Talking to the Taliban: Pakistan’s historic election promises fundamental change

Nawaz Sharif has been elected for his third non-consecutive term as Pakistan’s prime minister. EPA/T. Mughal

The newly-elected Pakistani government of Nawaz Sharif is set to enact policies – most notably negotiating with the Pakistani wing of the Taliban – that will forever alter the dynamics of this strategically vital Muslim country.

Sharif won the greatest number of seats but fell short of a majority in the National Assembly in a truly historic election for Pakistan’s 65 year history as an independent state.

These were the first elections since independence in 1947 in which a civilian government completed its full five year term and transferred power to another civilian government through a relatively - considering Pakistan’s difficult political environment - free and fair electoral process.

This was also the first election to be held under a totally independent judiciary and a caretaker government whose ministers had been agreed to by all major parties, and the first time that an independent electoral commissioner had been agreed to by all major political players.

This was also the first time that a politician had been elected for the third time as prime minister. Nawaz Sharif was prime minister between 1990 and 1993, but was removed on corruption charges; and again between 1996 and 1999 before being toppled by the then-Army Chief of Staff, General Pervez Musharraf.

The elections were marred with violence, particularly in the lead up to polling day. Well over 100 people were killed and scores injured by the Pakistani Taliban, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), whose members believe that elections are un-Islamic and that Sharia should be law of the land.

Surprisingly, and against everyone’s expectations, only one bomb went off on election day, killing 11 people.

However, the worry in the aftermath of these elections is the approach that Nawaz Sharif intends to take towards the TTP.

Sharif made it abundantly clear in the lead up to the election that he intends to negotiate with the TTP and will not demand any pre-conditions to talks. His political rival Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned-politician, believes in the same approach, so he can expect his support on that front. This will be important because Imran Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), will probably hold the balance of power in the national parliament.

Importantly, PTI won the largest number of seats in the provincial assembly of Khyber Pakhtunkwa, the province bordering Afghanistan. Imran Khan’s position on the TTP issue will be critical therefore given that these Taliban terrorists are principally based in the northwest of the country.

Sharif has also indicated that fighting the TTP is not the way to resolve Pakistan’s terrorism. Accordingly, his intention is to eventually withdraw the bulk of the 150,000 troops now stationed in the tribal areas along the Afghan border.

However, it is unlikely that the Pakistani army, which has suffered over 4,000 fatalities in its war against the TTP (more than all the losses of the coalition forces in Afghanistan), would be so keen to pull out of the tribal areas.

The army would also be suspicious of cutting deals with the TTP without first demanding that they lay down their arms. Every deal that the government of Pakistan has agreed to with the TTP in the past has eventually been broken by the militants and has required the army to take costly remedial military action.

Members of the Pakistani Taliban targeted politicians on all sides of politics with bombing attacks in the lead up to polling day, claiming that elections are ‘un-Islamic’. EPA/Waqar Hussein

However, it would not only be the army which would question cutting a deal with the TTP. The United States would also be worried with such an approach, especially if it led to the Pakistani army vacating the tribal areas. The departure of the Pakistani army would create a power vacuum which the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network fighters could easily exploit to launch attacks against coalition forces, including Australian troops, in Afghanistan.

Washington would certainly not be pleased with such a development, especially if it has negative repercussions on the stalled peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan.

Another issue which will without any doubt lead to friction with the Americans is Sharif’s approach to the CIA-operated un-manned drones. He firmly believes that these drone strikes - while quite effective in killing Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters - are a direct infringement on Pakistan’s sovereignty and must stop immediately.

Although drone strikes have indeed been effective in killing many terrorists, most Pakistanis - including army figures - would agree that these need to stop. However, it is unlikely that the American will oblige too readily on that front.

But Pakistan has an important trump card up its sleeve. It knows that in the lead up to the American exit from Afghanistan in December 2014, the United States will need to ship out some 100,000 containers worth of hardware, and the easiest and cheapest way of doing so is by road through Pakistan. Needless to say, the Americans would not want to see those convoys stopped again, as they were for seven months in 2012. As such, the drone issue will require very delicate negotiation.

Given Nawaz Sharif has won the largest number of seats without a majority, he will have to show flexibity on a number of fronts, particularly with regard to negotiating with the TTP. This is an issue which is highly sensitive in Pakistan and, as he would know only too well, in Pakistani politics it is critical to have the army on your side.

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