since the elections, Prime Minister-in-waiting Nawaz Sharif has stated that talks will be held with the U.S. regarding drone attacks, ensured cooperation in facilitating a peaceful withdrawal from Afghanistan and indicated that his government desires improved relations with India.
A majority of the newspapers have shown cautious optimism and thrown their weight behind the PML-N government’s intention to pursue a peace-buialding process with India in principle. Similarly, there is a consensus on the need to address the issue of drone strikes by the United States – and the difficulties this may pose. Following are the key observations made by certain newspapers from Pakistan, which serve to show the media’s possible reception of foreign policy initiatives taken by the newly elected government in the future.[1]

Express Tribune states that the “PML-N manifesto emphasizes Pakistani sovereignty and national interest when it comes to ties with the superpower. The PML-N is on record to having opposed the drones. Thus, its hardest task will be handling the drone debate and developing a clear, honest line on the issue. The NATO troops’ pullout from Afghanistan in 2014 will place Pakistan in a tight corner.This would be a consummate test of Mr. Sharif’s leadership skills. While he has indicated close but reoriented ties with the US, it is hard to see how things can improve given our dependence on U.S. aid.”

Pakistan Observer states that “Pakistan had enjoyed a close relationship [with the U.S.] and remained dependent on the super power for a long time to meet its development and other needs but these have also seen ups and downs in the chequered history. At present the relationship is understandably at the lowest ebb due to a number of factors including the violation of Pakistan’s air space by drone attacks. Keeping this in view, Nawaz Sharif told media that his government would try to convince America to stop drone attacks. We strongly believe that it is in the interest of Washington to listen to the view point of Islamabad on contentious matters, give serious consideration to the sentiments of Pakistani people and stop the drone attacks.”

Daily Times suggests that “the PML-N and the military leadership will develop a healthy working relationship and reorient Pakistan’s foreign and security policies with the goal of peace and economic prosperity in Pakistan and the region. This goal is linked to peace in Afghanistan. Enduring peace in Afghanistan requires cooperation among all regional countries as well as the U.S.

Pakistan’s relations with the U.S. suffered considerably after the U.S. operation in Abbottabad to take out Osama bin Laden, the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers at Salala check post by NATO fire, and the subsequent closing of NATO’s supply routes through Pakistan. The U.S. drone campaign in FATA is another sore point in relations. Although Nawaz Sharif wants good relations with the U.S., it will require considerable skill in persuading the U.S. to stop the drone strikes, which are causing collateral damage on the ground as well as political damage to the government in Pakistan.”

The Nation wrote that “President Obama congratulating the people of Pakistan on holding elections and showing a historic turnout, said that the U.S. was ready to work with the new leadership on equal basis. Here it is important to note that keeping in line with his long-held stand, Mian Nawaz gave vent to the people’s sentiments that they had serious concerns over drone attacks. He is not likely to find the U.S. administration so easily receptive to the stopping of these strikes. He would have to strive hard to convince the CIA that the drones are counterproductive. They kill hardcore terrorists, but few and far between; the overwhelming majority of victims are the ordinary tribesmen, women and children. Estranging these people translates itself into swelling the force of militancy; for, if remaining peaceful and aloof from the war on terror carries the death penalty, they might as well fight to drive the foreign forces out of the region that are playing havoc with their lives. Drones are a sore point with Pakistanis and a major issue that is the cause of a continuing negative perception of the U.S. President Obama ought to seriously think about it.”

The Frontier Post observes that the “Nawaz Sharif must have been overjoyed with the message of felicitation on his huge victory in Pakistan’s May 11 parliamentary elections from President Barack Obama because of his ideological nexus with the Washington administration. In 1999 when the Kargil episode took place, Mr. Sharif frantically went rushing to President Bill Clinton seeking his help against the armed forces of his own country. When this is the country’s recent history, fears do emerge about Mr. Sharif’s conduct on further pushing Pakistan in the American camp and aggravating the country’s isolation in the region… The new rulers should look beyond allying Pakistan and must consider that a global and regional partnership must be made the cornerstone of our foreign policy.

Washington must also be satisfied with Nawaz Sharif’s poll victory because it wants a responsive and cooperative ruler in Islamabad at this point in time. No-one is opposed to ties with the U.S. but it must be rewarded in return instead of snubbing Islamabad on flimsy pretexts. The new government in Pakistan must also keep in mind that Washington would always prefer India over Pakistan because it has certain strategic interests tied with New Delhi more than any other country in South Asia. This fact requires Islamabad to pursue a policy of global neutrality which is the cardinal principle of serving the national interest and protecting the country from external dangers.”

Nawai-Waqt points out that “In interviews with British newspaper Daily Telegraph and an Indian TV channel, Nawaz Sharif said he had experience of working with the United States and would be pleased with future contacts. He also stated that the Pakistani people have serious concerns about the drone attacks, which would be discussed with the United States. U.S. President Barack Obama also hinted that he was ready to work with the new Pakistani government as an equal partner.

On the issue of U.S. drone attacks, Nawaz’s stance represents the public sentiments. It is expected that as prime minister Mian Nawaz Sharif should compel the United States to cease drone attacks. Similarly, the Washington administration should also review its drone attacks policy on the basis of changing environment following the elections. The issues of the continuity of relations with the United States on the basis of equality can be addressed amicably only when the United States stops drone attacks in Pakistan, keeping in view the sovereignty, security as well as national interests of Pakistan.”

Jang sees “Pakistan [as] the most important country of the region and its foreign policy is currently facing serious pressure. This pressure is going to further increase in days to come because the United States is withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan next year. It is feared that the vacuum as a result of the US withdrawal can create new problems for Pakistan. The new government will have to make preparations in advance to deal with these issues. Besides, it will also have to adopt a categorical stance for an end to drone attacks. There is strong public reaction against these attacks because the worst terrorism, which started in tribal areas as a result of these attacks, has spread throughout the country. Washington claims that it is targeting only al-Qaeda militants while the ground reality is that more peaceful tribal people are killed in these attacks as compared to militants. If Mian Nawaz Sharif … can convince the United States to settle this issue of urgent nature, it would be his biggest success.”

Express Tribune observes that “Nawaz Sharif’s position on India is well known and he has reiterated it time and again. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s invitation to him to visit India is significant, as is the reciprocal invitation by the prime minister-elect to Mr. Singh for his oath-taking ceremony. But the dialogue process between the two countries is likely to be fraught with the known roadblocks: Pakistan’s insistence on the core issues and India’s emphasis on terrorism. Having said this, Mr. Sharif finds himself in a historic position to consolidate the gains made by the outgoing government with respect to trade and visa liberalisation.”

Pakistan Observer states that “Mian Mohammad Nawaz Sharif, who is all set to form a stable government capable of implementing its agenda has said that Pakistan would normalise relations with India and a lot of enthusiasm has been seen in India too over the victory of the PML-N. We are sure that only a person of the stature of Nawaz Sharif having an overwhelming mandate and being third time Prime Minister can take decision of far reaching impact like normalisation of relations with India.

Pakistan needs to revisit its relations with India and if both the countries arrive at certain understanding that would usher in an era of peace in the region and give boost economic relations. However we may point out that there are understandable and genuine grievances towards India as there have been a number of incidents starting from the 1971 tragedy and unresolved disputes including Kashmir. Therefore in principle we support the normalisation but we would urge Mian Saheb that Pakistan’s vital strategic interests should be kept in view and other stakeholders too should be taken along.”

Daily Times is categorical in pointing out that “militant groups that were used by the security establishment to hurt India in Kashmir and to manoeuvre the situation in Afghanistan have now rebelled against the Pakistani state. Domestic terrorism, which has been one of the major causes of a steep decline in the economy, is deeply connected to regional terrorism. It is the same conglomerate of militant groups that are involved in domestic and foreign attacks. Pakistan cannot have good relations with India while also hosting these groups on its soil. These groups have repeatedly tried to derail the India-Pakistan peace process started by the Musharraf government in 2004, the worst example of which was the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which have been linked to the Pakistan-based group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). For its proposed foreign and economic policies to succeed, the PML-N government will have to take tough decisions regarding militant groups.
Nawaz Sharif’s interest in good relations with India might have caused unease in the military, which has remained in charge of the security and foreign policies for decades, and regards India as the enemy. However, given the circumstances, Pakistan has no choice but to make peace with its neighbours. It is imperative for Pakistan’s economic revival to end hostilities with India and benefit from its economic rise, which Pakistan failed to do in the case of China due to its internal weaknesses. Investing in economic relations with India will pave the way for resolving some of the more complex issues, such as Siachen and Kashmir. That India is ready to work with the new government in Pakistan is clear from the statement of Dr. Manmohan Singh, who greeted Nawaz Sharif on his victory and invited him to visit India.”

The Nation argues that “[n]obody is against having good neighbourly relations with India. After all we have contiguous borders and peace and understanding between the two countries is of prime importance for both to develop and prosper; but the condition precedent must be the resolution of the core dispute of Kashmir in accordance with the wishes of the people of the occupied state and that, indeed, is the same that India solemnly committed at the UN Security Council and to the people themselves. Therefore, for Mian Nawaz Sharif, who is tipped to become the next Prime Minister of Pakistan to invite Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to visit Pakistan at this stage to be present at his oath-taking ceremony is a kind gesture, but saying the incumbent prime minister would visit India “whether invited or not”, is an unbecoming statement from the future premier. Such expressions of eagerness are appropriate at the campaign stage, and not now when Mian Nawaz is pounded to dictate policy for the next five years. The climate of tension generated by the accident which led to the death of Sarabjit Singh, a terrorist and India’s own acclaimed spy, and the premeditated retaliatory murder of a Pakistani prisoner has not yet subsided. And what if Mr. Singh insults the incumbent Pakistani premier by declining his offer, on grounds of short notice and important engagements at home? What then?”

Nawai-Waqt observes that that “[i]n interviews with the U.S. and British media, the way in which Nawaz Sharif hinted at his tilt towards India can create further create misunderstandings in the minds of the nation. The nation has serious concerns about Mian Nawaz Sharif’s intentions on the issue of relations with India. Talks of trade and establishing good relations with India without settling the Kashmir dispute in accordance with the UN resolutions is tantamount to showing weakness in front of a cunning enemy, which is absolutely not a demand of the country’s security and national interests.

Every phase of Pakistan-India talks has been sabotaged by India as soon as Kashmir was mentioned. India also gave a cold-shoulder response and tensions on border despite being granted the MFN. Now India has also planned to completely block Pakistan’s share of its water. Therefore, if Mian Nawaz Sharif wants to establish relations with India and initiate dialogue from 1999, he should get Kashmir recognised by India as a disputed territory and then he should bring it to the discussion table for the settlement of the Kashmir issue in light of UN resolutions. War is certainly not a solution to any problem but when our neighbour is not ready to settle the longstanding dispute in any other manner, with what option we will be left except responding to its aggressive and expansionist designs in the same fashion?”

Jang acknowledges “some disputes with India but if there is sincerity in the struggle to overcome these issues, there is no reason that positive progress cannot be made in this direction. The hints dropped by the PML-N chief with regard to his foreign policy following his success in the elections have been welcomed in all countries. Now it is to be seen that how effectively he implements his priorities in the foreign relations because steps have more importance than statements. As far as the issue of relations with India is concerned, there is no doubt that people of the two countries want peace. However, it seems from the attitude of the Indian rulers and their style of getting conditions met that the requirement of peace is a necessity of Islamabad alone. The world knows that the Jammu and Kashmir dispute is the biggest and basic hurdle in the Pakistan-India relations. Nawaz Sharif claims that the two countries were close to the settlement of this longstanding dispute during one of his previous tenures. If this is correct, he should bring India to the discussion table for the accomplishment of this goal. The resolution of these problems is completely necessary to forestall the feeling of despair found in the nation.”

Afghanistan

Express Tribune underscores that the “greatest foreign policy challenge for Mr. Sharif would be Afghanistan. Despite President Hamid Karzai’s welcoming statement at the PML-N victory, tensions are likely to exist as U.S. troops pull out and the Taliban gain momentum, particularly with help from groups operating in Pakistan’s border territories. It must be mentioned that the PML-N’s foreign policy is likely to be intertwined with domestic policy on dealing with extremism and the impunity with which militant groups allegedly operate inside Pakistan. There was never a greater need for effective linkages between the two, especially with regard to Afghanistan. Mr. Sharif’s ascension to power comes at the right moment.”

The Frontier Post highlights that “it may not be a mere coincidence that Kabul has deployed additional security forces in Goshta district of Nangarhar province along the Durand Line in a bid to prevent Pakistan from building a gate on its own soil and have clashed with Pakistan’s security forces. The Afghan troops have been in fierce clashes with Pakistan army over about one week on the issue which is Pakistan’s right to guard the international border. Maybe the conflict has been sponsored to pressure Pakistan into submission.”

Jang states that “Nawaz Sharif will have to seek a guarantee from the United States that the Kabul government will not create any problem for Pakistan’s security and internal peace after withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Although President Hamid Karzai was among those who greeted Nawaz Sharif, there is no harmony in his words and deeds. On the one hand he talks of good relations with Pakistan, and on the other he also openly incites the Afghan Taliban to attack Pakistan. Contradictory actions and statements make it difficult to ascertain in his stance.”

Iran

Pakistan Today recommends that the “new government must tackle the severe power shortages that are crippling national industry. The Gulf rivalries must not be allowed to abandon, or delay, the Pak-Iran gas pipeline.”

The Frontier Post states that “the outgoing Pakistan People’s Party government made a valuable attempt to strengthen ties with China, Iran, Afghanistan and the countries of the region besides the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to enter new economic markets, particularly the Central Asian Republics.

The PPP government also signed with Iran the projects of gas pipelines and import of about 1,100 Megawatt of electricity. The previous government inked the project with Iran withstanding pressure from Washington and other Western states. Whether the Sharif government will be able to keep these agreements with Tehran in the face of the American opposition is not yet known but the fear remains intact.”

Saudi Arabia

The Frontier Post says the “prime minister in waiting Nawaz Sharif must have been overjoyed with the messages of felicitation on his huge victory in Pakistan’s May 11 parliamentary elections from King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman because of his personal relationship with the Saudi monarch.

[1] All quotes are directly from the newspaper editorials, other than those from Nawai-Waqt and Jang, which have been translated from Urdu.

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Copyright © Jinnah Institute 2013