Nawaz Sharif’s start as the prime minister of Pakistan is uninspiring and unworthy of positive reinforcement.
Pakistan’s new Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif is now over 100 days into his third stint at the helm. Public hope and international expectation was that Mr Sharif would have ready-to-go plans for dealing with his country’s national security and economic crises as he took office. Never known for a personal charisma or eloquence, Mr Sharif appears to be coming short on action too. While he has spelled out his economic agenda more clearly and repeatedly Mr Sharif’s national security and counterterrorism policies are mostly a hodgepodge of old and borrowed material with little new and blue. In fact it may be a stretch to call Mr Sharif’s ad hoc approach a policy at all.
After a couple of months of muddling along, Nawaz Sharif had his national security and foreign policy advisor Sartaj Aziz dust his 1998 draft on a Cabinet Committee on National Security (CCNS) and adopted it without even a punctuation change. The draft was originally the response by Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) to the then army chief General Jahangir Karamat’s very public chiding and call to institutionalise the military’s role in a national security council he had proposed. The Aziz arrangement was designed to dull the military’s blow and while accommodating the military brass as members it skirts giving them a constitutional position. The CCNS does serve a purpose as a makeshift move and obviates the need for taking the military head on so early. But without formalising the pecking order and assigning the brass an advisory role only, the NSCC leaves the door wide open for the military to continue formulating the national security policy and making the civilians execute it. Major issue with this arrangement remains the civilians ultimately left holding the bag when the things go awry. The army has perfected the art of ruling from behind the scenes over the last five years, using the civilian leaders virtually as human shields when the international pressure mounts and then blaming them for being desirous of negotiating with the terrorists.
Nawaz Sharif’ primary challenge was to come up with a plan to counter domestic terrorism a la Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Instead of debating the action plans in the parliament, he opted to call an All Parties Conference (APC) to get an endorsement for what now looks like the state offering the other cheek as the TTP slapped it around. Mr Sharif has allowed himself to be taken hostage by the forces within his party and the opposition leaders like Imran Khan who want to negotiate unconditionally with and even formally concede territory to the terrorists by withdrawing army from the areas afflicted by the TTP and transnational jihadists. At the same time army-friendly media is again projecting as the ultimate savior that is itching to crush the TTP. Stories quoting anonymous army sources have appeared in the press that the army is at “loggerheads with the PML-N” on negotiating with the TTP issue. Interestingly, the army chief and the ISI director both attended and brief the APC and also had the former also had the CCNS forum available to formally register any reservations they had about the talks. Ironically, the Coalition Support Fund provided by the United States has funded most, if not all, of the army operations conducted against the TTP. An army supposedly craving to fight the TTP has not been able to budget for a war it has had at its hands for almost a decade!
The Pakistani Prime Minister seems to think of the TTP as an isolated problem that can be solved without taking tough decisions on his country’s Afghanistan and India policy prosecuted over the years through jihadist proxies. His approach to Afghanistan has been marked by reticence and there is little to suggest that he has new ideas other than to harp on Pakistan wanting “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led” peace process. He has been more vocal about peace with India and building business ties. But it is not clear if he considers the rabidly anti-Indian hordes of the Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD) in the Punjab province even a minor irritant in this process. Mr Sharif’s cricket board chief hoping about the Indian cricket team playing in Pakistan when the JuD honcho Hafiz Muhammad Saeed delivers fiery sermons at Lahore’s Qaddafi Stadium – the largest Pakistani cricket ground – every Friday does not seem ironic to them at all. The point is that Mr Sharif’s game plan appears to be to plod along and something might give.
For Pakistan to have a counterterrorism policy, that country has to first stop supporting terror in the name of Afghan jihad and Kashmiri self-determination. The Afghan Taliban insurgency could not have survived without the sanctuary, planning and logistic support from the Pakistan army. The TTP has consistently provided Mullah Omar with cadres and especially suicide bombers. Mr Sharif and his military leaders will have to do away with the arbitrary distinction between the so-called good and the bad Taliban if they wish at all to curb domestic terrorism. They must also realise that countries like India cannot simply pick up the peace process from where they had left after massive terrorist attacks like Mumbai. The sooner Pakistan realises that the jihadist doctrine as the foreign policy core is incompatible with creating regional economic blocs the better. Pakistan cannot expect its neighbours to offer its jihadist proxies the other cheek as it does at home.
Unlike the US, Pakistan’s neighbours, especially India, do not have the luxury of packing up and leaving. They will have to live with the success or failure of whatever Mr Sharif’s national security and counterterrorism policies entail. At the very least Pakistan should not be rewarded for continuing to ignore, if not actively encourage, the jihadist threat to the region that emanates from within its borders. Nawaz Sharif’s start is pretty uninspiring and unworthy of positive reinforcement. He will have to do significantly better to earn the region and the world’s confidence. Hopefully the world leaders meeting him in New York this week can encourage him to do so.