G Parthasarathy

Sharif versus Sharif: The end game

G Parthasarathy | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on October 19, 2016

Goodbye, at last? To the thorn in Nawaz’s flesh   -  REUTERS

The tension between the prime minister and the army chief may finally be playing itself out

Relations between Pakistan’s elected government and the country’s all-powerful military establishment become tense and coup-prone whenever Nawaz Sharif is elected as prime minister. This is ironic since Sharif entered politics with the blessings of the military, in the early 1980s.

The then military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, had sought the support of Nawaz’s father, the industrialist and steel magnate, Mian Mohamed Sharif, to contribute to the establishment of a new Muslim League Party.

Gen Zia’s military governor in Lahore, Lt-Gen Ghulam Gilani Khan, duly provided the support for Nawaz’s meteoric rise in politics. It was the backing of the military and the ISI chief, Lt-Gen Asad Durrani, that enabled Sharif to cobble together an alliance of Islamist parties, to prevail over Benazir Bhutto’s Peoples’ Party in 1992.

Tumultuous relationship

Sharif’s whimsical and authoritarian functioning thereafter led to serious differences with President Ghulam Ishaq Khan. Khan was infuriated by the involvement of Sharif and his handpicked ISI chief, Lt-Gen Javed Nasir, in the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts. In the meantime, Sharif had developed an acrimonious relationship with his army chief, Gen Asif Nawaz, whose sudden death, attributed to arsenic poisoning, led to suspicions of Sharif’s involvement.

Sharif was sacked by President Ishaq Khan, but briefly restored to office by the Supreme Court. Shortly thereafter, the army chief, Gen Waheed Kakkar, forced both Sharif and Khan out of office.

Sharif’s relationship with the army was equally stormy in his second term. He peremptorily sacked his highly respected and apolitical army chief, Gen Jehangir Karamat. He was then ousted, jailed and exiled by Karamat’s successor, Pervez Musharraf, following differences over who was responsible for the Kargil fiasco.

Sharif’s relations with the army have been no less tumultuous in his term. As in the case of his appointment of Musharraf, Sharif erred in his appointment of Raheel Sharif as army chief. He ignored the fact that Raheel was a protégé of Musharraf, who would challenge the prime minister’s efforts to have Musharraf tried for treason.

Raheel Sharif predictably warned not only Nawaz, but also the Supreme Court, to back off from efforts to arrest and imprison Musharraf.

His success in this effort only whetted Raheel’s appetite for taking control of foreign policy, particularly relations with India, Afghanistan and even the US. China duly played on the general’s huge ego by suggesting that it was the Pakistan army alone that could provide security for its $46-billion ‘One Belt One Road’ project.

The Raheel factor

Over the past three years, Raheel Sharif has taken over control of Pakistan’s foreign policy and the country’s internal security. He undermined the successful meeting that Nawaz had with Narendra Modi in Ufa by not permitting his DGMO to meet his Indian counterpart. He then undermined any chance of a rapprochement with India by the attack on the Pathankot air base just after Modi had extended a hand of friendship by visiting Lahore during the wedding of Sharif’s daughter.

Gen Sharif has taken over conduct of relations with Afghanistan to such an extent that when the Taliban, which has links with the ISI across the border, mounts terrorist strikes in Afghanistan, President Ashraf Ghani speaks to Raheel Sharif rather than Nawaz Sharif!

The general has shown similar disregard for constitutional norms on issues of internal security. He mounted a large-scale attack on the Pashtun tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, ruthlessly using artillery and air strikes, after the Pakistani Taliban attack on the army school in Peshawar. These operations, named Zarb-e-Azb, have rendered 800,000 tribals homeless, with an estimated 50,000 fleeing into Afghanistan. The entire operation was mounted in the face of opposition from both the provincial and federal governments, and without parliamentary approval.

Raheel Sharif showed similar disregard for the views of the federal and provincial governments in his crackdown, using the army controlled Paramilitary Rangers to crush the MQM Party in Karachi. Meanwhile, the brutal army repression in Baluchistan continues. Despite being lauded as a “saviour” by sections in Pakistan, Raheel Sharif has laid the foundations for prolonged unrest in three of Pakistan’s four provinces.

The retaliation

In these circumstances, the Nawaz government hit back with leaks to the Dawn newspaper, alleging that support of the army and ISI for groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Haqqani Network in Afghanistan have led to the diplomatic isolation of Pakistan across the world, with even “all-weather friend” China expressing misgivings. This sentiment echoed widely in Pakistan’s parliament.

The fact that India’s surgical strike has been welcomed by the US and the European Parliament, and that this has accompanied a boycott of the Saarc summit in Islamabad, has given Nawaz Sharif more political space to act. He can now move to replace Raheel Sharif, who is due to retire on November 29, with a person of his choice. This will happen, unless, in the meantime, the Supreme Court acts against Nawaz Sharif on allegations of corruption and money-laundering, or if a proposed agitation by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf’s Imran Khan paralyses the government and invites army intervention. Nawaz Sharif may, therefore, name the new army chief well before November 29.

Raheel Sharif will likely recommend the most senior officer, Lt-Gen Zubair Hayat, presently the chief of general staff, to be the next army chief. Hayat is highly regarded and briefly headed the strategic plans division of Pakistan’s Nuclear Command Authority. But Sharif will be wary of appointing a trusted buddy of Raheel. Hayat could well be “kicked upstairs” to the largely ceremonial, but seniorpost of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC). As the CJCSC heads the Nuclear Command Authority, Hayat’s appointment could be justified on the grounds of his earlier association with the Nuclear Command Authority.

In that case, Sharif could look lower down the list, amongst officers of comparable seniority. He could possibly appoint Lt-Gen Iqbal Ramaday, who has impeccable family credentials and is presently Corps Commander Bahawalpur, or Lt-Gen Qamar Bajwa, said to be a competent officer, who evidently has reservations about extremist jihadi outfits. Bajwa presently holds the same post that Raheel did, before he was appointed army chief.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

Published on October 19, 2016
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