Army’s Shadow Over Sharif-Obama Summit?






Special to Caravan

WASHINGTON, Oct 24 — As Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif held his first-ever summit talks with President Barrack Obama Wednesday, US scholars believe that he was handed down a carefully worded script to follow the Pakistan military’s stance on foreign policy, defense and terrorism.

Even though the top item on the agenda of Mr. Sharif’s summit talks with President Barack Obama was an end to US drone strikes, which the Pakistani premier says have infuriated Pakistani people and was a major irritant in bilateral relations, US analysts say it was naïve to think these strikes will end anytime soon.

“He was not saying a single word more than what he was asked to say,” Frederic Grare, South Asia program director at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told this correspondent Tuesday. Mr. Grare also alluded to the meetings Mr. Sharif had with the military leaders in preparation for his U.S. visit.

However, Mr. Grare said, “Mr. Sharif has had a very uneasy relationship with the military.”

Recalling that Mr. Sharif was twice dismissed from office by the army, he credited him for being the only prime minister in Pakistan who sacked two sitting army chiefs. “The first was General Jehangir Karamat, who was a darling in the eyes of Washington DC. The second was General Pervez Musharraf.”

However, the sacking of Gen. Musharraf resulted in the toppling of Mr. Sharif’s second government in October 1999.

Noted Pakistani book author and university scholar from Harvard and New York universities, Arif Jamal believes that Mr. Sharif’s call for international mediation on Kashmir was the well-established, stated position of the Pakistan army to internationalize the Kashmir issue.

“This is not the Sharif position that he enunciated at the time of the Lahore Declaration in 1999,” said Arif Jamal, whose new academic book, Call for Transnational Jihad: Lashkar-e-Taiba 1985-2014, is scheduled to be unveiled in January.

The Lahore Declaration, which was signed by Mr. Sharif and his then Indian counterpart, Mr. A.B. Vajpayee, on February 21, 1999, stated that the two South Asian neighbors will seek to end all their disputes through bilateral talks.

“He is clearly following the army point of view on India and Kashmir,” Arif Jamal, who is a rare critic of army rule to hail from the military stronghold of Punjab, said. “It seems like he’s not going to antagonize the army on major foreign policy issues such as India, Afghanistan, the U.S. and terrorism.”

To a question on what good can Pakistan expect from the Sharif visit, Arif Jamal said, “Basically Pakistan will get U.S. aid but nothing else.”

In fact, the U.S. silently released $1.6 billion in military and economic aid that was suspended after the U.S. Navy SEALs attack on May 2, 2011 killed Osama bin Laden, next door to Pakistan’s main military training center in Abbottabad.

The No. 1 demand on Sharif’s laundry list includes an end to the U.S. drone strikes operated directly by the C.I.A. against Taliban and al Qaeda militants, but Arif Jamal said this is not going to stop anytime time soon. “America will use the drones if there is a legitimate target,” he said.

“Drones may not be the best option, but the reality is they are the most effective weapon against the Islamic militants,” Arif Jamal said. “Drones are the only weapon the Taliban are afraid of.”

Many international human rights organizations, including the Human Rights Watch and the Amnesty International, have criticized the drone policy as they say the victims include women and children who have nothing to do with militancy.

Arif Jamal said Pakistan army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani has on record saying his soldiers are not ready for military offensive against the Taliban. “The US has told Pakistan, either you do the job or let us do it.”

Many Pakistanis believe Mr. Sharif was a protégé and product of the martial law regime of General Ziaul Haq, just like his more popular predecessor Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was a protégé and product of the martial law regime of General Ayub Khan.

However, while Mr. Sharif met with Mr. Obama at the White House Wednesday a group of Americans and Baloch protested against Islamabad’s apathy over the plight of nearly 200,000 people in Balochistan whose lives were uprooted since a September 24 earthquake that measured 7.7 on the Richter scale killed 400, injured more than 1,000, destroyed homes of 40,000 families and cracked or demolished nearly 200 schools in the Awaran and Kech districts.

Pakistan army generals stopped all international and UN agencies access to Balochistan, using the fragile security condition in the backdrop of an ongoing low-level insurgency as a pretext. Repeated pleas of Balochistan chief minister Dr. Malik Baloch for international assistance fell on the deaf ears of the National Disaster Management Authority, which is headed by a major general.

The army also stopped Mr. Sharif from visiting Awaran, by withholding a security clearance.

However, sources within the UN in Islamabad believe the main reason for barring the U.N. and international agencies was Pakistan army’s “strategic depth policy” in Afghanistan, which aims at regaining political control of Kabul after the NATO troops depart in 2014.

Dr. Malik Baloch has also openly called for revamping this army policy in the larger interest of Pakistan and peace in the region.

Because of the so many challenges Pakistan faces, Carnegie’s Frederic Grare said he always wondered why people like Sharif, who is a wealthy businessman, join politics.  “If he stays away from politics, at least his life would be safer.”

Ahmar Mustikhan is a Washington-based senior journalist and reporter who has worked in newspapers in Pakistan, UAE and the United States.



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