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Sharif Seen As Trying To Reorient Pakistan's Foreign Policy

Nawaz Sharif's electoral campaign was marked by anti-U.S. rhetoric, with pledges to cut Pakistan’s cooperation with Washington in the war on terror.
Nawaz Sharif's electoral campaign was marked by anti-U.S. rhetoric, with pledges to cut Pakistan’s cooperation with Washington in the war on terror.
Pakistan's Prime Minister-designate Nawaz Sharif has signaled his desire to take back control of Pakistan’s foreign policy from the powerful security services, which have dominated it for decades.

The degree to which he will succeed remains an open question and will determine the course of Islamabad’s future foreign policy.

Here's a look at Sharif's potential foreign policy moves.


Among Sharif’s first moves was to reach out to Pakistan’s archrival India, inviting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to participate in his swearing-in ceremony. Sharif has indicated he is keen to revive the peace process he undertook with India in his previous term as premier, in the late 1990s, when the two sides signed the Lahore Declaration, pledging to cooperate and avoid a nuclear arms race.

"If it is left to Nawaz Sharif, he would like to have a paradigm shift in the foreign policy because there is sincere belief in Pakistan, that it is in the vital interests of Pakistan to have good relations with India and other neighbors," says retired General Talat Masood, an Islamabad-based security expert. "[This is] because it wants peace on its borders so that it can bring peace within the country. And that is only possible if you have peace with your neighbors."

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Masood says that improving relations with Islamabad's big neighbor, with whom it has fought three wars, will be a litmus test for Sharif.

"It shows his desire and resolve and determination to sort of move forward with India. Now it depends on how India reciprocates," Masood says. "I think the Indians will feel comfortable with him because they know that there is a history wherein he made sincere efforts in moving towards a good relationship with India. But those were subverted by the military."

United States

Analyst and author Ahmed Rashid, based in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore, says that Sharif is likely to extend his pragmatic approach to relations with the United States.

His electoral campaign was marked by anti-U.S. rhetoric, with Sharif pledging to cut Pakistan’s cooperation with Washington in the war on terror. But Rashid says Sharif knows he needs Washington's economic assistance and backing to get loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

FULL INTERVIEW: Pakistan Expert Ahmed Rashid On Nawaz Sharif

He predicts this will likely translate into a working relationship with the United States that will include continuing joint efforts against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

"Sharif is a very practical guy. He knows very well that whatever Pakistan does, the Americans are not going to stop drone missile [strikes]. And this is the main stumbling block," Rashid says. "So the issue is how [does] Pakistan get the best deal with the Americans on the use of drones? I don't see Sharif trying to tell the Americans to stop the use of drones because that is not going to happen."


Rashid says that it’s in Sharif’s interests to help Washington in Afghanistan by redefining Pakistan's role in the country.

"He needs a safe American withdrawal from Afghanistan. He needs the Afghan Taliban to be talking to the Americans and talking to [President Hamid] Karzai," Rashid says. "I am sure we will see him playing a role to try and get the Taliban to open an office in Doha and preparing the Americans to do the same thing."

But Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador in Washington, questions how much leverage the new Pakistani prime minister will have.

Drawing on his past experience as an adviser to Sharif in the 1990s, Haqqani says that the military is unlikely to concede Pakistan's Afghan policy to the new administration.

"I think that in the immediate future, Pakistan's current approach to Afghanistan will endure," Haqqani says. "I don't think Mr. Sharif has ever articulated a very nuanced view of Afghanistan. He certainly wants the Americans to leave Afghanistan, he still wants Pakistan to have influence over Afghanistan, [and] his last government did support the Taliban enthusiastically. He doesn't have the personal relationship with [Afghan] President [Hamid] Karzai or Afghan leaders that [Pakistani President] President [Asif Ali] Zardari did. So I think Afghanistan will be one of those areas where policy will still be made by the Pakistani military."

Sharif, a devout Sunni Muslim, is considered a close ally of Saudi Arabia. He cultivated close personal friendships with the kingdom's royal family during his seven-year exile in the country.


But Rashid says he does not expect this to affect his relations with neighboring Iran, a regional competitor of Saudi Arabia.

Rashid says that despite publically opposing Pakistan’s recent multibillion-dollar gas deal with Iran, Sharif is unlikely to scrap it.

"Sharif is going to try and balance relations between Iran and the Arab world. And he would not like to get involved with the American boycott and sanctions with Iran," Rashid says. "He also realizes that Iran has the potential of being the quickest provider of gas to Pakistan and Pakistan does face this enormous energy crisis."

In Islamabad, all eyes are set on Sharif’s cabinet choices, particularly who will be chosen foreign minister.
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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