RAIWIND, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistan's presumptive prime minister said Monday that he wants good relations with the United States but criticized American drone strikes on militants as a violation of the country's sovereignty — perhaps hinting the government's grudging compliance may change.
A devout Muslim and a populist, Nawaz Sharif is expected to supplant President Asif Ali Zardari as the international face of Pakistan following his party's resounding victory in Saturday's election. He is set to rule over a nuclear power whose increasing instability and Islamic militant havens are a global concern, especially at a time when the West is looking to end the war in neighboring Afghanistan.
The 63-year-old Sharif often hit out at the U.S. in statements while lobbying for votes, and he accused the outgoing government ruled by the Pakistan People's Party of selling out the country's sovereignty in exchange for U.S. aid.
However, analysts have cautioned that while such rhetoric sells on the campaign trail in a country where anti-American sentiment is high, Sharif is likely to take a more nuanced approach to U.S. relations once in office.
Sharif reinforced that sense Monday with his first comments since the vote about how he viewed the relationship with the U.S. — a key issue since Washington relies on Islamabad for help in fighting Islamic militants and negotiating an end to the Afghan war.
"I think we have good relations with the United States of America. We certainly have to listen to each other," said Sharif. "If there are any concerns on any side, I think we should address those concerns."
Pakistan and the U.S. have had an extremely fraught relationship in recent years, especially following the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani army town in 2011. The U.S. didn't tell Pakistan about the operation beforehand, and the government was outraged at the breach of its sovereignty.
Even before the raid, the U.S. accused Pakistan of supporting Taliban militants who use the country's rugged northwest tribal region to launch cross-border attacks against American troops in Afghanistan — allegations denied by Islamabad.
The relationship has improved somewhat over the last year, but U.S. drone attacks targeting Taliban and al-Qaida militants in Pakistan's tribal region continue to create serious friction between the two countries.
The strikes are extremely unpopular in Pakistan, where many people believe they mostly kill innocent civilians — something Washington denies.
"Drones indeed are challenging our sovereignty," said Sharif. "I think this is a very serious issue, and our concern must be understood properly."
But Pakistan has a long history of officials condemning the strikes in public and supporting them in private, and how aggressively Sharif pushes the U.S. may depend on how much he needs it in other areas.
Pakistan relies on the U.S. for hundreds of millions of dollars in aid every year. More importantly, Pakistan would likely need U.S. support to get a bailout it desperately needs from the International Monetary Fund because of the government's shaky financial situation.
Sharif spoke with reporters at his palatial estate in the rural town of Raiwind near the eastern city of Lahore. The estate is filled with acres of plush lawns and manicured gardens, where scores of majestic peacocks roam freely. The inside of his house is opulently decorated in a style reminiscent of Louis XIV and features two stuffed lions — the symbol of Sharif's party — at the entrance to his living room.
Sharif's supporters believe his pro-business background and years of experience in government make him the right person to tackle the country's many economic woes, like growing power cuts, painful inflation and widespread unemployment.
His stance on reining in violent Islamic extremism, however, remains uncertain.
Critics have accused his Pakistan Muslim League-N party of being soft on radicals because it hasn't cracked down on militant groups in its stronghold of Punjab province.
Even if Sharif wanted to shut down the U.S. drone program, he would have to contend with the wishes of the Pakistani army, which is considered the strongest institution in the country and often plays a dominant role in national security issues.
The army is known to have supported the drone program in the past. That cooperation has decreased over time as the relationship between the two countries has deteriorated. Many analysts believe there is still grudging acceptance of the strikes — both because of U.S. aid and because of the harm it would do to the relationship if Pakistan really put its foot down.
The number of strikes targeting militants has dropped from a peak of more than 120 in 2010 to close to a dozen so far this year, but it's unclear how much this trend has been driven by U.S. decisions about targeting versus the political sensitivity of carrying out strikes.
The U.S. is reliant on Pakistan for help in neighboring Afghanistan, where it will likely play a strong role in any reconciliation deal with Taliban militants. Also, much of the American military equipment that must be shipped out of Afghanistan when the international coalition there ends its combat mission in 2014 will go through the port city of Karachi in southern Pakistan.
Sharif said that he would facilitate the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
"American troops are being withdrawn in 2014. We will extend full support to them. We will see that everything goes well and smoothly," he said.
Sharif's party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, appeared set to get a majority of seats in the national assembly following Saturday's election. That would place Sharif in the position of becoming prime minister for a third time and give him a strong mandate to address the country's many problems.
Following a constitutional amendment passed in 2010, the post of prime minister is much stronger than that of the presidency in Pakistan.
But Sharif's party will have to run most legislation through the Senate, where the former ruling party, the Pakistan People's Party, will retain a much higher number of seats until the next election in 2015. That means he will have to find some way to cooperate with his rival.
Sharif, meanwhile, appealed to former cricket star turned politician Imran Khan to drop his claims of vote rigging in Karachi and Punjab.
"I think we should all show sportsman's spirit and accept the results of the elections," Sharif said.
Several thousand supporters of Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party protested the alleged vote rigging in Karachi and the capital, Islamabad, on Monday.
Election observers from the European Union said they saw some "serious problems" in Karachi, and Pakistan's election commission said it was investigating. The commission already has said it would re-do the vote in 40 polling stations in one constituency in Karachi.
But the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, which had observers monitoring the vote, said they did not find any evidence of systematic rigging and called on all parties to accept the vote.
The Free and Fair Election Network, a Pakistani monitoring group with thousands of observers, has described the balloting in Punjab as "relatively fair."
Sharif's victory in the election represented a remarkable comeback. He was toppled in a coup in 1999 by then-army chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf during his second stint as prime minister and sent into exile in Saudi Arabia for years. He returned in 2007 and ended up serving as the main opposition leader in the country.
Sharif's history with the military has led some observers to predict clashes with the army once he takes office, although the service has pulled back from overt interference in domestic politics in recent years.
Sharif sought to play down his perceived enmity toward the army, saying he only blamed Musharraf for the coup, not the entire service.
"I think the rest of the army resented Mr. Musharraf's decision," said Sharif. "So I don't hold the rest of the army responsible for that."
Associated Press writers Rebecca Santana and Zarar Khan contributed to this report from Islamabad.