Pakistan’s Sharif wants good relations with US

Pakistan's Nawaz Sharif
Former prime minister and leader of Pakistan Muslim League-N party, Nawaz Sharif, gestures while speaking to members of the media at his residence in Lahore, Pakistan, Monday, May 13, 2013. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

RAIWIND, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistan’s presumptive new prime minister said Monday that Islamabad has “good relations” with the United States, but called the CIA’s drone campaign in the country’s tribal region a challenge to national sovereignty.

Nawaz Sharif spoke to reporters from his family’s estate outside the eastern city of Lahore two days after his Pakistan Muslim League-N party won a resounding victory in national elections.

His comments were the first indication since the vote about how he would approach relations with the U.S., a strategic ally with whom Pakistan has often been at odds. The U.S. needs Pakistan’s support in fighting Islamic militants in the country and negotiating an end to the war in neighboring Afghanistan.

Some of his statements have suggested he could have a more adversarial relationship with Washington than the outgoing government. Sharif also was outspoken in his opposition to drone strikes, which are unpopular in Pakistan.

However, analysts caution that while such rhetoric sells on the campaign trail where anti-American sentiment is high, Sharif would likely take a more nuanced approach to U.S. relations once in office.

“I think we have good relations with the United States of America. We certainly have to listen to each other,” he said. “If there are any concerns on any side, I think we should address those concerns.”

The CIA’s drone campaign targeting al-Qaida and other militants in the tribal regions has been extremely controversial in Pakistan, where people say it frequently kills innocent civilians — something Washington denies — and that it violates Pakistan’s sovereignty.

“Drones indeed are challenging our sovereignty. Of course we have taken this matter up very seriously. I think this is a very serious issue, and our concern must be understood properly,” said Sharif.

But Pakistan has a long history of officials condemning the strikes in public and supporting them in private, and how aggressively Sharif pushes the U.S. may depend on how much he needs it in other areas.

Pakistan relies on the U.S. for hundreds of millions of dollars in aid every year. But even more importantly, Pakistan would likely need U.S. support to get a bailout it desperately needs from the International Monetary Fund because of the government’s shaky financial situation.

Pakistan will likely play a strong role in any reconciliation deal with Taliban militants in neighboring Afghanistan. Also, much of the American military equipment that must be shipped out of Afghanistan when the international coalition there ends its combat mission in 2014 will go through the port city of Karachi in southern Pakistan.

Sharif said he would facilitate the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“American troops are being withdrawn in 2014. We will extend full support to them. We will see that everything goes well and smoothly,” he said.

Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N party appeared set to get a majority of seats in the national assembly following Saturday’s election. That would place Sharif in the position of becoming prime minister for a third time and give him a strong mandate to pursue what many see as his priority: turning around Pakistan’s stuttering economy and fixing growing power outages plaguing the country.

Questions remain, however, about Sharif’s stance on another key issue: violent Islamic extremism. Critics have accused his party of being soft on radicals because it hasn’t cracked down on militant groups in its stronghold of Punjab province.

The post of prime minister is much stronger than that of the presidency in Pakistan, which is occupied by a member of the rival Pakistan People’s Party, Asif Ali Zardari. The PPP suffered a crushing defeat in the election, as Pakistanis expressed unhappiness with its performance running the government for the past five years. The party looks set to get only around a quarter of the seats won by the PML-N.

Sharif’s party will have to run most legislation through the Senate, where the PPP still holds a much higher number of seats and will do so until 2015. That means he will have to find some way to cooperate with his rival.

The PML-N weathered a strong challenge in the election from former cricket star Imran Khan, whose criticism of traditional politicians energized the country’s youth. Khan, who suffered a horrific fall last week and severely injured his back, released a video from his hospital bed a day after the election claiming there was vote-rigging in Karachi and Punjab.

European Union election observers said Monday that they saw some “serious problems” in Karachi, and Pakistan’s election commission said it was investigating. The commission has already said it would re-do the vote in 40 polling stations in one constituency in Karachi.

The Free and Fair Election Network, a local monitoring group with thousands of observers, has described the balloting in Punjab as “relatively fair.”

Sharif urged Khan to drop his claims of vote rigging Monday, saying “I think we should all show sportsman’s spirit and accept the results of the elections.”

Sharif spoke with reporters at his palatial estate in the rural town of Raiwind outside Lahore. The estate is filled with acres of plush lawns and manicured gardens in which scores of majestic peacocks roam freely. The inside of his house is opulently decorated in a style reminiscent of Louis XIV and features two stuffed lions — the symbol of Sharif’s party — at the entrance to his living room.

Sharif’s victory in the election represented a remarkable comeback. He was toppled in a coup in 1999 by then-army chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf during his second stint as prime minister and sent into exile in Saudi Arabia for years. He returned in 2007 and ended up serving as the main opposition leader in the country.

Sharif’s history with the military has led some observers to predict clashes with the army once he takes office. The army is considered the strongest institution in the country, although it has pulled back from overt interference in domestic politics in recent years.

That allowed the country to reach a historic milestone. The recent election marked the first time a civilian government completed its full five-year term and transferred power in democratic elections.

Sharif sought to play down his perceived enmity toward the army, saying he only blamed Musharraf for the coup, not the entire service.

“I think the rest of the army resented Mr. Musharraf’s decision,” said Sharif. “So I don’t hold the rest of the army responsible for that.”

In an ironic twist, Musharraf is currently under house arrest in the country after returning from self-imposed exile, and Sharif will need to decide whether to press treason charges against him in the Supreme Court.

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Associated Press writer Rebecca Santana contributed to this report from Islamabad.

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