Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s decision to bar Dawn’s Cyril Almeida from travelling out of Pakistan is a clear indication that he had backed off from his brief tussle with Pakistan army and is back to square one. For a while after Uri, Sharif, not a friend of the army ever since he was ousted in a bloodless coup by Pervez Musharraf, tried to create some space for himself. But that effort has fizzled off, and now he is going out of his way to make amends. The travel ban on Cyril Almedia is to appease an angry army.
Sharif was hoping that the diplomatic fall-out of the Uri attack may give his embattled government a chance to take on the powerful Pakistan military, which has reduced him to a cipher since corruption allegations against his family surfaced in April. The effort to get the army to listen to the civilian government is off for now. Chances of success were dim, considering that the generals have never lost a battle with the elected government but with the international opinion against Pakistan, he hoped to muster some semblance of power.
After the Uri attack, when India went to the United Nations (UN) and spoke of Pakistan sponsoring terror attacks, it was not difficult to convince the international community. After all, Mumbai had happened. So had the Pathankot attack. No action had been taken by Pakistan in either case. Moreover, the US and other Nato countries had learnt about the Pakistan army’s reluctance to act against certain terror groups from their experience in Afghanistan.
Almeida’s report in Dawn that the civilian government, including the Prime Minister’s brother Shahbaz Sharif, had asked the army not to interfere when terrorists were arrested by the police as Pakistan was facing international isolation is an indication of the fight back by the Pakistan Muslim League (PML). Pakistani journalists believe that talk of international isolation of Pakistan is being promoted by the ruling party.
"So who’s peddling the line that things are going wrong on the foreign policy front and Pakistan faces isolation? Elements in the government. And because the army command is being held responsible for these failures, this tack, suddenly so pronounced, amounts to an indirect assault on the army… a chance to get back at the army command for all the acute discomfort caused to the government over the last three years by General Raheel Sharif’s public standing… his popular hero status," well-known commentator Ayaz Amir wrote in The News.
Amir also regards this as a way for Prime Minister Sharif to choose the next army chief when General Raheel Sharif retires in November. He goes on to say : "But there is also a more pragmatic angle to this line of attack. As General Raheel’s retirement draws nearer, and the question of appointing his successor comes to the fore, raising an alarm over Pakistan’s purported drift towards isolationism at the army’s hands is a way for the government to claw back space and freedom to appoint its own man as the next army chief."
Perhaps Sharif would have been able to put up a better fight if all political parties in Pakistan had spoken in one voice about the need to deal with all terror groups. But as in India, when the national mood is against the neighbour and war clouds loom on the horizon, nationalism comes to the fore. No political party can risk going against public sentiment. That is why Nawaz Sharif cannot be openly seen to go against the army. The political parties busy with their own electoral fortunes are loath to shed their differences and close ranks against the military.
Sharif won national elections with a huge mandate in 2013. But it has not helped him to stave off pressure from the army. The Panama revelations, where three members of his family are said to have off-shore companies located in British Virgin isles, has been a blow to Sharif. He has had to yield much ground to the army since these became public. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief and former cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan took the opportunity once again to start a street agitation against him. In 2014 he had done the same thing asking for his resignation. This time, he is agitating against corruption involving Sharif and his family. Khan and his party had marched up to Raiwind, the family home of the Sharif brothers. Another march is planned for later this month, this time in Islamabad.
As the civilian government got enmeshed in the fallout of members of the PM’s family having offshore companies, the Pakistani public, which had given a massive mandate to Sharif, again felt let down by the politician.
Politicians, especially the two main national parties: the Pakistan Muslim League of the Sharif brothers and the Pakistan Peoples Party of the Bhutto-Zardari clan are heaped together as the corrupt bunch bent on self- aggrandizement.
As Sharif is losing ground in Pakistan, the army’s popularity has grown. Army commander General Raheel Sharif is an all time favourite at the moment. This has much to do with the army’s role hitting hard at the Pakstani Taliban, which till the attack on the army school in Peshawar had allowed the militants to do pretty much what they pleased. After the tragedy in Peshawar, the army hit the Taliban and launched a successful campaign against them. The army was also able to bring a semblance of control in Karachi. The army was once again regarded by ordinary citizens as the only institution that can keep Pakistan together.
It is no wonder that Nawaz Sharif, and the PML has backed off and journalist Cyril Ameida has to bear the brunt of this futile attempt.