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Nawaz eager to be in foreign policy loop

Updated June 29, 2013
— File Photo
— File Photo

ISLAMABAD, June 28: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appears to be keen to make a mark on the country’s foreign policy and has been putting an extra focus on building personal rapport with the American leadership.

His interest in directly managing the foreign policy was quite evident from the fact that he kept the foreign affairs portfolio with himself and one of his first actions after becoming prime minister was to write letters to the country’s ambassadors in foreign capitals about his priorities. But what’s a little surprising is the way Mr Sharif, once a harsh critic of US policies in the region, has been warming to the Americans.

The visit of James Dobbins, US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, this week was one such instance that caught the attention of diplomatic observers.

Dobbins’ schedule in Islamabad initially did not include a meeting with the prime minister. He was to meet Foreign Affairs and National Security Adviser Sartaj Aziz at the Foreign Office and Army Chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.

But the prime minister put aside the protocol and invited the US emissary to his office and instructed that all meetings would take place there, including the one with Gen Kayani.

The prime minister, a source at his office said, didn’t want to miss an opportunity to interact with the senior US official who would be reporting about his trip directly to the White House.

According to some alert ears in the meeting room, Mr Sharif sought for himself a role in Afghan peace process and more than once expressed his desire for stronger relationship with Washington.

Earlier in his interaction with Secretary of State John Kerry, he had emphasised on ‘high-level exchanges’ to improve understanding between the two sides.

“The prime minister stressed the need for Pakistan and the United States to remain closely engaged,” Foreign Office spokesman Aizaz Chaudhry said at a media briefing.

Mr Sharif has reportedly also asked his foreign policy advisers not to press too hard on the drone controversy.

One of his senior foreign policy aides confirmed this at a background briefing and said: “The government will not like to make it a hot button issue and instead try to convince the Americans that disadvantages of the strikes outweigh the strategic benefits.”

This seemed to go against the policy of the PML-N when it was in the opposition. Mr Sharif’s party rode on a wave of anti-Americanism and anti-drone sentiments during the election campaign.

“A new relationship has to be built with the US in which point of divergences has to be minimised,” his aide explained.

Though the Sharif government is under immense pressure from Saudi Arabia, where he spent his days in exile, to stay away from the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, some recent developments show that it would be the American concern that would count in the ultimate decision.

The PML-N government has asked its legal advisers to review the pipeline project in the context of US sanctions. Moreover, a decision has reportedly been taken in principle about not involving Iranian company Tadbeer in laying gas pipeline in Pakistani territory on the grounds that it violates US sanctions.

But unfortunately despite all his overtures, the Americans still look at Mr Sharif sceptically and are studying his moves in the government, a senior Western diplomat said. His party’s stance on the US during five years in the opposition still haunts his prospects of becoming a reliable ally in Islamabad.