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Sharif and the Army

Publication Date : 12-08-2014

 

In Pakistan, the army and the government of Nawaz Sharif are seemingly antagonistic toward each other. After his massive victory in the election, Sharif imagined he would be able to establish the primacy of the civilian government and bring the all-powerful army under some kind of civilian control.

He had some definite advantages not enjoyed by any other civilian ruler. His party has won an outright majority in Parliament. The country’s media is now assertive and independent. It will also be difficult for the army to play off one political party against another, as it had done so successfully in the past.  But as it has turned put, the Prime Minister finds himself in a tight corner in the confrontation with the army.

Relations between the army and the Prime Minister soured after Sharif decided to charge the previous army chief and President Pervez Musharraf with treason. He had hoped Musharraf’s conviction would effect a crippling blow to the  army's culture of impunity and help him tame the military as it were. But developments did not go the way he wanted. Musharraf was indicted by the special court on 31 March.

The government barred the retired General from travelling abroad and the trial dragged on. However, in June the High Court in Karachi ordered that Musharraf’s name be struck off the exit control list. The government appealed against the order, which has now been set aside by the Supreme Court. The upshot is that the equation between the government and the army has become very tense and fraught.

Many Pakistani columnists and commentators feel that Nawaz Sharif mishandled the situation. Jousting with the army, Pakistan’s most powerful institution, at a critical juncture - when terrorism stalks the land ~ can be counter-productive.

Nawaz Sharif also lost the battle with the army over the extremely popular Geo news channel.  On 19 April,  the channel's leading anchor man, Hamid Mir, was shot by some gunmen near Karachi. He survived. His brother’s uncorroborated allegation that the attack was the handiwork of the ISI was promptly aired by the channel. The army took strong exception and stood by the ISI while Sharif promised support to the Geo. In the ensuing struggle, the army got the better of the Prime Minister.

The government was compelled to cancel Geo’s licence for 15 days and the channel was ordered to pay a fine. Admittedly,  the failure of the army to close the channel showed that it was no longer all-powerful, but the run-in served to tarnish the credibility of the civilian authority further still. The ISI's approach toward the media has been indirect, from the flanks as it were. It has launched several proxies against the target and the Pakistani media is already feeling the pressure.

The political parties are yet to learn the lessons of the past. They have failed to take a common stand against the manipulative tactics of the army. Earlier, Nawaz Sharif had resisted the temptation to bring Zardari down during the rule of the Pakistan People’s Party. But now Imran Khan, leader of the Tehreeq-Insaf, which won the second largest number of votes in last year’s election, is not playing the same game. Imran wants to bring down the government and in huge rallies, he has levelled allegations of corruption against the PPP during the election.

Political opposition to Sharif is getting more and more assertive and vociferous. He is anxious to improve relations with India, and had responded to Narendra Modi’s invitation to attend his swearing-in-ceremony. His presence was a gesture to promote cordial relations  and end the arms race. But the military is against this bonhomie with India and is making the Prime Minister’s effort to build bridges increasingly difficult in various ways.

Sharif is no longer opposed to any full-blown operation against the Pakistan Taliban in North Waziristan though he is in favour of peace talks with the militants. He fears that army operations will result  in collateral damage to the civilian population and sensitive government installations would be targeted. This could ignite public protests and lend a handle to Imran Khan to mobilise opposition against the military offensive.

Sharif’s efforts to hold peace talks with the Taliban collapsed when the militants attacked Karachi airport. He had no option but to support the army’s operations against insurgents in North Waziristan. For a number of years, Islamabad has been under tremendous US pressure to crush the  Taliban sanctuaries  in North Waziristan. It is also the home of what remains of the Al Qaida’s core leadership and the base for other Afghan insurgent groups.

The Army has now decided to resolutely go after them. Operation Zarb-e-Azb, named after a sword of Prophet Mohammad, was launched on 15 June with about 30,000 troops.

Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif, has vowed to “destroy terrorist’s sanctuaries without any discrimination”, a reference to selective anti-terrorist

operations earlier launched by the army. But this is going to be a long haul. Pakistan has to be prepared for Taliban retaliation particularly in Punjab, Nawaz Sharif’s political power-base.

A military official has aptly said that “our success in tribal areas could quickly turn into losses in the plains of Punjab”. The  army’s counter-terrorism strategy is on test.  Further, military action has to be backed up with development projects and legal reforms to neutralise the ability of the Taliban to draw adherents from the area. Pakistan desperately requires unity of command.

The civil and military establishment must act in tandem to meet the challenge of the terrorists. By engaging  in a stand-off with the army at this stage, Nawaz Sharif is denuding his authority to lead the nation. He also runs the risk of being marginalised.

(The writer is a senior fellow of the  Institute of Social Sciences; former Director-General, National Human Rights Commission; and former Director, National Police Academy)

 

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