It was a delicate moment for the PML-N chief, Mr Nawaz Sharif, when he met the outgoing US ambassador, Cameron Munter, doing his farewell rounds. He had to say something that would go down well with his right-wing vote bank, sworn to enmity of the US and straining at the least against the reopening of the Nato supply route. So he said, “The US should reorient its policies towards Pakistan in a manner that the country’s democratic institutions become stronger and its economy made less dependent on foreign aid”.
He also called upon Washington to pursue a policy of mutual respect and trust with Pakistan because only such a policy “could restore cooperation between the two countries and serve the cause of peace and stability in the region”. At least in the press reports, he avoided bringing up the ghairat question with regard to drones and the Nato route, in the same way it was being allowed by the ruling PPP and ostensibly also by the military. Mr Munter, on the other hand, practised routine verbiage: he was “full of admiration for the people of Pakistan and said that he is deeply impressed by the enormous changes taking place, which made him confident that the country is headed in the right direction”.
What else can one say during a farewell call? But Mr Sharif, more or less, repeated what President Asif Ali Zardari has been telling the Americans: give us trade openings instead of aid. In a way, this would be better because aid is to be audited by thousands of American bureaucrats who find faults — sometimes justifiably — in the way we spend American money. A country with a corruption index as high as Pakistan’s is better off trading. But America is protectionist, believe it or not, compared with wide-open China and will not let go of the leverage of aid so that it can mould the behaviour of the army that controls policy in Pakistan. Pakistan’s economic crisis may have forced it to pocket its ghairat and allow the Nato route to reopen without any major conditionalities.
The PML-N is close to Pakistan’s right-wing army in its thinking. It is unfortunate that it had a bad moment with General (retd) Pervez Musharraf, who overthrew it after a period of struggle for superiority. The army reacted when Mr Sharif tried to pick favourites within a force that agreed with his worldview. It was he who increased the wallop of the army not only in Pakistan but in the region and the world by testing Pakistan’s nuclear device in 1998, defying US President Bill Clinton, who had tried to stop him. Later, when General Musharraf, as his own chosen army chief, botched the Kargil operation, he had to go and ask Clinton to get a ‘victorious’ India to simmer down. The PML-N chief is a bit of a statesman too, relying on ambiguity to avoid ruffling too many feathers in foreign policy.
Is the PML-N anti-America? In domestic policy, it has to haul the rival PPP over the coals for being a ‘slave of America’. The argument officially is: stop going with a begging bowl to America, which doesn’t care for you and is a friend of India. It knows that Imran Khan is hitting the campaign trail with an aggressive anti-American line to snatch its right-wing votes. So it is unavoidable for the PML-N to get a rasping Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan to bash America in the National Assembly. But Mr Sharif has many sides to him. He doesn’t want to spoil relations with the US because it would make his association with his friends in Saudi Arabia difficult. He may criticise the PPP’s India policy but deep down, he knows he is the only leader in Pakistan who will finally normalise ties with India — to the chagrin of the army.
Mr Sharif can’t be unaware of the need to practise flexibility of approach towards the US, which can work on him through the UK where he is vulnerable. He is a practical man and can be relied on to make a transition from his current aggressive rhetoric to a mildness that will suit Pakistan in extreme economic distress. All said and done, between him and President Zardari, there is not much room for manoeuvre as far as the US and its powerful allies in Europe are concerned.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 24th, 2012.