The Fledgling Erdogan on the Indus

Pakistan's prime minister Nawaz Sharif is pulling pages from a Turkish playbook.

When Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif assumed the premiership for the third time last June, his priorities seemed to echo those originally pursued by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan: reviving the economy, putting the military back in the barracks, achieving a political resolution to a longstanding ethnic separatist insurgency, and aiming for “zero problems” with neighboring states.

Sharif's agenda was nothing short of ambitious, especially given the difficult hand his Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N) government was dealt. The preceding government led by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) grossly mismanaged the country’s economy, stuffing state-owned enterprises (SOEs) that were already bleeding cash with party workers and treating the nearly empty state exchequer like an ATM machine. Since last June, the PML-N government has worked assiduously to fast track much-needed energy projects, the privatization of SOEs, and the auctioning of 3G and 4G wireless spectrum licenses. While its performance on the economy has been mixed at best — food inflation has spiked and growth will remain tepid for at least the next fiscal year — the PML-N government has earned what his predecessor failed to: the confidence of Beijing, which has offered tens of billions of dollars in assistance for energy and infrastructure development projects.

When it comes to national security, there are natural limits to what Sharif can do. The army has historically remained autonomous from civilian control, especially when it comes to dealing with domestic and foreign militants. This imbalance cannot be corrected overnight.

Also, bordered by Afghanistan, China, India, and Iran, Pakistan’s domestic insurgent and terrorist threats are deeply intertwined with complex regional politics. For example, the head of the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the main Islamist insurgent group fighting Islamabad, operates from safe havens in Afghanistan — a miniaturized, mirror image of the Afghan Taliban safe havens inside Pakistan. Resolving Pakistan’s own Taliban problem hinges on a political settlement between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban — something that will not be possible until after Afghanistan’s elections this April. To its credit, the PML-N government does recognize that its principal national security challenges are interwoven. As a result, it has been keen to stabilize relations with Kabul, New Delhi, and Washington as leadership transitions take place in Afghanistan and India.

Still, even after factoring in the aforementioned structural constraints, the PML-N government’s performance on national security and civil-military relations has been poor. It has eschewed institution building, relying instead on ad hoc arrangements and quick fixes that do little to resolve Pakistan’s systemic weaknesses.

Rather than reforming the police, judicial, and prison systems whose deficiencies result in an astoundingly high acquittal rate for accused terrorists, the PML-N government has issued the draconian Protection of Pakistan Ordinance (PPO). The ordinance gives the government the power to declare citizens “enemy combatants” and even strip them of their citizenship. It also authorizes

the use of greater lethal force by the security forces and creates special courts to try suspected terrorists. There is risk that convictions through PPO courts could be wiped away if the ordinance faces judicial review and is struck down.

Pakistan has needlessly lagged on instituting basic measures to bolster the prosecution of terrorists. Islamabad as well as three out of the four provincial governments have yet to pass legislation creating a witness protection program. And seven months after a major jailbreak by the Taliban, it appears that only in the Sindh province have prisons begun to use cell phone signal jammers to prevent terrorist inmates from chatting with other militants on the outside and threatening witnesses. Adnan Rashid, a TTP inmate who orchestrated a massive jailbreak in 2012, had multiple cellphones while in prison. While under bars, he also married, conceived a child, and even called a prominent Pakistani lawyer on multiple occasions to solicit legal advice.

What is perhaps most glaring is the absence of prime ministerial leadership. It appears that Sharif has yet to reconcile with the fact that he is not simply a CEO tasked with rejuvenating economic growth, but he is also a wartime prime minister whose responsibility is to defend the existence of his state and fellow citizens.

Sharif’s strategy toward the TTP has been one of appeasement. He has remained wedded to the idea of talks with the TTP, despite the deaths of hundreds of security personnel and civilians since September. Sharif outsourced outreach to the TTP to various Islamists, some of whom were more sympathetic to the militant group than to the state. For example, Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, who had served as Sharif’s conduit to the TTP in December was later appointed by the terror group in February to a committee representing it in Islamabad. Meanwhile, another member of the TTP’s Islamabad committee, Maulana Abdul Aziz Ghazi, appeared on more than dozen talk shows this month, declaring Pakistan’s constitution “un-Islamic.”