Pakistanis, World Await New Government

As a new administration slowly begins to take shape, questions abound on how it will handle foreign policy issues such as its nuclear arsenal, relations with Afghanistan and the war on terror, as well as Kashmir.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

One month to the day after Pakistan's elections, the country is still waiting for its new government to be formed. Pakistanis are eager to find out who will be the prime minister and who will get the top cabinet post.

And as NPR's Philip Reeves reports, other countries are watching to see how the new government will conduct the war on terror.

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Unidentified Woman: (Speaking in foreign language)

PHILIP REEVES: Step by step, Pakistan's government is taking shape. Today, the new parliament elected its speaker, the first woman to get the job in the nation's history. Soon, the prime minister will be announced. It's a slow and complicated process, thus friction within the largest party - the Pakistan People's Party led by Benazir Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari.

On several major issues, Zardari doesn't see eye-to-eye with his coalition partner, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. They seem to agree on one matter though - they're the ones with a mandate to run Pakistan, not the army or the president or the U.S. Khawaja Saad Rafique is from Sharif's party.

Mr. KHAWAJA SAAD RAFIQUE (PML-N Punjab Secretary General): This is a new government which is going to form. And we will make our policies according to the interest of Pakistani nation, not according to interest of United States.

REEVES: Pakistan's political landscape is changing. In the heavy aftermath of the elections, triumphant politicians now talk enthusiastically about their new powers. Enver Baig is a senator from the Pakistan People's Party and one of its most senior members.

Senator ENVER BAIG (Senior Member, Pakistan People's Party): I think the foreign policy will now be governed by the parliament. I mean, we'll have to go according to the visions of the people rather than the visions of an individual.

REEVES: This isn't as straightforward as it sounds. A former foreign secretary of Pakistan, Tanvir Ahmad Khan, says Zardari and Sharif have slightly differing views on foreign affairs.

Mr. TANVIR AHMAD KHAN (Former Pakistani Foreign Secretary): People's party is centrist, pro-West. Nawaz Sharif, I would say, is centrist, but not necessarily pro-West. I mean, you know, he would pick and choose.

REEVES: But how much power will the new government really have? Since Musharraf quit as army chief of staff, Pakistan's military has eased out of day-to-day politics. Yet the army's unlikely to release its grip over several crucial areas - Pakistan's nuclear policy, for example, the handling of Afghanistan, and the war on Islamic militants.

Now, though, the generals can expect real pressure from Pakistan's newly elected government with the public on its side. Enver Baig's already strategizing about how to deal with the Taliban and other Islamic extremists in Pakistan's tribal areas.

Sen. BAIG: Well, I think we'll enter more into a political dialogue than a military dialogue. I mean, we would use military option as the last, last, last option. Because I think we need to carry the people on grounds with you to fight this war on terror; otherwise, forget it you can't do that.

REEVES: What if Washington objects?

Sen. BAIG: Well, I think then good luck to Washington.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. BAIG: That's all I can say.

REEVES: There's a widespread view that military attacks in the tribal areas only strengthen the militants and cost civilian lives. The Taliban is trying its best to undermine public support for war. It's mounted a relentless and sophisticated bombing campaign, mostly targeting security forces. Tanvir Ahmad Khan believes the militants are doing this because they want to force a negotiated end to their conflict with the Pakistani military and concentrate on fighting American and NATO forces in Afghanistan. He's concerned about the consequences if they succeed.

Mr. KHAN: It means something quite sinister, which is that Pakistan becomes lukewarm about the war on terror. It means that Pakistan lets go of its grip, which is already not very strong, on the tribal belt, which means they get back their source of relief.

REEVES: This will also concern Washington. The U.S. wants Pakistan to keep up the military pressure on the Taliban and al-Qaida. In the old days, if the U.S. wanted something done, it lent on Pervez Musharraf. Now, it's a little more complicated.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad.

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