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.”
As these efforts to engage the TTP devolved into an anti-state circus, the TTP continued with attacks against civilians and security forces. Pro-army talking heads, members of the opposition PPP and Muttahida Qaumi Movement, and officials in Sharif’s party vocally pushed back against these attacks against the legitimacy of the state. General Raheel Sharif, who took over as chief of army staff in November, issued several public pledges to defeat the terrorists.
The arrival of General Sharif, who assumed command of the army in November, has been made more pronounced by the relative absence and dovishness of Prime Minister Sharif. Under the command of General Sharif, the Pakistan Army has had a zero-tolerance policy toward terrorism, engaging in severe reprisal attacks against the TTP in North Waziristan since December. The Pakistani military’s aerial campaign then expanded into other parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The air campaign and specter of a ground operation against the TTP forced the terrorist group to announce a ceasefire on Saturday. In response, the civilian government has too initiated a ceasefire — a move that is more likely to allow the TTP to regroup than result in a sustained period of peace. If current trend lines in public opinion remain constant, the successes in the war against the TTP over the coming weeks and months will be mainly credited to General Sharif, and its failures attributed to Prime Minister Sharif.
While General Sharif has been indirectly contrasted in the Pakistani media with Prime Minister Sharif, he has also been directly compared to his predecessor, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who, post-retirement, has been criticized for not only being soft on the TTP toward the end of his tenure, but also overly ‘tolerant’ of the civilian democratic government.
With a cult of General Sharif in embryonic form and former military ruler President Pervez Musharraf set to be indicted for high treason next week, the seeds may have been set for a more proactive military involvement in Pakistani politics. In choosing to prosecute Musharraf and being soft — until recently — on the TTP, Prime Minister Sharif may have picked the wrong battle, earning the ire of the army’s rank and file and inadvertently elevating the stature of General Sharif.
Pakistan is nowhere near another coup. But if and when a ground operation in North Waziristan takes place, Pakistan needs Prime Minister Sharif to own not just the offensive, but the broader war against the TTP and other militant groups. It is a war for Pakistan’s future. When the time for war comes, Prime Minister Sharif must step out of the shadows, and make the case in both word and deed, for how Pakistan can become a democratic, diverse, and prosperous state that is at peace with itself and its neighbors.
Arif Rafiq is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and edits the PakistanRisk.com newsletter. He tweets at: @arifcrafiq.
Image: Flickr/itupictures. CC BY 2.0.