Sharif versus the Military?
By Uzair M. Younus
Pakistan’s government is preparing for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Washington, DC this month. But with representing his country during a period of military growth in Pakistan, who is in charge of the country remains in question.
When Sharif took office in 2013, one of his first acts to assert power was to build political consensus for a paramilitary operation against the criminal gangs and terrorist groups that had brought Karachi to a standstill.
Karachi, a megalopolis consisting of almost 20 million people , began its descent into hell in 2007 when it entered a protracted period of assassinations, rampant extortion, frequent acts of terrorism, and politically motivated violence. Now, thanks to Sharif’s security onslaught, crime is down 70 percent and security forces have wrested control over areas once held by terrorist organizations.
While Karachi’s rehabilitation can be credited to Sharif’s political concord, that tenuous amity is breaking down as the political elites of the city bicker and questions crop up over who is really in control and for what motivations.
The consensus for the military involvement began to unravel when the Karachi operation was expanded to include politically connected groups — such as the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) — that were involved in extortion and other criminal activities. MQM chief Altaf Hussain, exiled in London, thundered against the army via his telephonic addresses. Even PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari, a man who rarely lost his cool, railed against the military establishment .
Both parties shared the same view : Sharif had given in to the security establishment and ceded control of the military. The men in khaki uniforms were using this operation to weaken political parties while using their rise in popularity to tighten their grip over the country. Some analysts and scholars have concluded that Sharif has ceded control of the country’s security policy to Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif.
While the military is dominating policy, the conclusion that it has sidelined the prime minister is misguided. In fact, it is in the interest of Nawaz Sharif and his ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party to allow the security operation in Karachi to continue while maintaining some distance.
First, Sharif’s whole ruling agenda centers around economic growth . Karachi is the country’s financial heart and its largest port. Elites aligned with Sharif, largely centered in neighboring Punjab province’s industrial centers, need a safe environment in Karachi to grow their businesses and engage in trade with the rest of the world. If Karachi is made secure and allowed to grow economically, the economic core in Punjab from which Sharif draws his power prospers, thereby increasing his political fortunes.
Secondly, an ongoing security operation in Karachi keeps the two largest parties in that province, the MQM and PPP, preoccupied with more local affairs, rather than meddling in Sharif’s PML-N national agenda. With Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) failing to prove rigging allegations against the PML-N, Sharif can guarantee relatively smooth sailing for himself by ensuring that the PPP and MQM are kept on the back burner and forced to reorganize off the national stage.
Finally, Sharif recognizes instability and violence as Pakistan’s biggest challenges. While he could have led from the front, Sharif has let the military take the lead on this initiative. This may make him appear weak in the short-term as General Raheel Sharif takes all of the praise. In the medium- to long-term, however, this strategy could pay off for the prime minister. Come election time, the prime minister can make the case that the peace came on his watch.
With the military taking such a visible lead on operations from Waziristan against terrorists groups there to Karachi, any uptick in violence can be deflected as a failed military strategy. The prime minister can then go back to his initial stance and argue for a negotiations-based settlement to the conflicts paralyzing Pakistan. A decline in the fortunes of the military would further enable the prime minister to reach out to opposition parties and argue that he was under pressure from a military keen to tighten its grip.
It is true that Pakistan’s military establishment, more popular than it has been since the 1999 coup of General Pervez Musharraf, is riding on a high. But those that remember their history would recognize that politicians have proven far more adept at adjusting to the change in fortunes and public opinions. Musharraf and his Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Kayani also had their moments of soaring popularity, only to be disliked by their very own institutions. General Raheel Sharif might be riding on that high, but that does not mean that the men in uniforms have completely sidelined the prime minister. The ongoing security operations have been given constitutional cover by the federal government, cover that can be taken away should the political ground realities change. The power to do so lies with the prime minister, which makes him far more than a lame duck. - Foreign Policy Magazine