Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, visiting Washington for the first time since his party won the general election in May, made a pitch for more foreign investment and trade links, saying he’s determined to tackle the domestic and regional security problems that hamper economic growth and development.
Addressing an audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) today, Sharif promised “reforms at home and a new direction in our foreign policy.” Pakistan is “determined to transform our relations with friends around the world, but more importantly, with our immediate neighbors.”
The “greatest challenge” to Pakistan comes from terrorism and extremism, he said. But he rejected common characterizations of his country as a “source” or “epicenter” of terrorism. He cited the more than 7,000 soldiers, security personnel and police and more than 40,000 civilians killed in militant attacks in the past decade.
“Our sacrifices are immeasurable, both in terms of the loss of human lives and the damage caused to our infrastructure,” Sharif said.
On the economy, the premier said his administration is embarking on reforms to reduce the deficit and improve the balance of payments, curb inflation and reduce dependence on foreign loans and other assistance. Pakistan also aims to bring a half million more taxpayers onto the rolls to increase revenue, and to privatize state-owned enterprises such as the national airline, steel mills and oil- and gas companies.
Sharif won his post when his center-right Pakistan Muslim League (N) party prevailed with a surprisingly large margin in the May general elections, which generated the highest voter turnout in Pakistan since the 1970s and resulted in a historic peaceful transition of elected authority. His victory returned him to the seat he lost in a 1999 military coup led by then-Chief of Army Staff General Pervez Musharraf, who later became president. Sharif returned from exile in Saudi Arabia in 2007.
“This is a new and confident Pakistan,” he told the audience. “But I’m not oblivious to the daunting challenges we have inherited. My government is fully aware of the enormous economic and security challenges that face us today. We’re also conscious that the people of Pakistan have high expectations from us.”
His predecessor, Asif Ali Zardari, was weakened by allegations of corruption and a failure to deliver security and basic services. Delivering more reliable electricity to homes and businesses was among the priorities Sharif cited in a wide-ranging speech that also covered relations with Afghanistan, India and the U.S.
Secretary of State John Kerry hosted Sharif on Oct. 20, and the premier also is due to meet with President Barack Obama and members of Congress during his visit. He’s scheduled to have dinner with U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew tonight.
Prior to Sharif’s arrival, the Associated Press reported that the U.S. plans to begin releasing $1.6 billion of military and economic aid to Pakistan that had been on hold since tensions escalated in 2011, in part over the U.S. raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. The prime minister’s talks with Kerry included counterterrorism efforts, Afghanistan, energy collaboration and ways to increase trade and investment.
“Both sides agreed on the importance of our continued counterterrorism cooperation, and that extremism is countered in part by opportunities arising from greater economic stability,”according to the State Department. “To that end, the U.S., Pakistan’s largest trading partner, remains committed to an economic relationship increasingly based on trade and investment.”
USIP’s Pakistan program has organized almost 80 discussions and public events in the U.S. in the past three years, with more than 90 influential Pakistanis, in addition to events in Pakistan. The Institute’s work on Pakistan focuses on analysis to better understand the dynamics of conflict and peace in the country and programs to promote tolerance and counter ideas that justify violence.
“The prime minister is in a difficult job in a difficult part of the world,” USIP President Jim Marshall told the audience today.
In Washington, Pakistan has often been accused of only selectively targeting militant groups that go on to wage attacks across its borders in Afghanistan and India.
Sharif said he believes a “peaceful, stable and united Afghanistan is in Pakistan’s vital interest.” He urged the international community to stay engaged in Afghanistan, and said Pakistan is spending more than $450 million on reconstruction in the neighboring country, focusing on health, infrastructure and education.
That includes a plan to extend the Karachi-Peshawar highway to Kabul. “This is our modest contribution to bringing Afghanistan into the regional economic hub,” he said.
Sharif cited energy projects such as one that also encompasses Turkmenistan and India, as well as a Central Asia-South Asia electricity transmission project and the four-country CASA 1000 electricity-sharing program.
“This will undoubtedly help strengthen efforts for peace and stability and advance our common objective of progress and prosperity,” Sharif said.
On India, he admitted to lost opportunities over the years and said he’s “confident there are areas where we can make quick progress,” possibly including normalization of trade relations.
“I am confident that we can overcome challenges and find solutions to all issues, as long as we stay engaged,” he said. “Had our two countries not wasted their precious resources in a never-ending arms race, we would not only have avoided the futile conflicts, but also emerged as stable and prosperous nations,” he said.
Despite the deep strains with the U.S. in recent years, Sharif sought an optimistic note.
“Contrary to the common perception, Pakistan-United States relations have stood the test of time,” he said.
But he also called for “mutual respect.” Citing the repeated U.S. drone strikes on militant targets within Pakistan, Sharif reiterated his opposition to such attacks, saying they “have deeply disturbed and agitated our people” and end up undermining efforts to suppress insurgencies. Amnesty International issued a report today calling for the U.S. to investigate reports of civilian casualties as a result of the strikes.
“This issue has become a major irritant in our bilateral relations,” Sharif said. “I would therefore stress the need for an end to drone attacks.”
He said Pakistan is “firmly resolved” to end militant violence. But he also alluded to his administration’s efforts to negotiate with insurgents, an approach that yields outside skepticism because of failures when it was attempted by previous administrations.
“It cannot be done overnight,” Sharif said. “Nor can it be done by unleashing senseless force against our citizens without first making every effort to bring the misguided and confused elements of society back in the mainstream.”
He also urged more American businesses to take advantage of his country’s skilled labor force with more investment. And he repeated a call for a U.S.-Pakistan agreement to cooperate on producing nuclear power for civilian use similar to a 2008 U.S. pact with India, a proposition that has received little support in the U.S. Congress.
“It is my endeavor to approach this important relationship with an open and fresh mind, leaving behind the baggage of trust deficit and mutual suspicions,” Sharif said. “Instead, cooperation in key areas including trade, investment, energy, technology, education and agriculture under the rubric of strategic dialogue should be the main plank of our partnership.”