Newly-elected Pakistani PM Sharif faces a number of challenges. But experts say the biggest one is how to convince the US to stop drone strikes against militants in the country's northwestern tribal areas.
During the run-up to the May 11 parliamentary elections, Nawaz Sharif - now Pakistan's Prime Minister for a record third time - promised his supporters that he would not allow the US to launch drone strikes in his country. His main opponent Imran Khan, whose Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf or the Movement for Justice party came third in the vote, even went on to say that he would order the army to shoot down US drones if he came into power.
Now the two Pakistani leaders face a dilemma. Sharif is head of the central government in Islamabad, whereas Khan's party is ruling the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province which borders Afghanistan. Their supporters demand that they fulfil their election promise. But can they really force the US to cease drone strikes?
On Friday, June 7, only a day after Sharif took the oath of office in Islamabad, the US launched another drone strike in the restive tribal district of North Waziristan, killing seven people. Just two days before, the US had killed the Taliban's second-in-command, Wali-ur-Rehman, in a similar strike. Rehman was accused of being involved in a 2009 attack on a US base in Afghanistan that killed seven Americans working for the CIA.
The new premier has already set the tone for US-Pakistan diplomacy by calling for an end to drone strikes
US President Barack Obama has intensified drone strikes inside Pakistan since he became president in 2009. His administration considers the use of unmanned aircrafts an easier and more effective way to target al Qaeda and Taliban operatives hiding in the mountainous and ungoverned Pakistani tribal areas.
According to a tally by the news agency AFP, Washington launched 45 missile strikes in Pakistan in 2009, the year US President Barack Obama took office. The number of strikes rose to 101 in 2010 and then decreased to 64 in 2011.
Obama has repeatedly justified the strikes calling them a necessary action to secure America from possible terrorist attacks from overseas. A number of key al Qaeda and Taliban leaders have so far been killed in these attacks.
International human rights organizations say the number of civilians killed in these strikes is quite high. The New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, reports that US drone strikes have killed between 1,715 and 2,680 people in Pakistan over the past eight years, many of whom were civilians.
Violation of sovereignty
Sharif's government reacted to Friday's drone strike by summoning Richard Hoagland, a senior American diplomat stationed in Pakistan, and called for an end to such strikes.
"It was conveyed to the US CdA (Charge d'Affaires) that the government of Pakistan strongly condemns the drone strikes which are a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty and territorial integrity," the foreign ministry said in a statement. "It was also pointed out that the government of Pakistan has consistently maintained that drone strikes are counter-productive, entail loss of innocent civilian lives and have human rights and humanitarian implications."
Despite the latest complaint, it remains unclear whether the protests will go beyond words this time and translate into action? If not, how will Sharif deal with this problem? How will he maintain a balance by not offending the US - Pakistan's biggest military donor and important strategic partner in the region - and satisfying his supporters, most of who are unhappy with US involvement in Pakistani politics?
Imran Khan's party now says that it is not its prerogative to deal with the drone issue as it comes under the domain of the central government. Sharif's aides privately say that it is the Pakistani army which can deal with these matters. Sharif has no powers to stop the US, they claim.
Islamabad-based political commentator Aimal Khan believes no Pakistani government will manage stop the drone strikes. "Stopping or shooting down a US drone would be synonymous with declaring war on America. I do not think any Pakistani leader can afford to do it," Khan told DW.
Khan further said that the US and Pakistani governments and militaries have an "understanding" on the issue of drone strikes which are being carried out with Pakistan's consent, he claimed.
"It is easier to promise things in the election campaign than to actually implement them. I think that, like the preceding Zardari and Musharraf governments, Sharif's government too will criticize the strikes publicly and support the US and its counter-terrorism strategies in the region at the same time," Khan added.
However, most Pakistani political analysts are of the view that civilian leaders in Pakistan do not hold much power when it comes to defense and strategic affairs. It is the ubiquitous Pakistani military which calls the shots.
"What is more important and what Sharif should try to do is extend and regain the civilian control over strategic decision-making by empowering parliament and the defense and foreign ministries. He should also formulate comprehensive counter-terrorism policies as an alternative to drone strikes," Khan suggested.
But there are supporters of the drone strikes too. A number of Pakistani experts are of the opinion that drones have been quite successful in destroying militants' hideouts in Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal areas.
Ali K. Chishti, a Karachi-based security and political analyst, told DW that the "drone strategy has worked out well for everyone except al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban." He said the drone strikes had forced militants to restrict their movements.
"Drone strikes are a huge political issue in Pakistan. However, both the military and political leadership privately accept that they have been very effective. We must not forget that it was a drone attack that killed Baitullah Mehsud, the man responsible for the assassination of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto," said Chishti.
For his part, journalist Asha'ar Rehman in Lahore believes the very fact that Washington continues to use drones to attack militants in Pakistan is proof that it does not trust the Pakistani government.
"Many people in Pakistan are of the view that drones have been able to contain militants," said Rehman, adding that the collateral damage has been the only point causing concern.
Chishti said he had interviewed various US and Pakistani intelligence officials who told him that until 2009 the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) jointly operated a 'drone center' in Pakistan's FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas).
Chishti is of the view that despite Islamabad's requests, the US will not give drone technology to Pakistan because it fears it may transfer it to China. Pakistani experts say any such transfer of drone technology to Pakistan would mean that the US would have to rely on Islamabad to kill al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents, who Washington believes, are backed by the Pakistani military and its spy agencies. They also say that Islamabad may possibly use these drones against its arch-rival India. Clearly for Washington the risk associated with transferring this technology to Islamabad is simply too great.