A Turning Point for Pakistan?

The inauguration of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is a heartening milestone for Pakistan and an opportunity for Washington to restore relations with Islamabad, says expert Bruce Riedel.

June 5, 2013 12:13 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Pakistan is at a crossroads, says Bruce Riedel, an expert on South Asia and career U.S. intelligence officer. Although the country’s "internal security situation is grim," he says that the inauguration of Nawaz Sharif as prime minister--the first time that two Pakistani civilian governments have succeeded each other peacefully--is an encouraging milestone. Moreover, Riedel is hopeful that Sharif can deal successfully with India, which he says is "the single most important thing" for the future of South Asia. He urges Washington to take this opportunity to rebuild relations with Islamabad. "You can be pessimistic about Pakistan and you’ll often be right, but Pakistan is too important to give up on," he says.

What does the general security situation look like in Pakistan these days? Have things improved? When we talked a couple of years ago, you said the outlook was "dim and dismal."

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Pakistan’s internal security situation is grim. This is a country literally under siege since September 11. Some 45,000 Pakistanis have been killed by terrorism and militant-related violence, and the election process that just ended was marked by a considerable amount of bloodshed. Over the years, the Pakistanis have allowed the development of a terrorist Frankenstein inside their own country. Successive U.S. presidents since George Bush senior have warned Pakistan that tolerating and even patronizing terrorist groups would sooner or later come home to haunt them. We have the consolation of being right, but not much consolation that there is any chance of improvement on the horizon.

This will be Nawaz Sharif’s third time as Pakistan’s prime minister. He was overthrown the last time. And he was prime minister when Pakistan developed its nuclear weapons. Is he a friend of the United States? How would you describe him?

We started with the bad news, so let’s put in a little good news. This week Pakistan will accomplish something it’s never done before. A democratically elected civilian government will fulfill its entire term in office and turn over power to another democratically elected civilian government. In sixty-five-plus years as a nation, Pakistan has never succeeded in doing this, so this is a milestone. Nawaz Sharif deserves some of the credit for it. As leader of the opposition for the last five years he very strongly committed himself to letting the government of President Asif Al Zardari serve out its full term in office. There were times when Sharif could have called for changes, could have tried to engineer the overturn of the government, but he insisted that the Zardari government be given its full term in office. So this is an accomplishment for Pakistan that shouldn’t be underestimated.

The bad news, of course, is that violence racks the country, and the military still continues to control many of the most important national security issues, including the relationship with the United States and control over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and the development of their nuclear weapons.

One other area of good news, though, is that Sharif, since his election, has committed himself to trying to improve relations with India, which is the single most important thing that would make the future of South Asia and Pakistan brighter. A détente between India and Pakistan holds the key to helping make Pakistan a more normal country with a healthy civil-military balance, and would help with putting the terrorist Frankenstein back in the bottle. It won’t be easy to do, but Sharif deserves credit for saying he intends to do this, and we should find ways to try and help him.

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And how can he do it?

He said that he is going to meet early with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India. He has had a long conversation with him. What he would like to do is focus on increasing trade, improving transportation links, easing the visa situation for Indians and Pakistanis to move back and forth--small steps on a people-to-people level and on an economic level to try to improve the atmosphere between the two countries. And one of the reasons Sharif is doing this is because the economy he inherits in Pakistan is in shambles: There is very weak growth, a huge energy problem, a crumbling infrastructure. Sharif, who is at root an industrialist and a businessman, understands that the only real way Pakistan can hope to improve its economy is by linking its economic future to the fastest-growing economy in South Asia and one of the fastest-growing economies in the world--and that’s India.

What about relations with the United States? The United States is very unpopular with the Pakistani public, but what are Sharif’s relations with Washington going to be like?

Well, we’ve worked with Sharif twice before. I have been involved with both of his previous administrations: first under President George H.W. Bush, then under President Bill Clinton. It was a mixed record: We got some things done, and we had many things that weren’t done.

In the unaccomplished list, we failed to persuade Pakistan not to test nuclear weapons in 1998. Sharif went ahead and did that after India did so. We also failed to get Pakistan to cease supporting the Afghan Taliban, and we were unsuccessful in getting Sharif in 1998 to do more about Osama bin Laden. In the more positive category, we were able to work with Sharif in 1999 to bring an end to the brief war between India and Pakistan in Kashmir called the Kargil war. Pakistanis had foolishly blundered into this war, but we were able to work with Sharif to bring an end to it. Unfortunately for Sharif, that probably sealed his fate and led to the military coup against him a few months later. But the point here is that we were able to work with him in order to defuse tensions in South Asia at a very dangerous time.

So we have a mixed history with Sharif. As President Obama noted in his speech to the National Defense University on terrorism, our relationship with Pakistan is quite damaged. The president specifically noted that his decision to send commandos in to kill Osama bin Laden had generated a severe backlash in Pakistan--so severe that, as he said, we are just now beginning to rebuild this important partnership. Sharif’s inauguration provides us an opportunity to do that.

Would you expect Secretary of State Kerry to make an early trip there?

Even as we recognize that they may be playing a double game there, it’s still in our interest to have a high-level dialogue with the new prime minister."

The secretary needs to make an early trip there. It would be wise to invite the prime minister to Washington early to try to see if the duo can find common ground on some of these important issues. At a minimum, we want to encourage Sharif’s opening to India. We also want Pakistan’s cooperation as we transition our forces out of Afghanistan. Even as we recognize that they may be playing a double game there, it’s still in our interest to have a high-level dialogue with the new prime minister.

The killing by drone attack of Wali-ur-Rehman, the number two Pakistan Taliban leader, led to the militant group saying they were going to stop any peace negotiations with Islamabad. Is that something the United States should worry about?

Sharif campaigned on a platform promising to end the drone war in Pakistan and find a political process with the Afghan Taliban. The fact that just days after President Obama’s speech a drone killed a senior Taliban official has set back Sharif’s efforts. Whether those efforts really ever had much chance of success, I’m doubtful, but it was an awkward start for the United States and Pakistan.

On the other hand, according to the Obama administration, the individual was deeply involved in planning the use of a triple agent against the CIA in Afghanistan in 2009 that led to the death of seven CIA officers. He was an individual who undoubtedly had been on the CIA’s list for a long time, and I suspect it was too attractive an opportunity to let go. This gets to the difficulty of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. We are on opposite sides of the war in Afghanistan. Pakistan, despite its own problems with its own internal Pakistan Taliban, continues to be the sponsor of the Afghan Taliban, continues to provide them safe haven, expertise, sometimes even arms. And Pakistan is the target of America’s not-so-covert, covert war using drones over Pakistan’s tribal areas. Washington and Islamabad have profound differences on these issues that are not going to be easily resolved.

What is the status of the on-again-off-again efforts by the United States and Afghanistan to get negotiations going with the Afghan Taliban?

They have been stalled now for quite some time. The problem is really quite simple: The Afghan Taliban and their patrons in the Pakistani army and intelligence service, the ISI, are looking to see what happens in 2014. They anticipate that the United States will cut and run as it did in Afghanistan in the 1990s. They may be completely wrong about that, but that’s their anticipation, and they’re waiting to see what happens next year before they enter into any kind of political process. If their expectation of an easy victory in 2014 turns out to be shattered because we don’t cut and run and because the Afghans we’ve supported stand and fight, then they may be open to a political process. But at this point, their intention is to wait and see if this time looks a lot like the 1993 period when the United States essentially walked away from Afghanistan after the fall of the communist government there.

So what’s the bottom line? Are you hopeful or worried?

Pakistan is too important to give up on. This is a country of more than 180 million people, the second-largest Muslim country in the world with the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world. You can be pessimistic about Pakistan, and you’ll often be right, but Pakistan is too important to give up on. It’s a vital relationship for the United States, and I am hopeful that the inauguration of a new government and Obama’s recent counterterrorism speech offer us a chance, an opening, and we ought to take it and see if we can’t make a little lemonade out of the lemons we have here.


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