Sharif versus Sharif
The prime minister’s hopes of confining his generals to barracks take a knock
Jun 14th 2014 | ISLAMABAD | From the print edition
WHEN he romped to victory in Pakistan’s general election last summer, Nawaz Sharif looked to be the man who might finally bring to heel the over-mighty army that, 14 years earlier, had deposed him during his second stint as prime minister and sent him into exile. Taming the army was always going to be a tall order in a country that generals have ruled for almost half its history and whose (often self-defeating) foreign and defence policies they have always controlled. But Mr Sharif had advantages which no previous civilian leader had enjoyed: an outright parliamentary majority; an independent-minded media; and an opposition that was unlikely to be beguiled by military plots, having suffered from them itself.
Yet a year on, his attempt to make Pakistan into a country where civilians are supreme is foundering. The government has just lost a battle with the army over Geo, the country’s most popular private news broadcaster. The army took offence at the station and got its licence suspended. The army has won a legal victory in the case against Pervez Musharraf, the general who toppled Mr Sharif in 1999 and is on trial for treason. And it is pushing back against the prime minister’s attempt to hold peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban and his year-long refusal to endorse military demands for a campaign against the group in north Waziristan, on the border with Afghanistan. This week, the Pakistani Taliban attacked the international airport in Karachi, the country’s largest city, in a mercifully unsuccessful attempt to hijack or destroy aeroplanes. It was a vivid and uncomfortable reminder of how little accommodation with the group is achieving.
Relations between Mr Sharif and the army chief (also called Sharif, General Raheel Sharif) were always going to be fraught. The worry is that the prime minister is causing bad blood without achieving much as a result.
Last June he took the momentous decision to charge a former army chief with treason. If the general is found guilty it would be a huge step towards ending the army’s culture of impunity. Partly because of that, many people thought Mr Musharraf would be allowed to skip the country on one pretext or another after he had been indicted by the special court on March 31st. At first, this did not happen. The government banned the general from foreign travel and his trial ground slowly on. But on June 6th, a high court in Karachi ordered Mr Musharraf’s name to be struck off the so-called exit-control list, paving the way for him to leave. The government can appeal. But the verdict clearly helps the army in its struggle with the government over Mr Musharraf’s fate. Mr Sharif must now decide whether to keep on fighting this battle—or capitulate.
His dilemma is that if falls in with the generals he would end up little better than Asif Ali Zardari, his rival whose Pakistan Peoples Party government survived a full term in power largely by doing very little. On the other hand, as the recent row over Geo television shows, confrontation carries big risks, too.
On April 19th the private news channel’s leading anchorman, Hamid Mir, was shot by gunmen in Karachi (he survived). Geo promptly aired unproven allegations by Mr Mir’s brother that the attack had been ordered by Zaheer-ul-Islam, the general in charge of the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), the powerful military-espionage agency (which denied involvement).
The station’s claim precipitated a split between military and civilian leaders. General Sharif visited ISI headquarters and lauded “the contributions and sacrifices of its officers”. Mr Sharif rushed to Mr Mir’s bedside, supposedly telling confidants that he would rather be ousted in a coup than allow Geo to be closed down.
In the event, the army got its way after an ugly period in which Geo’s journalists were harassed, the station sued the ISI for defamation and its commercial rivals accused it of everything from blasphemy to being “anti-state”. On June 6th Geo’s broadcasting licence was suspended for 15 days and it was ordered to pay a fine. That it took seven weeks to shut the station down showed how much military power has diminished. But the fight inflicted considerable damage on the civilian authorities.
That damage has been made worse by the behaviour of some politicians. Coups had been thought to be things of the past because Pakistan’s veteran political leaders had at last learned to stand together against the army, whatever the differences between them. Mr Sharif resisted the temptation to bring down Mr Zardari during his unsteady five years in power and today Mr Zardari is returning the favour. But Imran Khan, whose Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party won the second-largest number of votes at last year’s election, is not playing the same game. At huge rallies, the former cricketer claims Mr Sharif stole last year’s election and says he will bring the government down.
Mr Sharif’s political problems have been compounded by the generals’ efforts to undermine his policy of dealing softly-softly with the Pakistani Taliban. General Sharif has been gradually escalating what the army describes as “retaliatory strikes” in North Waziristan. The political risk for Mr Sharif in going along with such a crackdown are anyway fading as it becomes clearer that peace talks (agreed to by Mr Sharif in March and relentlessly promoted by Mr Khan) are not working. The military build-up is thus likely to continue whether or not Mr Sharif gives the army the full-throated support its generals want.
The upshot of all this has been to weaken the prime minister and poison relations between the government and the army just when Pakistan faces some big strategic decisions. In India there is a new nationalist government and talk of progress on energy, trade and visas. Afghanistan will soon have a new president as it prepares for life without NATO combat troops. Potentially, this could give Pakistan a chance to break out of its often defensive prickliness. Mr Sharif says he wants good relations with his two neighbours and an end to the arms race with India on which both countries have frittered away their resources. But so long as he is embroiled in disputes with the army—institutionally suspicious of India and addicted to controlling Afghanistan through Islamist proxies—his government seems unlikely to rise to the occasion.