Assessing Nawaz’s US Mission

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What the debrief should have been

While Nawaz Sharif was still in the US and had not even met President Obama, some prominent analysts declared the visit a success. It was really intriguing how they arrived at this conclusion so early, and when little was known about what was transpiring in some of these discussions’.

The media pundits jumped on the bandwagon as well to decide the puzzle in two to three days after the trip. The simple fact is that actions speak louder than words, and it takes a little bit of time to fully assess the outcome.

To some, the visit was indeed a success. Despite efforts by some quarters to isolate Pakistan in the world, the leadership of both nations was engaging. To others, the trip was an embarrassment, judging from the prime minister’s body language. But the points of agreement and disagreement were never made public. The success of the visit is obviously dependent on the objective of the summit. It’s not clear why the prime minister made certain claims which could not be substantiated and thus set himself up, especially as it relates to the drone strikes.

Nawaz Sharif wanted to demonstrate his government is close to the US and has its backing. It delayed the talks with TTP and unveiling the new national security and counter-terror strategy. Moreover, Nawaz deferred announcing the names for the top military spots. Some media reports suggested that the slots would be filled after consultation with the US. The question is why he wanted to convey this perception?

In the past, political governments have behaved in this manner when they were domestically unpopular or when they feared being outflanked by the omnipotent military. In the present circumstances, Gen Kiyani has already announced he does not intend to continue, and seemingly the civil and military leadership is also on the same page, when it comes to negotiating with the Taliban and Pakistan’s role in the campaign against extremists. But the government does appear to be fumbling with its popular mandate.

Nonetheless, stung by the military in the past, it would be naïve to think that anxiety is not at all at play. One of the outcomes of this paranoia is the centralization of power and the bizarre absence of the foreign and defense ministers. In the present circumstances, PML-N perhaps feels more threatened by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), in power in the KPK province.

The dilemma PML-N faces is it won the elections by criticizing the closeness of PPP to the US, and questioning Pakistan’s role in the war against terror that crippled its economy. Now that PML-N is at the helm, its predicament is turning out to be the same as that of its predecessor, and this will sooner or later put it at odds with the people. Mainly because without law and order, economy will continue to be fragile and the energy shortages will persist.

The PML-N wants to show it is sticking to its pre-election stances. However, the elimination of Hakimullah Mehsud has put his government to the test. And it cannot pretend to be an innocent bystander.

On the other hand, the PTI chairman Imran Khan recognizes the present situation creates an opportunity for his party. As the trajectory of events unfold, all Imran has to do is to take a stronger stance on the drones, which is its customary position. He has already warned of blocking the NATO supplies in retaliation for the drone strike on Nov 1 that killed the TTP leader. As the nationalist fervor develops, and the reaction to potential retaliation from TTP manifests, it’s a matter of time Nawaz government gets fully engulfed in a crisis. To avert this eventuality, the PML-N will likely be forced in to adopting a tougher line.

In addition to the domestic political angle, the present situation also has to be looked at from the prism of the evolving Afghan political settlement. PoliTact had noted in December 2012, if the Afghan reconciliation goes well, the TTP has the most to lose, and it will struggle to remain relevant. For this purpose, it would gravitate even more towards Al Qaeda and other Jihadists. To minimize the chances of becoming obsolete, the TTP is likely to do whatever it can to disrupt the Afghan reconciliation and to destabilize Pakistan.

On the other hand, if Afghan reconciliation and the US withdrawal are not managed well, the TTP might attempt to exploit the circumstances. The capture of Latif Mehsud in Afghanistan, disturbances in Gilgit Baltistan, and the ambush in Swat that martyred senior military officials, suggest that it was attempting to do just that. Moreover, any semblance of unity between the Afghan Taliban and the TTP represents a bad omen for both Afghanistan and Pakistan. In this context, the nature and future of the TTP and Afghan Taliban ties will have a key impact on not only the Afghan settlement but also on the future security situation of Pakistan.

With this background, it would have been far better for the prime minister to take public in to confidence on what really transpired in his US meetings as it relates to the drone strikes, talks with the TTP, and Afghan reconciliation. While it’s still not too late to do that, the message would have to balance domestic politics with the regional and global perceptions about Pakistan.

When addressing the domestic audience, rather than saying all is good, he could have said, and still can, that the US is not fully convinced on Pakistan’s point of view, and this remains a work in progress. The prime minister could have added, which he cannot now, that he himself was not fully swayed about the sincerity of TTP, but was willing to give them one last chance.

In the conduct of international relations, not putting across one’s position clearly comes at a price. While ambiguity often has its advantages, it can also prove to be dangerous, as Pakistan and the US both may be realizing. Assuming or conveying something that did or did not occur, is even worse.

Arif Ansar is chief analyst at PoliTact, a Washington-based futurist advisory firm (www.PoliTact.com). He can be reached at: [email protected], and on Twitter at: @ArifAnsar.