Will Nawaz Sharif wilt under pressure?

G PARTHASARATHY | Updated on March 09, 2018 Published on May 17, 2017

In a state of transition: Pakistan and its Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif   -  Reuters/CAREN FIROUZ

India must fine-tune its diplomatic strategies if it is to deal with power shifts and strategic challenges in its neighbourhood

The past eighteen months have seen a bitter power struggle in Pakistan between the elected government led by Nawaz Sharif, and his former army chief, the egotistical and overbearing Gen Raheel Sharif, who was desperately seeking an extension. In the event, Raheel Sharif’s ambitions were sidestepped and his ego assuaged by getting him appointed head of a Saudi-led military alliance of 41 Sunni Islamic countries. With the Panama Leaks exposing his vast foreign assets, including properties and industries, Sharif remains under pressure from a less than sympathetic supreme court, which has appointed a committee of civilian and military officials to further investigate and examine the charges against Sharif and his family.

To add to Sharif’s woes, he came under new pressures. In an act of brazen defiance and indiscipline, the army publicly challenged a notification issued by the prime minister’s office to deal with the leak of information, on a report in the respected Dawn newspaper. With a somewhat more rational army chief now holding office, Sharif has been able to ward off challenges from the army for the present. But he will have to expend time and effort in dealing with the supreme court and the charges of corruption. There is, however, little doubt that if he successfully deals with these issues, he can overcome the challenges posed by Imran Khan’s PTI and the Asif Ali Zardari-led PPP, and win the forthcoming parliamentary elections in 2018, even though the economic situation is fragile, with external debt growing rapidly.

Security compromised

Amidst these developments, Pakistan now faces serious challenges to peace and security along its land borders with Iran, Afghanistan and India. While Pakistan’s borders with India and Afghanistan have been traditionally disputed and tense, troubles on its borders with Iran grew as Pakistan got drawn into the American ‘war on terror’. Iranian Sunni extremist groups were armed and trained in Pakistan to attack targets across the Baluchistan-Iran border. The Iranians allege CIA-ISI involvement in these attacks by a group called Jundallah, now going by the name of Jaish ul-Adl (army of justice). Barely a fortnight ago, the Jaish ul-Adl mounted a cross-border attack on the Iranian town of Mirjaveh, near the Baluchistan-Iran border, killing 10 Iranian soldiers. After a visit by Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Jarif, produced only Pakistani platitudes, Iran’s army chief, Maj-Gen Mohammad Baqueri warned that his forces would attack terrorist havens within Pakistan unless Rawalpindi stopped cross-border attacks.

These developments coincided with escalating tension across the disputed Pakistan-Afghanistan border, leading to casualties on both sides and an assertion by President Ashraf Ghani that he would not visit Pakistan. The Taliban, meanwhile, stepped up its “spring offensive” across Afghanistan. Pakistan, in turn, accused Afghanistan of fomenting terror across the Durand Line, in collusion with India. In the meantime, the unpredictable and inconsistent Trump administration has indicated it will be enhancing its military deployment in Afghanistan and increasing Afghan fire-power. Jarif arrived in Kabul on May 7 amidst these developments. He called for greater cooperation between Kabul and Tehran in combating terrorism, saying: “There is no such thing as good terrorists and bad terrorists.” His Afghan counterpart, Salahuddin Rabbani, asserted that Afghanistan wants the neighbouring countries to work on dismantling the sources of funding of terrorist groups.

Taliban backers

It is now evident that with expectations of Russian and Chinese backing, Pakistan intends to continue its support for the Taliban. We need to have candid discussions with our Russian friends on this at the highest level. While Nawaz Sharif may want to meet Narendra Modi at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, it would be naïve to believe that the Pakistan army is going to relent on fomenting terrorism and violence in Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere in India. Given the fact that the Pakistani army and Sharif are not on the same page on the Kulbhushan Jadhav affair, India will have to wait and see if Sharif has the political space to spike the army’s intentions to continue on its present path, on this issue. Moreover, there should be no relenting on taking all available measures, overt and covert, to make Pakistan pay heavily for its adventurism in Jammu and Kashmir.

In light of these developments, Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Saudi Arabia for a get-together of the 41 member Sunni military alliance during the Saudi-Trump summit is clearly designed to use the occasion to persuade President Trump that Pakistan will be a steadfast ally in his war against ISIS and “radical Islam”. Whether Trump will be impressed by such posturing by Sharif, especially given his distrust of Pakistani policies on Afghanistan, remains to be seen. Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia is primarily to boost American arms sales to the oil-rich kingdom, cut deals in the energy sector and encourage the tough posture that Deputy Crown Prince Salman has adopted towards Iran and Yemen. Despite his loathing for Raheel Sharif, Nawaz will miss no opportunity to impress Trump with the fact that a Pakistani general is commanding the “Islamic Alliance”, while asserting Pakistan’s professed commitment to fight terrorism globally. But it is clear that Pakistan’s enthusiastic participation in a Saudi-led, American-backed military alliance is not going to please Iran.

Matters to consider

These are issues that are going to shape Indian diplomacy. New Delhi will need to discuss measures to squeeze Pakistan on its support for cross-border terrorism in discussions with Iran and Afghanistan, both bilaterally and trilaterally. Our unusual decision to publicise the cuts in oil imports from Iran needs to be reviewed, even as we press Iran to discard its reluctance to fulfil its commitments on Indian participation and investment in its energy projects.

In the meantime, delays in moving ahead on Chahbahar port must be addressed at the highest level. Modi has shown considerable skill in carrying out a delicate diplomatic balancing act in the Gulf and West Asia by developing good relations with all the major players — Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran and Egypt. These skills will be tested while dealing with the emerging scenario in our western neighbourhood.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

Published on May 17, 2017
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