LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - Nawaz Sharif, seen as the front-runner in Pakistan’s election race, said the country should reconsider its support for the U.S. war on Islamist militancy and suggested that he was in favor of negotiations with the Taliban.
Pakistan backed American efforts to stamp out global militancy after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and was rewarded with billions of dollars in U.S. aid.
But many Pakistanis have grown resentful, saying thousands of Pakistani soldiers have died fighting “America’s war”.
Sharif, a religious conservative who is hoping to become prime minister for a third time after next Saturday’s election, said the Pakistani military’s U.S.-backed campaign against the Taliban was not the best way to defeat the insurgency.
“I think guns and bullets are always not the answer to such problems,” he told Reuters in an interview in his black armored car on Saturday. “I think other options need to be explored at the same time and see what is workable. And I think we’re going to pursue all these other options.”
Army offensives have weakened the Pakistani Taliban, which is close to al Qaeda, but they have failed to break the movement’s back.
Sharif wants a review of the backing provided for the U.S. war on militancy under the previous government’s approach.
“Someone will have to take this problem seriously,” said Sharif, as he headed to an election campaign rally. “All stakeholders will have to sit down together and understand the concerns of all parties and then take a decision, which is in the best interest of Pakistan and the international community.”
His comments are likely to anger Washington, which has been pushing Pakistan to both stamp out domestic militancy - where Taliban militants are waging a violent campaign to impose their austere brand of Islam - and to help defeat the Afghan Taliban.
The United States is hoping the elections will usher in stability so that Pakistan can help pacify neighboring Afghanistan as U.S.-led NATO troops prepare to leave by the end of 2014.
Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N), has capitalized on widespread frustration with the outgoing Pakistan People’s Party, which has failed to address an array of issues from chronic power cuts to widespread poverty.
None of that poverty could be seen anywhere near Sharif’s vast estate on the edge of his native Lahore. Peacocks wandered along manicured lawns overlooking a palatial home with stuffed lions beneath photographs of him with heads of state, including former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Born into a family of wealthy industrialists, Sharif reflected on Pakistan’s turbulent history, especially the army’s habit of mounting coups and meddling in politics.
He became somber as he recalled how a former army chief and later president, Pervez Musharraf, toppled his government in a bloodless coup in 1999. “It was a very bad day for Pakistan,” said Sharif.
Musharraf returned to Pakistan from self-imposed exile in March, hoping to contest the May 11 election.
Instead, he has been placed under house arrest in connection with his decision to sack senior judges in 2007 and for failing to provide adequate security for former prime minister Benazir Bhutto before her assassination that year.
Sharif said Musharraf’s plight should serve as an example to other top brass who may be planning a takeover - a rare warning in a country that has been ruled by the army for more than half of its history.
Pakistan is undergoing a transition, said Sharif, who was groomed by a military dictator in the 1980s but has since become a harsh critic of military intervention in politics.
“This accountability which is now taking place is itself a lesson to all those who have any such designs in the future,” he said. “Now Musharraf has come back and look at what he’s going through. Everybody is seeing it on TV and reading it in the newspapers and this itself is a lesson to everybody.”
Pakistan’s generals are busy running industries worth billions of dollars, fighting the Taliban and worrying about arch-enemy India, but they may not agree with Sharif’s assessment of the political landscape.
In a recent speech, the army chief served what some analysts saw as a warning to Pakistan’s notoriously corrupt politicians, suggesting patience with their failures has its limits.
Sharif believes his team is up to the challenge of reviving the near-failed economy. He said he would promote a free-market, as he did during two stints as prime minister in the 1990s.
“We are going to pick up the threads from where we left off in 1999,” he said.
A major challenge for the next government, analysts say, will be implementing politically difficult economic reforms to secure another bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and avert a balance of payments crisis.
“I’m not someone who is against the IMF. But I am a man who believes that we need to stand on our own feet, that should be our priority,” said Sharif. “But to work with the IMF until such time, I don’t see any harm in that.”
Asked what his most daunting task would be if victorious in the polls, he said: “To put the country back on the rails.”
Editing by John Chalmers and Robert Birsel