We ask South Asia expert Michael Kugelman if Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif will be able to get Pakistan out of the political and economic crisis, repair ties with the US, and start negotiations with rival India over the Kashmir dispute.
Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of 220 million people, has always remained prone to political and economic turbulence.
In light of Imran Khan's ouster as prime minister, leading to mass resignations of more than 100 parliamentarians loyal to him and triggering countrywide street protests, the new Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif will have to deal with delicate local and international tensions, which includes repairing ties with the United States.
TRT World spoke to Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director of the Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia at Washington-based Wilson Center, who shed light on some of the compelling issues that will shape the leadership of Sharif, who's seen as a Western-friendly politician.
Does Shehbaz Sharif as prime minister offer a peaceful path forward given the number of issues he faces right at the start of his office?
I don't think the coming of Shehbaz Sharif will remove the political instability that has been pervasive in Pakistan in recent weeks. I think that he will lead a government that will be facing pressure from all sides. Certainly, Imran Khan will put constant pressure on this new government including encouraging protests and other tactics. Sharif also faces a pretty serious economic crisis as well as a resurgent terrorist threat. We have seen the Pakistan Taliban step up attacks in recent months. The honeymoon will not last long for this new government. It will be a government that may well not last until the scheduled elections next year. I wouldn't be surprised if this government calls an early election. Especially, the longer it’s in power, the more opportunity there is for the public to channel its anger toward this new government.
The bottom line is it's a good thing that there was a peaceful transition but that doesn't mean we are going to have a peaceful political environment in the coming months. It's going to continue to be quite volatile.
Shehbaz Sharif spoke about strengthening ties with the US on "the basis of equality." Do we see US President Biden calling him anytime soon or his administration would want to just wait and watch?
I think it would be a mistake for Joe Biden to call Shehbaz Sharif .... that would just give ammunition to Imran khan and its supporters who claim this whole thing was a US-sponsored conspiracy.
I imagine there will not be a phone call anytime soon. But certainly, with Khan no longer the prime minister, there will be more space for the two countries to try to restore some of the goodwill in relations that have grown a bit toxic in the recent weeks amid the relentless accusations from Imran Khan.
But I think we shouldn't overstate the positive impact that Shehbaz Sharif could have on US-Pakistan relations. One reason for that is this is the relationship that was going to be constrained no matter who is serving as prime minister in Pakistan. The US has long viewed its relationship with Pakistan through Afghanistan. With the US having left Afghanistan, the relationship for some time has been adrift in search of a new anchor which has not been found.
The other constraint is purely geo-political.
When you look at US-Pakistan ties, each country has a very strong relationship with the other's biggest rival. And those ties are growing. US-India ties continue to grow. The Pakistan-China relationship continues to expand. Even if you have a more pro-US prime minister in Pakistan, it doesn't mean the sky is the limit for the relationship. Quite the contrary.
Some of the goodwill could be restored and the rhetoric will become less sharp from Pakistan and it will be fewer immediate tensions and levels of discomfort. But I think we need to be a little realistic about the prospects for this relationship moving forward.
Shehbaz Sharif has been sworn in as the new prime minister of Pakistan, a day after parliament ousted Imran Khan in a vote of no-confidence.— TRT World (@trtworld) April 12, 2022
Sharif led the opposition that toppled the former cricket star pic.twitter.com/SSaexo4Hae
This really puts Shehbaz Sharif on a tightrope. No?
Rhetorically speaking, relations will be much more stable than they were during the last few months of the Imran Khan era. Keep in mind, early in Khan's tenure, the US-Pakistan ties experiences a strong period when ex-president Donald Trump asked Pakistan for help to get the (Afghan) Taliban to the negotiating table with the US. Imran Khan had a very successful visit to the US.
It's not like Imran Khan is reflexively opposed to good ties with the US, he has just been a relentless critic of the US policies.
And I think this cable that came out gave him a great opportunity to capitalise on, to channel public mistrust in Pakistan towards the US. He is a populist leader, that makes sense he does that. But I think the verbal and rhetorical aspects of the relationship will soften but in terms of actual initiatives and policies, I don't see much promise.
One specific area that could receive a boost from Sharif coming to office would be the issue of future security cooperation, focused on Afghanistan. Imran Khan had of course had a very principled position that there will be no US bases on Pakistani soil. I think Shehbaz Sharif would certainly not use that type of rhetoric. I am not saying he will be willing to invite US troops into the country, but he will be more receptive to conversations and negotiations with the US officials about what type of possibilities there could be for stepping up security cooperation, mainly focused on counter-terrorism, revolving around Daesh-K threat in Afghanistan which is a shared threat.
That's where there could be more potential for cooperation. Sharif's position here is similar to that of the Pakistani military chief and the broader military. There is a receptivity to continue security cooperation with the US which of course Imran Khan took a different position on.
This week, hundreds of thousands turned up to protest Imran Khan's ouster across Pakistan. Khan calls for early elections. Will Shahbaz Sharif give in to such demands?
The new government, I think, would have a strong incentive for early elections. The longer it stays in power, the more opportunities for the public to direct its ire on this government. So, I think a short-term in the office will actually help.
Also, November 2022 is when the term of army chief is up. I imagine Shehbaz Sharif's government would want to be around at that point so that it is in a position to make that consequential decision as to what happens to General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Currently, elections are scheduled for August 2023 and even if they happen this November those will be early. So, the November date is key. Shehbaz Sharif would want to have the opportunity to make a call on the future of Bajwa. That's a pretty significant date.
Imran Khan alleges the threat to topple his government was made by a senior US official Donald Lu. Washington denies the charge. Is there a realisation within the American power corridors that they somehow stoked the current crisis?
This is of course a reflection of the difficulties of the US-Pakistan relationship. This is not the first time that a Pakistani leader has accused the US of trying to overthrow him. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto very famously accused the US of backing the anti-government protests back in the 1970s.
I think here in Washington, certainly, there is a recognition of the fact that this cable and this conversation that allegedly happened between the outgoing Pakistani envoy and the US official did directly play a role in this crisis, and it is something Imran Khan is not going to let go off.
It's very clear that Imran Khan's moves in the opposition and his rallying cries are going to focus on this narrative of the new government having been installed by a US-backed plot and that suggests this anti-American rhetoric and sentiments will be stoked and will continue to be the case for some months and that clearly is not a good thing for US-Pakistan ties.
Pakistani army chief Bajwa clearly steered away from Imran Khan's policy on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Bajwa slammed Russia's "invasion" while calling for better ties with Washington. Shehbaz Sharif skipped Russia in his first parliament speech and called for better ties with the US. Is it how the US would have wanted it to be?
It is quite clear that the top army leadership has taken a very different position in recent months from Imran Khan over the relationship with the US. I would argue, over the last few years the military leadership had been at odds with the civilian leadership on the question of US-Pakistan relations just because there was a populist government in power led by someone who has been one of Pakistan's most virulent but eloquent critics of the US policy, and so, that clearly put them at odds with each other.
There is a long-standing legacy of cooperation between the Pakistani military and its US counterpart despite many tensions between them. You have many senior Pakistani military officers who have been educated and trained in US military academies. So, that is very important and counts for something. That's why I think Imran Khan intensifying the anti-US criticism during the last few weeks of his term really impacted his relations with the military, deleteriously, in a big way.
There wasn't much of an appetite within the army for this sharp anti-US messaging.
And Bajwa himself said that the US is a top trade partner. So, it's not just the military seeing this is an important relationship because of the potential of getting security aid from the US, but it's also a realisation that Pakistan is an economically-struggling country, it needs to show as much flexibility it can in its export policy, trade policy, and in that sense, it can't afford to lose key trade partners in the West, including the US.
Imran Khan was also unhappy with how the Western countries and US "mistreated" Pakistan. His argument was New Delhi was allowed to buy cheap Russian energy but Islamabad was punished for its "independent foreign policy" despite helping the US out of the Afghanistan quagmire. Is it fair criticism?
I understand the cable reportedly indicates that this US official is not happy about Imran Khan's visit to Russia, and quite frankly, I think that's been exaggerated. I think the impact of Imran Khan's visit to Russia on US policy has been widely exaggerated.
It makes sense the US was not happy about it. But I think the Biden administration was much more unhappy about Imran Khan's statements soon after the Taliban took over Afghanistan when he said Afghans have broken "the shackles of slavery". That did not go down well with Washington. That had a much more negative impact on the US-Pakistan ties than this visit to Moscow by Imran Khan.
Massive rallies have been held in cities across Pakistan in support of Imran Khan and against "foreign interference", a day after Khan's removal in a parliamentary no-trust vote pic.twitter.com/tI84N3khVC— TRT World (@trtworld) April 11, 2022
Shehbaz Sharif raised the Kashmir dispute in his speech. His brother and ex-PM Nawaz Sharif did share some good moments with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015. And now, Jamaatud Dawa chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed has been sentenced to three decades in prison. Is there an opportunity here for India-Pakistan to restart dialogue over disputes dogging their ties?
I think New Delhi would look at this government as a short-term one. Even if it serves out its full term it would be barely more than a year because the polls are currently scheduled for the summer of 2023. I think India would want to take only a major step forward with Pakistan if it perceives the other side as a more permanent entity. I imagine New Delhi at this point in time is more comfortable dealing with Shehbaz Sharif than Imran Khan because, until the last days of his office, Khan had become quite sharply critical of India.
But there is also the issue of domestic politics in India. I just don't think it makes political sense for Narendra Modi to extend an olive branch to Shehbaz Sharif. Yes, he did tweet a very conciliatory comment about Sharif but the idea of Modi doing something similar to what he did with Sharif's brother (Nawaz Sharif) when he went to visit Lahore, that, I think, is just out of question.
Hindu nationalism doesn't offer much space for conciliatory policies toward Pakistan. I think, even with this changing of the guard in Islamabad, New Delhi will be very cautious and at the very least it will wait until there is a government in Pakistan that comes in through elections. But, I just don't think, it makes political sense from New Delhi's perspective to try to push things forward with Pakistan.
The Hafiz Saeed news is big. It's something India was looking to see. But there are other reasons to give the ties a pause for the foreseeable future. When Narendra Modi went to Lahore to meet Nawaz Sharif it was that point the India-Pakistan relationship really took a major tumble, you had a terrorist attack soon after that and things got a lot worse.
There is also this sense that New Delhi will conclude it's not worth the risk of trying to engage with Islamabad because of the possible blowbacks that could happen. We should keep expectations low about the future of India-Pakistan relations even with Shehbaz Sharif now the prime minister of Pakistan.