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The Afghanistan challenge

May 15, 2013

IT is more or less clear that despite security threats and administrative breakdowns the massive — by Pakistani standards — turnout in the May 11 elections has given Nawaz Sharif a clear mandate.

It would be fair to point out that outside its power base in Punjab the PML-N has garnered few seats giving credence to the sting-in-the-tail felicitation by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) leader who congratulated Sharif on the ‘Punjabi party’s victory in Punjab’. This may perhaps be seen as an attempt to fan parochialism but more likely it was a justification for Altaf Hussain’s subsequent claim that the MQM alone represented Karachi and its mandate should be respected — setting aside rigging charges — just as the MQM had recognised the PML-N’s mandate in Punjab.

This, to say the least, is not a good development and will be one of the myriad internal issues that Nawaz Sharif will have to deal with as he assumes the reins of office.

Of these myriad problems, internal security is certainly as close to the top as the need for an IMF agreement to provide some breathing space for an economy that has been perceived as being on the verge of collapse.

It is imperative as the new prime minister takes charge and finalises his plan for the first 100 days in office that he and his team recognise that the policies that the government adopts and implements on various facets of Afghan-related issues will determine the degree to which the government succeeds in finding an acceptable and viable solution to both these problems.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry both congratulated the people of Pakistan with Kerry pledging: “We’ll be working with the new government to advance shared interests including a peaceful, more prosperous and stable future for Pakistan and the region.” Subsequently, as it became clear that Sharif had emerged as the undisputed winner, Kerry also spoke to him presumably reiterating the gist of the message already conveyed. What is important is that the US administration hopes to work with Pakistan to advance “shared interests”.

The principal ‘shared interest’ other than Pakistan’s internal security is a relatively peaceful Afghanistan or an ‘Afghanistan good enough’ from which the US and Nato forces can, using Pakistani transit routes, withdraw in good order over the next 18 months.

The Americans have not quite given up on ‘reconciliation’ in Afghanistan but it is evident that given the objections in the US Congress and President Hamid Karzai’s obduracy there is little chance for the time being that the Afghan Taliban’s negotiating team’s presence in Qatar will be used as a means to effect the much-touted prisoner exchange as a prelude to the Taliban renouncing ties with Al Qaeda and starting negotiations with the Karzai administration.

As regards Pakistan’s internal security the US will want continued Pakistani support for US efforts to eliminate Al Qaeda safe havens and operating bases in our tribal areas. Nawaz Sharif has been unequivocal in calling ‘drone attacks’ a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty but has been cautious about how he will seek to secure their cessation.

It would be wrong, however, to assume that the worldwide outcry against the indiscriminate use of drones will assist Sharif in getting a negotiated cessation of these attacks. While Obama may be prepared to limit their use elsewhere his administration’s policy will be to place no legal or moral restrictions on drone attacks in our region.

Lastly, the Americans would like Pak-Afghan relations to be made as normal as possible. They recognise that the current hullabaloo is largely of Afghanistan’s making and a gambit by Karzai to create a ‘nationalist’ issue where no cause for it exists.

They recognise that Pakistan is seeking to promote reconciliation and that the obstacle may well be Karzai. But the Americans have a genuine problem with the movement of the Taliban across the border from their safe havens in Pakistan and with the perception that Pakistan wants a seat at the negotiating table to use it to determine Afghanistan’s relations with other countries.

Our prime minister-in-waiting has many detractors in Washington, who view him, to put it bluntly, as a ‘closet’ Taliban. They suspect, as do people elsewhere in the world, that Punjab as a whole and PML-N rallies were spared because of some tacit understanding with the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other blacklisted organisations.

His pro-business policies, his desire for better relations with India and the relatively successful tenure of his brother as chief minister of Punjab during the last few turbulent years are positives that would weigh much more heavily if his policies towards Afghanistan and towards the TTP in Pakistan do not reflect a pro-Taliban bias.

Let us be clear. For the moment, America’s most urgent need is safe transit through Pakistan for the safe withdrawal from Afghanistan. Its second most urgent need is to avoid the collapse of the Pakistan economy, which could bring chaos in its wake.

During Sharif’s last tenure, in 1998 the US administration had sought a waiver from Congress to allow it to vote for assistance to Pakistan from international financial institutions when the law required it to veto all such assistance after the nuclear test because they wanted to avoid the unintended consequence of bringing about a collapse of the Pakistan economy.

One can therefore assume that it will support a new IMF programme notwithstanding doubts and apprehensions.

But this is short-term. In the longer term, other factors, including Pakistan’s duplicity, unwarranted ambitions in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s role in America’s failure in Afghanistan will all play a part in moulding US policy towards the region. Sharif and his team must take this into account as they formulate their policy on a troubled Afghanistan.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.