Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif may have cobbled together a comfortable coalition to run Pakistan’s newly elected government for the next five years, but he has made a potentially turbulent beginning in ties with the US. This is in the wake of Pakistan’s historic election on May 11 that threw up a rare third term victory for Sharif.
This is clearly a delicate period in Islamabad’s relations with Washington as US troops prepare to be drawn down from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. The withdrawal will happen successfully only if Pakistan remains on board in providing a relatively safe exit through its soil for departing US troops, given that the Pakistani route provides the shortest distance between Afghanistan and any sea port.
Part of Sharif’s election campaign focused on opposing drone strikes by the US. This is a controversial instrument of war that the US has used time and again since its troops entered Afghanistan — following the 9/11 attacks — to target suspected militant sanctuaries inside Pakistan along the Afghan border.
Some recent modifications notwithstanding, the US continues to justify its policy on drones despite clear evidence of civilian casualties. Clearly, the targets have not just been hardcore militants. These emerging circumstances have clearly added to the existing anti-US sentiment across Pakistan.
The US use of drones has also become controversial in view of growing criticism within Pakistan on how this policy clearly violates the country’s sovereignty. In the very extreme, the targeting of a country’s territory in an armed attack by another country constitutes an act of war. Sharif’s decision to publicly oppose the US use of drones has in fact fallen on receptive ears across Pakistan. While his call may be in sync with increasingly mainstream opinion across the south Asian country, Pakistan is in no position put its ties with Washington on hold.
At a time when Pakistan’s economy remains weak and in need of international support, effectively suspending relations with the US as suggested by some hardcore nationalists over the matter of drones, could indeed be counter productive.
Going forward, Sharif must embrace two equally vital policy options while continuing to publicly oppose the use of drones as a matter of principle. On the one hand, it is vital for Pakistan’s new leader to push for a broad national consensus. Though many in Pakistan oppose the use of drones, it is important to mobilise popular support behind this view as Pakistan prepares for the endgame in Afghanistan.
As the US prepares to draw down its military presence in Afghanistan, it is important for Pakistan to present an alternative and fresh view to the US as well as its other western allies, on how precisely it proposes to deal with future security challenges in Afghanistan and on its soil. A credible security plan may indeed help Pakistan to persuade the US to reconsider its drone policy.
Sharif and other Pakistani politicians must also recognise that the drone policy in part is driven by a security vacuum in Pakistan’s own territory. While the moral and ethical argument against the US may be relevant to this discussion, it is also vital to appreciate the many gaps in Pakistan’s own security.
The region along the Afghan border remains restless while the writ of the state exists there only in name. To present a more compelling case to the US and the wider world for seeking a reversal of Washington’s drone policy, Pakistan must also present evidence that it is finally taking charge of a part of its territory which presently bears the brunt of periodic US attacks.
For Sharif, part of this proposed agenda may involve stepping back on some of his own stated positions. Yet, he and other leaders in Pakistan must recognise that a substantive policy reversal on the drones issue must be built upon not just a US policy reversal, but also concerted efforts by Pakistan to fill the gaps on its own turf wherever necessary.
Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.