It is crunch time for two Sharifs — Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif. Do they say eye to eye on the security challenge facing Pakistan?
KARAMATULLAH K GHORI
[dropcap]P[/dropcap]akistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif may be excused for his all-too-obvious sensitivity with regard to the armed forces of the country. After all, the old adage of ‘once bitten twice shy’ is still as valid as at any other time in human interaction.
Not even the worst detractor of Nawaz would deny that he has too much on his plate. The PM may have a reputation for his voracious appetite but what he has heaped on his platter is neither appetizing nor very palatable.
Number one on the PM’s menu is the hydra-headed monster that Pakistan’s internal security woes are, beyond any refutation or denial. Conscious of the fact that his grandiose plans to transform Pakistan into an Asian Tiger would remain hostage to it, Nawaz is rightly attaching top most priority to tackling this monster. His initiative to engage the terror-addicted Taliban, or TTP, in a peace dialogue is his major gambit on this front.
The Pakistani nation, never known for its cohesiveness or unison on issues of major importance, is as divided on this issue as on any other. Difference of opinion is a healthy symptom in a democratic polity. Consensus may always be desirable on issues of key significance and import to a people but is not easily achieved, least of all in a nation with so many fault-lines running across its wobbly terrain. As Nawaz is learning to his accumulating experience on the issue, the chimera of consensus on it remains as elusive as ever.
However, Nawaz is also a canny and shrewd businessman and knows that when it comes to weighing one’s options at the table what matters utmost is the value of chips in one’s hands. And all chips aren’t of equal value as Nawaz knows this too well to be deflected by the crescendo of naysayers on his initiative to talk to the Taliban.
Experience has taught Nawaz well enough to know that whatever the nuisance value, or street-power, of the clutch of regional or parochial political parties perennially shouting from their roof-tops on this issue, the most important player is none other than the army. Little wonder, therefore, that from the word go, Nawaz has been consciously engaged in keeping the army on board his Taliban initiative.
The army, as usual, has been playing its cards close to its chest. There’s no denying that it has been in the front trenches for a decade combating the Taliban challenge. It has paid a high price in blood, with at least 5,000-plus casualties in the internal combat against the Taliban terror.
So, none should have cause to take umbrage at the army if it may have some reservations on PM’s peace initiative. But give the brass the credit it deserves: it hasn’t publicly sounded those reservations, nor taken up cudgels with Nawaz because of them.
On display for public consumption is a façade of the army being on the same page with the government and extending it the cooperation expected of it. Pundits would say the military brass has been playing its cards with aplomb and finesse thus far. Yet, in between the lines, there should be no doubt either in the government or among the Taliban that the brass has red lines drawn in the sand. It will go only this far and not beyond, and none should think of crossing them; doing so could only be at their own peril, and cost.
This scribe has no doubt in his mind that the Taliban’s willingness to enter into a dialogue for peace with Nawaz is a result of their reading the army’s message correctly. The terrorists had been conveyed the message from GHQ in no uncertain terms that failure to be engaged in the government’s peace dialogue would result in a firm and no-holds-barred military response. The limited, but targeted, operation from the air was the catalyst that softened up the terror gang and its erstwhile benighted leadership. They could read the tea leaves, and the message from that reading wasn’t edifying.
So far Nawaz seems to be on course with his initiative. The latest get-together in Islamabad of all the key players in the game of power—the army, the civilian leadership of federal and provincial levels et al.—has come up with evidence that things are under control and the chips in hand aren’t being squandered or wasted.
The formation of NACTA—the National Anti-Crime Authority—is a big step forward. Nawaz is putting his money where his mouth is, and making progress—something that was so conspicuous by its absence under the Zardari kleptocracy and the gangs of thieves running it.
All bets are still, however, off on the outcome of the PM’s peace offensive with the Taliban. He may be playing his cards well but the other side hasn’t been known for its consistency. Nawaz has so far been catering to their demands with circumspection. For instance, he may relent on releasing the women, children and seniors of Taliban from detention if the dialogue may get a spur from this concession. The brass may go along with it, too. But it will, in all likelihood, put its foot down on any hard core terrorist being shown such largess.
In some sort of a poetic irony, the PM’s political detractors have been given a big handle to club him with on a money matter. The Saudi deposit of $ 1.5 billion into Pakistan’s limited hard currency coffers is being blown out of all proportions by Nawaz’ nemeses, foremost among them is none other than that perennial rabble-rouser, MQM’s Altaf Hussain. Holed up in London, he never lets any opportunity to sow seeds of dissension among the people of Pakistan; once again he is calling on the army to disobey the government in power.
But as loud-mouthed as Altaf is, the PM’s men haven’t been as robust, or alert, in explaining the Saudi largess to the people of Pakistan. That gives a handle and a stout stick to the likes of Altaf to kick up a ruckus on the issue and make political capital out of it.
It should have been easy for his ‘financial wizard,’ Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, to tell the people that the Saudis have done them a favor by depositing their cache of dollars in the Pakistani coffers to give them a boost. That’s all they have done.
It’s neither a ‘gift’ nor a loan. Our rich Arab friends have been doing this, off-and-on, whenever we have been constrained for foreign exchange reserves. The Kuwaitis, I can vouch from personal experience, did this favor to us on more occasions than one.
However, the Nawaz government has so far been ham-handed on the issue. Even a largely-invisible President Mamnoon Hussain, has been prompted to pitch in with his own two cents. His cryptic comment that the Saudi aid can’t be explained for ‘reasons of state’ policy has landed more cobwebs on it.
And, then, he made the weird, though truthful, addition of comment that international relations couldn’t be conducted without some input of hypocrisy. What hypocrisy was an otherwise tight-lipped Mamnoon Hussain hinting at? And why should Nawaz unleash him to combat the tirade from Altaf Hussain holed up in London?
The timing of the Saudi largess may have been bang on target as far as relieving the pressure on dollar-rupee parity is concerned. The Pakistani currency couldn’t have been given a more timely shot in the arm to recover from its slide. However, in terms of Pakistan’s foreign policy it has come at an embarrassing moment for Nawaz. That amply explains why his spokesmen feel constrained and hamstrung in defending what’s generally perceived by layman and the pundit alike as a shift in the policy on Syria.
Even the most ardent aficionado of the Saudis in the Pakistani establishment would have a hard time in arguing against the common perception that their latest largess for their brothers in Pakistan has strings attached to it. The most obvious string is the one latched on to the demand to arm the fighters arrayed against the Assad regime in Syria. Even a layman can appreciate how Nawaz may be feeling the heat on him because of this.
The Saudis may have rightly concluded that sweetening the pot for Nawaz may put him on a smoother pedestal in explaining the perceived shift on policy on Syria. Mamnoon Husain may be guilty of putting it crudely—alluding to hypocrisy as an essential and unavoidable tool of diplomacy—but he has, inadvertently, told the truth.
It may confront the Pakistan army—the keeper of all the arms—with a hard-to-make choice. The Army chief has visited Saudi Arabia twice in the months since he assumed his mantle. But it wouldn’t be an easy undertaking for the brass to make up their minds on an issue as sensitive and laden-with-consequences as this one. It is crunch time for both the Sharifs — Nawaz and Gen. Raheel. Will they be on the same page or apart? Only time will tell.
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