Pakistan's New Prime Minister Gets No 'Honeymoon Period'

It's been four weeks since Pakistan's new prime minister Nawaz Sharif was sworn into office. He's had a difficult start. He's faced a wave of militant attacks and an economically crippling electricity crisis. Now his job has become even harder. Many Pakistanis consider U.S. drone attacks against targets in their tribal belt as a violation of sovereignty. Recently, there's been a lull in these attacks. But overnight there was a fresh missile strike that killed at least 17 people and presented Sharif's government with a quandary.

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It's been four weeks since Pakistan's new Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took the oath of office. In that time, Pakistan has suffered a wave of militant attacks, an economically crippling electricity crisis, and now a deadly drone strike. Many Pakistanis deeply resent U.S. drone attacks against targets in their tribal belt bordering Afghanistan. Recently, there's been a lull in these, but overnight a fresh missile strike killed at least 17 people.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: This was the deadliest U.S. drone strike so far this year. As dawn crept into the mountains, several missiles crashed into a compound in North Waziristan. Local officials say most of the dead were fighters from the Haqqani network, one of the Islamist militant groups based in the area. Researchers estimate that nearly three and a half thousand people have been killed by CIA drone attacks in Pakistan over the last decade. About a quarter are believed to have been civilians. Publicly, Pakistani governments invariably condemn drone strikes. Their private stance has been a different matter, says Mushahid Hussain Sayed, chair of the defense committee of Pakistan's Senate.

SENATOR MUSHAHID HUSSAIN SYED: In the past, governments in Pakistan have been lying to their own people because they have privately endorsed drone strikes and publicly they've condemned them, which means they have no credibility at home and no credibility in Washington.

REEVES: Prime Minister Sharif insists under his new government this so-called dual policy is over. Mushahid Hussain believes Sharif means it.

SYED: There'll be one transparent policy, and there'll be no chasm or gap between public pronouncements and private actions.

REEVES: Relations between Pakistan and the U.S. have been through some very rough patches. Recently, though, the relationship seems to have been improving. U.S. diplomats used to accuse Pakistan of meddling in Afghanistan by covertly supporting militancy. Lately, though, Washington's heaped praise on Pakistan for using those links with the militants to encourage the Afghan Taliban to enter peace negotiations. This latest drone attack goes against the pattern.

MALEEHA LODHI: I think the single most important issue in the last several years, which has led to a precipitous fall in America's standing in the eyes of the Pakistani public, is the use of drones.

REEVES: Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistan ambassador to the U.S. She says Nawaz Sharif's opposition to drone attacks reflects the views of many Pakistanis who see them as counterproductive and a violation of their sovereignty.

LODHI: He has public opinion behind him. He has, I think, Pakistan's establishment behind him. He's being very clear in articulating the sentiments of the people and asking the United States, look, let's sit down and find another way to do this.

REEVES: This is the third U.S. drone strike since Sharif was elected. One killed the second in command of the Pakistani Taliban. Apparently, in retaliation, a Taliban offshoot killed 10 foreign tourists in a remote mountain area 11 days ago. That atrocity was part of a surge of militant attacks this past month. Anger among Pakistanis over these is combined with worry that if the bulk of U.S. forces depart Afghanistan next year without a peace deal, there'll be a civil war that spills into Pakistan.

Hamid Gul, former head of Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI, believes Pakistan is entering a crucial period in its brief history.

HAMID GUL: This is a very tricky time for us, and this will determine eventually whether democracy does work in Pakistan or not.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News.

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