Without a holistic strategy addressing Afghanistan, India and also the United States, Mr Sharif cannot even begin to solve the domestic terrorism problem
Two months into his third stint, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his core team’s handling of the national security debate has been cavalier and sloppy at best, and downright dangerous at worst. The ostensibly well-oiled political machine that was supposed to have replaced the chaotic governance of the outgoing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has yet to issue a coherent statement on the domestic counterterrorism issue and the national security and foreign policies, which Mr Sharif and his associates have been promising after every major terrorist attack. About 60 terror incidents in as many days have not really instilled a sense of urgency. No sane person wants Mr Sharif’s government to fail on the anti-terrorism front or elsewhere for that matter.
We had noted here at the start of Mr Sharif’s term that “his cautious approach early in his stint is understandable but if Mr Sharif does not delineate his idea of the national interest, chances are that the usual suspects who have had a chokehold on formulating such definitions will do it for him. It might not be too long before the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) finds in its lap issues like the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act, which were used to set the national security narrative against the PPP.” Also, within days of President Asif Zardari’s October 2008 interview with The Wall Street Journal to start with a clean slate in India, the Mumbai massacre was unleashed. With the volatility along the Pakistan-India Line of Control in Kashmir, Mr Sharif already has a mini-Mumbai situation on his hands, if not something worse. His previous generic remark that ‘Pakistan and India should be friends’ is not enough. The usual suspects may be defining the national interest for Mr Sharif and perhaps the domestic redlines that they don’t want him to cross.
Newly elected democratic governments must spell out their policy agenda right at the start when they are flush with political capital amassed along the campaign trail and through the ballot. Institutional inertia, turf wars and real or perceived performance issues are bound to gnaw at the political fortunes of even the best government, rendering tough decision-making even tougher. If Mr Sharif does not move quickly he may find relations with India, one area that he has been somewhat vocal about, slipping from his hands. He has been rather reticent about Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy while his understanding of — and solutions proposed for — domestic terrorism look skin deep. It is disconcerting that a third-term chief executive does not seem to think that these three issues are tied together and to the perennially lopsided civilian-military relationship in Pakistan. Without a holistic strategy addressing Afghanistan, India and also the United States, Mr Sharif cannot even begin to solve the domestic terrorism problem. The terrorist disaster at home is a direct consequence of Pakistan’s skewed worldview and a regional policy gone awry. Addressing these issues piecemeal would be treating symptoms without making — or in Mr Sharif’s case quite possibly ignoring — the principal overarching diagnosis.
The initial outlines of the national security policy that the PML-N leaders, especially the Minister for Interior Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan who has resurfaced after going Missing In Action for days, keep pledging every few days suggest that no earthshaking measures are to be expected. The schema incorporates buzzwords like ‘dismantle, contain, prevent, educate, reintegrate’ and is focused on several administrative realignments between the existing security and intelligence agencies and perhaps adding another layer of a counterterrorism force. Foreign policy rethink is mentioned nominally. Basic housekeeping measures for a country facing terrorism for decades are being peddled as a comprehensive counterterrorism policy. Streamlining intelligence sharing between a slew of intelligence agencies, establishing a collective decision making structure or making the existing National Counter Terrorism Authority functional and establishing its command chain, and properly equipping and training the forces, would really be common sense steps not some paradigm shift.
Sadly, the PML-N, which was the main opposition party at the Centre and the ruling party in Punjab for five years, had no blueprint ready when it took charge. The Interior Minister has rightly lamented that no one bothered to formulate and implement a national security policy for the last 12 years. But he and his colleagues had the same 12 years to work on a policy that could have been put into practice off the bat. The minister’s ‘This is not our war’ rhetoric remains deeply disconcerting. He cannot put the brave men of the police and armed forces in harm’s way for a war that he has hesitation in owning. Without naming the enemy and defining the cause to fight for, Mr Khan and his bosses are adding to the fog of war, not clearing it. If the idea were to appease or not confront the Taliban by not naming them, it would not work. As the recent Taliban threat to the PML-N asking it to desist from executing jihadists on death row suggests, they are focused and demand submission, not negotiations. However, since the PML-N and Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf have successfully skewed the narrative in favour of talks with the terrorists, they will have to exhaust that option before any decisive action can be taken.
The Pakistani security establishment has consistently indicated that it is ostensibly at the civilian leadership’s beck and call to launch any operation. Never mind that the army did not ask for civilian backing for its notorious Balochistan operations and has consistently dragged its feet on the North Waziristan operation against its ‘good’ Taliban, at least since 2010. Nonetheless, the civilian leadership can call their bluff. But for that it would have to have its own house in order and competently at that, but let’s not hold our breath. It is safe to predict that Pakistan will remain hostage to its learned helplessness in the foreseeable future. The Pakistani military has really no desire and very little external pressure to correct course and take on its jihadist assets this close to the 2014 US drawdown from Afghanistan. Mr Nawaz Sharif’s desire to boss the military brass notwithstanding, his game plan to fix the civil-military imbalance seems like a non-starter. One wonders if the PML-N’s ‘grand strategy’, like the army’s, is to wait till 2014 when the ‘bad’ Taliban can be offloaded onto Afghanistan and even India. Mr Sharif’s sloppiness, whether by design or by default, so early in his term does not bid well for his government, Pakistan and the region.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets @mazdaki