ISLAMABAD — Nawaz Sharif was named Pakistan’s prime minister for a record third time Wednesday, and he immediately got down to the nitty-gritty of what arguably is the most daunting job in the democratic world.
Sharif’s swearing-in Wednesday marked the first time that a democratic Pakistani government has completed a five-year term in office and passed on the baton to another popularly elected administration. Sharif previously served twice as prime minister in the 1990s, with his second term terminated by a 1999 coup staged by the army chief, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
Sharif took office with Pakistan fighting two simultaneous civil wars: with Taliban insurgents in the northwest tribal region bordering eastern Afghanistan and with separatist tribesmen in western Baluchistan province, which borders Iran and the Taliban strongholds of southern Afghanistan.
The economy is at a virtual standstill, unemployment is rife, per capita income has fallen below $1,000, poverty-driven violent crime has reached alarming proportions, and massive power and fuel shortages have halved national production and may take up to a decade to resolve. The treasury is teetering at the precipice of a balance-of-payments crisis that probably would require emergency intervention by the International Monetary Fund, followed by the unpopular austerity measures that an IMF program typically entails.
The key to the common Pakistani’s problems may well lie in a peaceful settlement with Afghanistan, but Pakistan has acted as a shape-shifter there because of its strategic imperatives. Ostensibly, it’s an ally of the U.S. in the war on terrorism, but its strategic policymakers in the military, since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, have been convinced that America would pull out of Afghanistan, leaving it to be governed by an administration hostile towards Pakistan, while also failing to marginalize the Taliban.
On the basis of that assessment, Pakistan has secretly and selectively supported the Afghan Taliban since 2005, notably the Haqqani network. That’s because Pakistan’s strategic policy remains focused on eastern neighbor India, with which it’s fought two wars since both gained independence from British rule in August 1947.
Pakistan’s military dreads having its defenses torn between hostile pincers on two flanks. So it also wants a peaceable border with Afghanistan, but it needs the assurance of a Kabul administration that’s at least cordial, if not affable. To that end, the military has accelerated operations against Pakistani Taliban insurgents in the northwest tribal regions, and it’s hoping to secure them before U.S. and allied combat forces depart Afghanistan by December 2014.
On Wednesday, Sharif signaled his intention to take over the lead role personally by not appointing ministers for foreign affairs and defense, positioning himself as the man who speaks for Pakistan, as far as foreign governments are concerned.
In his victory speech in the National Assembly, the equivalent of the House of Representatives, Sharif wagged his finger at the military, holding it responsible for Pakistan’s woes.
"Dictatorships are responsible for getting Pakistan where it is today," he said. "It’s why Pakistan has such a horrible image around the world. . . . It’s why Pakistan cannot afford any further such spectacle."
He said that turning around Pakistan’s economy would be his first priority. To achieve that, he plans to boost trade and investment with the country’s neighbors, particularly China and India.
He revealed Wednesday that he’d agreed with the visiting Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, in May to construct a freight railway line from western China to the port of Gwadar on Pakistan’s southwest coast, near the mouth of the oil-rich Persian Gulf.
The project probably would aggravate India, because the line would travel through Gilgit-Baltistan, part of a mountainous region contested by India on one side and allies China and Pakistan on the other.
It probably will raise some concerns in Washington, too, but in stark contrast, Sharif’s only reference to Pakistan’s tense relationship with the U.S. was short and sour, and didn’t even mention the U.S. by name: "The chapter on drone attacks must close."
Sharif was sworn in a week after the second in command of the Pakistan Taliban, Waliur Rehman Mehsud, was killed in a CIA drone strike on a village in the tribal region of North Waziristan, a hotbed of jihadist terrorists on border with eastern Afghanistan.
By not apportioning responsibility for the drone strike, Sharif may well have been signaling his displeasure with the military, which has been blamed for initiating the strike both by militants and the cleric politicians who are gearing up to act as peace intermediaries on Sharif’s behalf. The militants withdrew their offer to parley after the strike.
In his speech to Parliament, Sharif acknowledged the burden of responsibility he now carries, promised to be honest about Pakistan’s crises and reached out to the opposition to work with him to develop a common agenda to address them.
"I won’t make false promises," Sharif said.
"Pakistan’s problems are so deep that no one party can overcome them."
Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent.