The PML-N government at the federal level faces difficult foreign policy and security challenges against the backdrop of the death of a Pakistani Taliban leader in a drone attack on November 1 and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to the United States in October. Its foreign policy assumptions as projected during the course of the election campaign have virtually collapsed and its leaders need to look for an alternative line of action.
The death of Hakimullah Mehsud is both good and bad news for Pakistan. It is good news because a person has been killed who was responsible for the deaths of a large number of Pakistanis in suicide attacks and bombings. Pakistan’s security forces could not get him; an American drone strike killed him.
It is bad news because his death has temporarily stopped the efforts to initiate the dialogue between the federal government and the Taliban. The new Taliban leadership will decide if it wants to pursue dialogue or launch retaliatory attacks in Pakistan. The more serious threat that the federal government faces is that some Pakistani religious and other parties that traditionally support the Taliban or maintain a soft disposition towards them and other militant groups plan to take on the federal government by launching street protest against drone strikes. As the PML-N, PPP, ANP and MQM are not expected to join the planned protest, it may not take off but the pro-Taliban parties and political groups can threaten internal coherence and stability.
The PML-N’s political-ideological orientation ranges from the political right of centre to far-right and Islamist. This mindset manifests varying degrees of support and sympathy for militancy, including the Taliban and the Punjab-based militant groups. This mindset also displays anti-American sentiments and distinguishes between good Taliban/militants and bad Taliban/militants.
This mindset entertains a strong distrust of India. At the operational level, the disposition ranges from viewing India as an eternal enemy to support for working relations or friendship with India on its terms, i.e., resolve the Kashmir issue to their terms and that India should not engage in anti-Pakistan activities. Now, this mindset attributes shortages of river-water solely to India’s policy of denying water to Pakistan. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has a personal desire to cultivate close political and economic relations with India but his political support base is not so enthusiastic about his views.
The PML-N top leaders were convinced during the election period that given their soft corner for militancy, it would be easy for them to dilute the violent culture of the Taliban. They were hopeful of cultivating a Punjab-like relationship of restraint and mutual tolerance with the Taliban and its affiliates for the whole of Pakistan. They were encouraged by the fact that the Taliban did not name the PML-N as one of the political parties whose election campaign they disrupted. Furthermore, in the pre-election campaign period, the Taliban designated the PML-N leader as one of the guarantors for talks between the Taliban and the federal government.
The PML-N’s worldview was virtually shattered when the Taliban launched a series of suicide attacks and bombings in different parts of Pakistan in the first month after the assumption of office of prime minister by Nawaz Sharif. The Taliban wanted to intimidate the new Sharif government. In the last week of October, a senior leader of the TTP was detained by US troops in Afghanistan as he was being escorted by Afghan security for talks for cultivating an anti-Pakistan arrangement between the TTP and the Afghan government.
The other major setback for the PML-N was that it built an emotional hysteria in Pakistan against drone strikes and vowed to secure the return of Dr Aafia Siddiqui from the US. However, Nawaz Sharif’s visit to the US could not secure these promises. Any dispassionate analysis would have led the Pakistan government to the conclusion that the US would not agree to these demands in this visit. But the government continued to play up these issues to satisfy its political support base in Pakistan.
Nawaz Sharif’s visit to the US has produced some positive results by expanding cooperation in economic and social development sectors, military-to-military relations, military sales and the outlining of Pakistani concerns about India’s role in Afghanistan and how to cope with the post-2014 situation in Afghanistan. However, as the political support base of the PML-N was obsessed with the drone and Aafia Siddiqui issues, they did not pay much attention to the achievements of the visit.
Now, the two drone attacks on October 30 and November 1 and the death of Hakimullah Mehsud has created unexpected dilemmas for the PML-N government. It cannot officially express satisfaction on the death of one of Pakistan’s major adversaries because of its opposition to drone strikes. Its strategy of seeking peace through dialogue with the Taliban is in ruins, at least for the time being. Although there were little signs of an active dialogue, the official narrative now suggests that the talks were about to start. If the Pakistan government makes the drone attack into a major diplomatic issue with the US, it will be viewed as an ally of the Taliban by the international community. This can also endanger its relations with the US that are critical to Pakistan’s efforts to salvage its economy.
The PML-N government faces an extremely delicate internal and external situation of how to balance the militancy disposition of its domestic support base and the imperatives of managing the Pakistani state that emphasise the need of avoiding isolation at the international system. The PML-N government has already taken the initiative by issuing two ordinances to create a strong legal framework for countering terrorism. It has to undertake a down-to-earth assessment of the available options. This calls for a review of its narrow ideological worldview and that it re-educate itself and its political support base.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 4th, 2013.