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Drone Strikes Among Major Issues for New Pakistan PM

Nawaz Sharif speaks to party members during a function in Lahore in this May 20, 2013 file photo.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister-designate Nawaz Sharif will review anti-terrorism cooperation with the United States soon after taking office. A close adviser to Sharif says the incoming government will demand an immediate end to controversial American drone strikes within Pakistani territory for better future ties.

The newly-elected National Assembly on Wednesday will formally select Nawaz Sharif as the country’s prime minister for an unprecedented third time because his political party, the Pakistan Muslim League or PML-N, enjoys a majority in the lower house of parliament.

On the home front, the incoming government is expected to look for ways to revive a deteriorating economy by addressing the severe energy crisis facing the country. But critics say Sharif will also have to take urgent steps to ease strains plaguing diplomatic relations with the United States and seek an immediate end to drone strikes on Pakistani soil, a commitment he undertook during the election campaign.

A member of the new parliament and key PML-N adviser on foreign policy, Khurram Dastagir Khan, says his party will waste no time in addressing the drone issue, in view of the widespread belief among Pakistanis that such attacks violate the country’s sovereignty and international law.

“It [drone attacks] is part of the crisis of our foreign policy and also one of the things that we are going to do in the first few days is to reassess our relationship with the United States in view of the war on terror and the participation Pakistan has so far made in the 12 years. And part of it would be, our case is very strong, that drone strikes should cease forthwith," said Khan.

In this July 28, 2011 file photo, Taliban No 2 commander Waliur Rehman talks to the Associated Press during an interview in Shawal area of South Waziristan along the Afghanistan border in Pakistan.
In this July 28, 2011 file photo, Taliban No 2 commander Waliur Rehman talks to the Associated Press during an interview in Shawal area of South Waziristan along the Afghanistan border in Pakistan.
The latest U.S. drone strike, last Wednesday, killed among others the deputy leader of the outlawed Pakistani Taliban militant group, Waliur Rehman Mehsud. The missile attack was the first since Sharif’s party won the national polls May 11, and in a written statement he expressed “deep disappointment” over it.

Pakistan's former ambassador to the United States, Maleeha Lodhi, says the new government will be under immense public pressure if drone attacks are not halted.

“The latest U.S. drone strike within Pakistan underscores the urgency of the challenge for the incoming new Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to deal with this issue and Nawaz Sharif in fact publicly he has committed himself to engaging the United States in negotiations to try to end drone strikes within Pakistan’s territory. So, I think the latest drone strike only makes that challenge more urgent," said Lodhi.

A day after the drone attack, U.S. special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan James Dobbins met with Sharif, but neither side shared details publicly with the media. Lodhi describes the meeting as significant, particularly in view of the planned withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan by the end of next year.

"And if Nawaz Sharif has been accurately reported in the press, he has supposed to have said to Ambassador Dobbins that if the U.S. wanted Pakistan’s cooperation in a state of secure withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and also Pakistan’s role in the Afghan end game, then the U.S. needed to listen to Pakistan on its drones’ policy. This is a very significant message that Nawaz Sharif has conveyed to the American visitor and what he is also signaling is that he can be expected to take a strong position on drone strikes in Pakistan," said Lodhi.

The United States considers missile attacks by its remotely-piloted aircraft legal, saying they have weakened the al-Qaida and Taliban militants involved in cross-border raids on American and coalition forces inside Afghanistan. Drone strikes in Pakistan have sharply decreased this year, and President Barack Obama, in a major speech on counterterrorism policy a week ago, announced the intent to further restrict drone use in the future.

The United States is Pakistan's biggest financial donor and cooperation in sectors like economy, health, education and energy has deepened in recent years. Some analysts say that since Sharif's priorities are really economic, he may not want to upset Washington under the circumstances.