NEW YORK: Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has spelled out, for the first time, the conditions that Pakistani Taliban would have to accept if his government proceeds with a peace deal with the militant group, demanding that they drop off thier arms and recognize Pakistan’s constitution.
In an interview in New York with The Wall Street Journal, Sharif also disclosed that he would proceed with a plan to build a gas pipeline from Iran, despite objections from the US, and said that he plans to use his speech at the United Nations on Friday to speak up against American drone strikes in his country.
At the same time, he articulated threats that continued US drone attacks would damage his policy to negotiate with the Pakistani Taliban, a group closely linked to al Qaeda.
Sharif, who came to power in June after the first democratic transition of power in Pakistan’s history, also said he hopes to use his visit to the U.N. headquarters in New York for a meeting with Manmohan Singh, the prime minister of India, Pakistan’s traditional enemy. Mr. Sharif said he hopes to restart the peace process with India that he had carried on when he was last in office, in the late 1990s.
A building in the South Pars gas field in the Iranian port town of Asaluyeh, from where a pipeline to Pakistan will run
In the interview Wednesday, Mr. Sharif acknowledged soreness with the US but said he believed that the issues could be overcome. “President Obama was very kind to call me up immediately after my election and express his desire to work with Pakistan. I also want to work with the United States of America,” he said.
The White House said on Thursday that President Barack Obama and Mr. Sharif will meet Oct. 23 at the White House, part of what officials said was a generous effort to deepen ties.
A White House statement said terrorism and the economy will be among the topics discussed, but didn’t mention the controversial pipeline. “The visit will highlight the importance and resilience of the US-Pakistan relationship and provide an opportunity for us to strengthen cooperation on issues of mutual concern, such as energy, trade and economic development, regional stability, and countering violent extremism,” the White House said in a statement.
The meeting in Washington will follow Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to Pakistan in August, in which he offered support that the US won’t abandon Pakistan after US troops leave neighboring Afghanistan next year.
Pakistan has said it wants the US to open its markets to Pakistani products, among other things, while the Obama administration has urged Pakistan to do more to police border territory where Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda militants prosper.
However, relations could get uneasy by both the proposed gas pipeline from Iran, which US officials say will mean imposing American sanctions on Pakistan, and the missile strikes by US drone aircraft against suspected militants on Pakistani soil.
Pakistani Prime minister Nawaz Sharif at the InterContinental New York Barclay Hotel in Manhattan on Wednesday.
The pipeline project, signed by the previous Pakistani government earlier this year, US officials say, is firmly in breach of US economic sanctions against Iran. However, Pakistan is angered that other countries, including Turkey and India, have been granted partial waivers from that sanctions regime to allow them to do business with Iran, an offer not being made to Islamabad.
“The way it appears at this point, the pipeline would attract sanctions,” a State Department official said Thursday. “There are other options for Pakistan that are less expensive and more reliable.”
Mr. Sharif met Iranian President Hasan Rouhani on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, where the issue of the pipeline was discussed, in a meeting described as warm by the Pakistani side. For Tehran, selling gas to Pakistan would be a way of showing that the US cannot stop its trade altogether. For Pakistan, it is of necessary economic importance.
“Pakistan needs gas very badly,” said Mr. Sharif.” We have to run our power plants. We need gas for them. There is an subtle shortage of gas in Pakistan, so we have to import gas from somewhere.”
An inadequate supply of gas, used to produce electricity, is one of the main reasons for the subtle shortage of power in Pakistan. Mr. Sharif said Pakistan had a constitutional obligation to go ahead with the agreement, or face penalties from Iran of $3 million a day if it is not completed by the end of next year. He said that in Islamabad’s legal opinion, the pipeline wouldn’t trigger the sanctions.
He said that Pakistan would proceed “unless you give us the gas, or the $3 million a day.”
However, Pakistan still needs to find $1.5 billion to build the pipeline, which is already completed on the Iranian side, according to Tehran. Islamabad is also hoping that a change in Washington’s stance on Iran after the election of Mr. Rouhani could help Pakistan avoid the sanctions.
In his speech on Friday at the U.N., Mr. Sharif said he plans to say that American drone strikes in his country are illegal, as they breach Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty. He said that weapon is also counterproductive as it is producing more “terrorists.”
“The more the drones, the more the terrorists get multiplied. You kill one man, his sons, his father, his brothers, they become terrorists. So this is something that is not helping at all,” said Mr. Sharif.
Washington believes the drones have been highly effective in killing senior al Qaeda commanders, Pakistani Taliban leaders and Afghan insurgents who use Pakistan’s tribal areas, which border Afghanistan, as a sanctuary.
Mr. Sharif said he was particularly concerned that drone strikes now could derail his offer of peace talks to the Pakistani Taliban, who operate separately from the Afghan Taliban. The militant group has demanded that Islamabad stop the drone strikes before negotiations begin.
“Once the talks start, then of course, we consider them [drones] as something that has the ability to break the talks, which must be avoided at all costs,” said Mr. Sharif.
Islamabad offered to open dialogue with the Pakistani Taliban following a conference with all the other parliamentary parties earlier this month. The joint resolution from that meeting didn’t name any conditions for the talks, or for eventually coming to terms with the group.
In words not used in the offer of talks, Mr. Sharif, in the Journal interview, laid out the terms that would be available to the militants.
“They will have to renounce terrorism,” said Mr. Sharif. “They [Pakistani Taliban] will have to abide by the constitution of Pakistan.”
“It’s been often said by them that they don’t recognize the constitution of the country,” he said. “But the constitution has to be recognized. If we agree on addressing this terrorism, they will have to be disarmed, lay down their arms.”