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October 12, 2017

On the mend


October 12, 2017

Something that was written off as highly unlikely happened during that fateful week in July. Pakistan lost a sitting prime minister and was endowed with a foreign minister who has just finished making the rounds in Washington DC. While Nawaz Sharif denied Pakistan a full-time foreign minister, his team members defended that anomaly by saying that the PM was his own foreign minister. I hope the former premier followed his handpicked Khawaja Asif stealing the limelight in the world’s premier capital by making Pakistan’s case in his own frank and blunt style.

You may not approve of Asif’s rustic phrases, but he has sent the country’s viewpoint across and made waves in Washington and elsewhere. He came under attack from the self-styled guardians of Pakistan’s security for acknowledging the need for Pakistan to set its house in order. Frankly, if our house was in order, why were we unable to counter the narrative about Pakistan harboring militants?

The foreign minister told his US interlocutors rather bluntly that militancy was their idea and jihadi leaders were “wined and dined” by them in DC. Hafiz Saeed took umbrage to that claim by asserting that he doesn’t drink. As it is, the Mujahideen leaders received in Washington were mostly from an older generation.  

The superpower knows all too well that turning Afghanistan into Moscow’s Vietnam was their idea. But the US and its allies should at least acknowledge that their invasion largely pushed the jihadis from across the world, who had gathered in Afghanistan, into Pakistan. When confronted by Pakistan, they simply turned their suicide bombers against Pakistan. The rest of the story is known to all.

It has taken Pakistan years to establish the state’s writ in the tribal areas. As militant networks were entrenched in cities and rural areas as well, eliminating them required operations by the military, the paramilitary forces and the police. It’s a pity that what the US had allotted to Pakistan as coalition support funds has now been billed as the largesse of billions of dollars.

President Trump’s bluster against Pakistan provoked a strong reaction in Pakistan. His threat to punish Pakistan did not enjoy unanimous support in the US where many were quick to claim that Washington could not bypass Pakistan to address the intractable problems in Afghanistan. As was the case after 9/11, the US will soon recognise that India can play a marginal role in the landlocked country. What is more, India is not keen to send its forces into Afghanistan.

There is little surprise then that the US has been trying to mend fences with Pakistan while maintaining its original stance that Pakistan eliminate any support networks on its territory. As a pressure tactic, they keep brandishing other measures notably taking Pakistan off the list of the Major Non-Nato Allies. Pakistan has finally started to take these accusations head-on and has asked the US to point out the so-called havens to enable the security forces to take action against them. Pakistan has also robustly refuted similar charges from India and pointed towards the daily violations along the LoC in Kashmir that have resulted in frequent casualties.

The army chief has stepped up his direct efforts to remove misgivings with the Afghan side and open the avenues for greater cooperation and fewer recriminations. However, his visit to Kabul and an invitation to the Afghan president to visit Pakistan have attracted criticism for sidelining the civilian government. It is ironic that while successive army chiefs have pursued the policy of narrowing the space for militants, their style of greater self-projection gives the impression that they are running the Afghanistan (and India) policy. ISPR’s profile keeps rising, which creates doubts about the civilian authority’s primacy that is enshrined in the constitution.

Nawaz Sharif’s sudden ouster has resulted in a PML-N government that fortunately has a greater managerial approach rather than governing through family or kitchen cabinets. Mian Sahib will do the country a favour by remaining the party chief rather than running the government on a day-to-day basis. Ishaq Dar can also do the nation a favour by stepping aside till he is exonerated from corruption charges. These steps would benefit and not harm the ruling party in the next elections.

Khawaja Asif’s meeting with Rex Tillerson led to the latter’s comment about the desire to see a stable government in Pakistan. It was a gentle message to all those who are trying to cleanse Pakistani politics of corruption through the elimination of selected politicians. This plan has been repeatedly enacted since Ayub Khan’s tenure. But its proponents fail to understand that surgical strikes by other institutions will not clean up politics.

As the grapevine about plans to wrap up the civilian order refuses to wither away, we wonder what the way forward is. There are those who claim that Sharif wants to be seen as a victim and may follow a reckless path to bring about a showdown. As the weather across Pakistan cools, it is also time for all players to deal with the ongoing crisis in a cool-headed manner. Nawaz Sharif should understand by now that motorways and CPEC cannot replace the time-honoured GT Road.

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