Public attention is now focused on what one sees as blatant efforts by Pakistan to foment terrorism and violence in Jammu and Kashmir. While dealing with this, New Delhi has to carefully monitor internal developments in Pakistan.

Returning home after his heart surgery in London, Pakistan’s beleaguered Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif must be preparing for difficult times ahead. Army chief General Raheel Sharif poses a serious challenge to his authority, and indeed his continuing as prime minister. These assertions had begun even before Sharif’s departure for London. General Sharif had sought to convey to visiting foreign dignitaries that he was the de facto head of government and at the very least, a co-equal of the prime minister.

General intrigue

With the prime minister convalescing in London, the army chief summoned virtually the entire cabinet, including the hapless defence minister Khwaja Asif, to the GHQ in Rawalpindi. He then virtually read out the riot act to the ministers nominally led by finance minister Ishaq Dar, holding charge in Sharif’s absence. The army chief then informed the entire cabinet what he believed needed to be done on a series of issues, commencing with the China-Pakistan economic corridor. He also reportedly dwelt on the conduct of international relations, with focus on the US, India and Afghanistan. Significantly, interior minister Chaudhry Nissar Ali Khan was spared this humiliation.

Nawaz Sharif can, however, take no consolation or comfort at his interior minister being out of all this. Nissar Ali Khan is known to have prime ministerial ambitions and is a protégé of the army. Faced with relentless pressure from the army to undermine and eventually remove him, Sharif was trying to mend fences with Asif Ali Zardari so that the PPP would not join the ‘Remove Sharif’ bandwagon. Sensing this, Chaudhry Nissar jumped into the fray to launch a tirade against Zardari and his Peoples’ Party, causing Zardari to threaten to retaliate politically.

While General Sharif has sworn that he has no intention to continue after his term ends on November 30, Nawaz Sharif knows that like Generals Zia, Musharraf and Kayani, General Sharif would love an extended tenure. He could achieve this by totally discrediting and weakening Sharif, or even having him replaced by someone like Chaudhry Nissar, or the army’s favourite, Imran Khan.

In these circumstances, Sharif’s major focus will lie on how to manage the intrigues and challenges posed by his army chief, at least till November 30. The effort to destabilise him will revolve around the Panama Gate revelations, involving the Panama bank accounts of his two sons, who live in London, and his daughter Maryam, who is evidently being groomed to succeed him. While this issue can be managed in parliament, especially with PPP support, Sharif knows that the army can create circumstances through Imran Khan and people such as Canada-based cleric Tahir-ul Qadri, to destabilise him.

Moreover, the army has made it clear that it will play the lead role in implementing the much touted China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and will, in any case, give very little space to the prime minister on relations with the US, China, India and Afghanistan.

This, combined with the army’s propensity to undertake military operations within Pakistan, without governmental or parliamentary approval, will inevitably reduce Sharif to a mere figurehead.

Afghan troubles

Domestic problems alone, however, are not the only challenges Sharif faces. Less than a week before his return, four Iranian border guards were killed in clashes along Iran’s border with Baluchistan. The Iranians were clearly displeased with the conduct of Raheel Sharif during the visit of President Rouhani to Pakistan.

In the meantime, tensions along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border have been ratcheted up, following clashes at the Torkham crossing point. Both armies reportedly used heavy weaponry and took casualties in these clashes. Quite clearly, Pakistan wishes to use these developments to compel Afghanistan to formally recognise the Durand Line as the international border, and by also threatening to force the return of 1.5 million Afghan refugees resident in Pakistan since the 1980s.

The Afghans have clearly no intention of pandering to Pakistani ambitions. While visiting Afghanistan recently, the veteran Pakistani Pashtun nationalist leader and chief of the Awami Milli Party, Mehmood Khan Achakzai, averred that he would not allow anyone to harass the refugees in their own land “because it also belongs to them”. He asserted that Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province “belongs” to the Afghans and they can live there without fear or invitation, adding that Afghans harassed in other parts of Pakistan could also come there. Achakzai’s comments rocked Islamabad. It was the first time in recent years a Pashtun leader had challenged the legitimacy of the Durand Line as the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. He also asserted that the traditional border extended up to Attock on the banks of the Indus, and includes parts of Baluchistan.

Pakistani media paranoia about Iran and Afghanistan is growing. Obviously based on ISI briefings, sections of Pakistan’s media are alleging cooperation between the Intelligence Services of Afghanistan and Iran to assist Baluch national leaders in their “freedom struggle” against Punjabi domination, with Achakzai acting as the facilitator. It also appears that the Americans are going to look the other way. But it is inevitable that ISI support for the Afghan Taliban will continue, raising the hackles of the Afghan government. China now remains Pakistan’s only supporter on its volatile western borders.

Bleak times

Can India expect any relief on cross-border terrorism because of these developments? While General Sharif is no fundamentalist, he loathes India. His uncle and brother lost their lives in conflicts with India in 1965 and 1971.

Institutionally, the Pakistan army uses tensions with India to wield unchallenged influence at home. In these circumstances, there is little that Nawaz Sharif can deliver on issues such as trade, economic cooperation and terrorism. While responding firmly to Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, New Delhi should realistically remember that the prospects for moving forward in relations with Pakistan are bleak.

The writer was high commissioner to Pakistan and Sri Lanka