Pakistan’s former prime minister Nawaz Sharif has insinuated that the Supreme Court’s decision to disqualify him is a consequence of challenging the military on cross-border terrorism. Nawaz Sharif’s politics are cynical, but does he have a point?
At the end of May, Pakistan’s elected assemblies will complete their scheduled five-year tenure and the country will embark on a 60-day campaign to democratically elect its next empowered national leader.
The alternative story, as narrated by three-time former prime minister Sharif, is that the forthcoming general election will decide whether Pakistan’s democracy will survive an Orwellian conspiracy by a domineering military to install puppets in his stead.
Since his disqualification, 68-year-old Sharif has sought to reinvent himself. The distant, regal prime minister has been replaced by a populist guardian of the sanctity of the democratic vote.
His rallying cry - “why was I ousted?” - has resonated among supporters of his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz in populous eastern Punjab province, home to more than half of the constituencies of the National Assembly.
Recent by-elections and public opinion polls suggest the party would comfortably retain its parliamentary majority, assuming the electoral process is not subjected to rigorous manipulation.
But Sharif and his supporters insist the fix is underway by a military-judiciary nexus.
Asked to enunciate his claims, however, Sharif steered the interview towards Pakistan’s growing diplomatic isolation over its failure to prevent cross terrorist attacks on neighbouring Afghanistan and India.
Despite the enormous human and economic cost of its successful decade-long war against Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan insurgents, “we have isolated ourselves…Afghanistan’s narrative is being accepted, but ours is not. We must look into it,” he said.
“Militant organisations are active. Call them non-state actors, should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai? Explain it to me. Why can’t we complete the trial? It’s absolutely unacceptable,” he said, referring to the stalled trial of Jamaat ud Dawa (accused of being a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba) activists accused of masterminding a three-day terrorist assault on India’s commercial centre in November 2008.
Sharif did not mention the military, but his insinuation could not have been clearer. He was adding his weighty voice to the US-led chorus which is demanding that Pakistan’s generals end their alleged support for terrorist groups like Jamaat ud Dawa and the so-called Haqqani Network.
Cynically, Sharif has sought to portray his power struggle with the military as a battle between Pakistani democracy and terrorism - indeed, his interview reads like an appeal for foreign intervention.
Nonetheless, Sharif has made a powerful point.
In the aftermath of the massacre of 140 children and staff at an army-run school in Peshawar in December 2014, the military publicly committed to no longer differentiate between so-called “good and bad” Taliban.
On the basis of that solemn promise, parliament warily granted the military extraordinary powers to expand counterterrorism operations under the National Action Plan.
Pakistan’s international partners, the US in particular, also temporarily eased pressure on the cross border terrorism issue to give the military one last chance to fulfil that promise.
In truth, neither Pakistan’s politicians nor its international partners believed the military would live up to its commitment.
Sharif hoped its failure would empower him to restart the process of dialogue he had initiated upon assuming power in June 2013. Within months, it had been scuttled by the sudden resurgence of militant activity in disputed Kashmir, as fighting between Pakistani and Indian forces flared there for the first time in a decade.
The US, too, was biding its time, eager to recast the intransigence of the Pakistani military in the context of China’s expanding role in continental Asia through President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.
It killed two birds with one stone in May 2016 by staging the drone-borne assassination of the Afghan Taliban chief, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, as he drove through Pakistan’s western Balochistan province, the focal area of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor linking Kashgar to the Arabian Sea.
As an active partner in a US-led quadrilateral alliance against the China, India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, also sought to exploit the situation by covertly fueling a low-key insurgency in Balochistan.
With its competitors circling, China had nothing to gain from being seen to support a Pakistani geopolitical policy with a shelf-life which expired on September 11, 2001. In February, it dropped its opposition to a US-led, India-backed move to place Pakistan back on an international terror financing watch list. Last month, Xi and Modi agreed to explore joint development projects in Afghanistan.
However duplicitous their tactics and objectives, the US and India have completely outmanoeuvred the authors of Pakistan’s foreign policy narrative. By persisting with it, Pakistan’s military would be as responsible for inviting foreign intervention as Sharif is with his cynical misrepresentation of their domestic power struggle.
President Donald Trump has made no secret of his intention to punish Pakistan for America’s complete mishandling of the war in Afghanistan, and he is being egged on by the warlords of Afghanistan’s manufactured government.
Like Orwell’s characters in “Animal Farm”, if Napoleon and Snowball don’t stop bickering over the supremacy of two legs or four, Pakistan’s sovereign interests will end up like Boxer - in the knacker’s yard.
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