On June 5, Pakistan's National Assembly elected Nawaz Sharif as the country's prime minister. Though it’s his third time in office, almost fourteen years have passed since Sharif last led Pakistan. There is a legitimate question, then, as to how exactly he will govern.
Pakistan has changed in many ways since 1999, when Sharif was overthrown by General Pervez Musharraf. New players have joined the power elite alongside the politicians and military brass. An activist judiciary brought down a once-powerful army ruler and continues to challenge elected politicians, the bureaucracy, and the military. Private cable news channels, of which there are now around two dozen, team up with the high courts and serve as a check on pretty much everyone, feeding what has become a public addiction to political infotainment and a strong desire for accountability.
Alongside political battles, there are multiple hot wars being fought on Pakistani soil. Islamic militants are now the country’s chief security threat. The Pakistani Taliban has killed thousands of Pakistanis, including a former prime minister. It holds a veto power over the future of the country’s northwest. And for over a decade, not only have tens of thousands of U.S. troops been stationed in neighboring Afghanistan, but Washington has also seen Pakistan as an undeclared theater of conflict, regularly targeting it with drone strikes and other covert intelligence operations, in addition to providing it with billions of dollars in aid annually.
For his part, Sharif too has changed since he was unseated from power. The Nawaz Sharif we see today is a kinder, gentler statesman – in marked contrast to his confrontational style two decades ago. His party, the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), provided a measured opposition to the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government that had ruled for the past five years. The PML-N cooperated with the PPP to pass three major constitutional amendments – just a few of many indicators of the elite political culture's shift toward greater cooperation and restraint.
Indeed, Sharif represents a new brand of center-right politics in Pakistan, one that is outspoken against military interference in politics, strongly in support of constitutionalism and the rule of law, and keen on using conciliation and compromise to resolve internal disputes.
This time around, the Nawaz Sharif ver. 3.0 appears intent on reducing corruption, enhancing economic growth, putting the military back in the barracks, achieving "zero problems" with neighboring Afghanistan and India, institutionalizing civilian rule, and resolving the country's major ethnic secessionist dispute in Balochistan.
In these respects, Sharif's "REPAIR" agenda echoes the priorities of Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan upon taking office. And while such an analogy might be unflattering at the moment given Erdogan's use of force against Taksim Square protesters this month, Sharif's past is similar to Erdogan's present excesses. Buoyed by a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly after the 1997 elections, Sharif clashed with the courts, cracked down on the media, tried to enhance his constitutional powers, and was heavily inclined toward majoritarian and even quasi-Islamist policies.
Fortunately for Pakistan, it's unlikely that Sharif will revert to old form. He is well aware that Pakistan is far too fractured and its challenges too grave for him to go on an authoritarian binge once again. What Sharif does have is a strong electoral mandate, support from the business community, and space given to him by the military to push forward much – but not all – of his REPAIR agenda.
To succeed, Sharif must prioritize among his goals and implement them in the right sequence. Institutionalizing civilian control over national security policymaking should take precedence over exposing or punishing the military for its unlawful activities in the past. The two could be mutually exclusive if Sharif takes the military head on and fails.
The Charter of Democracy, which Sharif signed in 2006, calls for the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the military's illegal actions post-1996. Creating such a body while Sharif needs the army to fight a war against the Pakistani Taliban would be unwise. Sharif should keep the big picture in mind. Five years from now, if Sharif’s government completes its tenure, succeeds in bringing the country out of its current economic and security morass, conducts free and fair elections, and is either re-elected or passes on power to another democratically-elected government, the door to military dictatorship could be firmly shut.
Avoiding confrontation with the military doesn't mean that Sharif should let it run the show when it comes to Pakistan's foreign policy. In fact, Sharif must push forward with bolstering civilian-led national security policymaking bodies. Rather than having private meetings with the army chief as has been common, Sharif should hold weekly meetings for the Defense Committee of the Cabinet (DCC), Pakistan's equivalent of a national security council. The DCC needs someone akin to a national security advisor on top – a retired civil servant able to work with the military, but not necessarily an ex-officer. And it needs a permanent staff, selected from among the best and the brightest of the country's bureaucracy, who can think outside the box and integrate inputs from various ministries, including defense, finance, and water and power. With the prime minister at its helm, the DCC must be the chief forum in which Pakistan's civilian and military leaders get together to discuss domestic and regional security challenges.
Hardline elements in the military will likely resist Sharif’s efforts toward normalizing relations with India and rolling back Pakistan’s heavy-handed Afghanistan policy. But he will have potential allies among a broad segment of Pakistan’s political class, which is keen on peace with all of the country’s neighbors. Sharif’s government should use all-parties conferences and parliamentary committees, such as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to get the opposition to buy into his peace initiatives and reduce the maneuvering space of conservative forces in the military.
Sharif could use the same approach to resolve the insurgency in Balochistan, which – like Turkey’s Kurdish region – is home to a marginalized ethnic group that is pushing for greater autonomy or even secession. Baloch nationalist politicians have a high degree of confidence in Sharif, who has been among the most outspoken against military operations in the region. Their initial demands are almost exclusively focused on the powerful military and intelligence agencies. The Baloch seek an end to unlawful detentions and extrajudicial killings by the military, and want internally displaced persons to be allowed to return to the Dera Bugti region. Working with the provincial government as well as other major national parties, Sharif must put an end to the human rights abuses in the province and develop a framework for dealing with the bigger, more complicated issues behind the insurgency: autonomy, language rights, and resource control.
The cruel irony is that Sharif’s pursuit of zero problems with neighbors could result in greater problems at home. Peace with India might result in more jihadists joining the fight against the Pakistani state, as had happened after 9/11 when Musharraf sided with Washington in the war on terror and sought to normalize ties with New Delhi. Similarly, a political settlement in Afghanistan that makes too many concessions to the Afghan Taliban might actually embolden Pakistan’s Taliban factions in their war against Islamabad. A civil war in Afghanistan also bears the same risks. But neither a full-fledged assault on militants in Pakistan nor a continued approach of pitting different militant groups against one another would bring an end to Pakistan’s misery. Instead, Sharif must work with his army to develop a comprehensive exit strategy for the use of jihadists as proxies – a strategy that is national in focus, encompasses all militant organizations, and moves in sequence with progress in resolving disputes with neighbors.
Less – or even zero – problems with neighbors and recalcitrant forces within would amplify Sharif’s ability to deal with his primacy focus: reviving Pakistan’s dormant economy. An end to the Balochistan insurgency would allow Pakistan to fully develop the Gwadar port as an energy and trade corridor that links China’s landlocked Xinjiang region by road and rail to the Arabian Sea. Pakistan could see gas flowing in from Afghanistan or Iran and foreign direct investment from India as well as the United States and Europe. But meaningful external capital inflows require Sharif’s government to be vigilant about collecting corporate and income taxes as well as arrears on electricity bills owed by both household and business consumers. Sharif might have to butt heads with his base – middle-class traders and industrialists – and fight against the predatory instincts of Pakistani politicians, including those in his own party who see politics as a get-rich-quick scheme. But the payoff for real economic and anti-corruption reform, namely a return to rapid GDP growth experienced during much of the last decade, would far outweigh the risks from continued stagflation and near-insolvency.
Nawaz Sharif will not be a badshah or sultan if he manages within the next five years to quell domestic militancy, stabilize ties with neighbors, evolve more democratic ground rules with the military, and restrain the many predators who extract from the state. But he would be something even better: a legitimate, democratic reformer who will have made major strides in advancing peace and prosperity in his country and region. Unlike Erdogan, who has given Turkey a number of years of impressive economic growth, Sharif would actually be close to zero problems in the region and, with the absence of term limits, wouldn’t need to manipulate the constitution to run again. He’d simply have to point at the new Pakistan he helped pull back from the clutches of death.
Arif Rafiq is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, which provides strategic guidance on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. He tweets at: @arifcrafiq.