Nawaz Sharif victory: Why India must erect more robust fences

Though we’re likely to get reams of gushing commentary on Pakistan’s new Prime Minister from candle-waving enthusiasts in coming days, there’s reason for caution.

Praveen Swami May 13, 2013 09:15:26 IST
Nawaz Sharif victory: Why India must erect more robust fences

It’s strange how soon it was forgotten, that autumn evening in 2008 when President Asif Ali Zardari danced with the angels and all was about to be well in the world. “India has never been a threat to Pakistan”," he told the Wall Street Journal in his midtown Manhattan suite, “I, for one, and our democratic government is not scared of Indian influence abroad”.  He called the Islamist insurgents in Kashmir “terrorists. He spoke of a future where  Pakistani factories would feed India’s huge cement needs, Pakistani ports helped decongest India’s clogged ones.

Muhammad Ajmal Kasaab and nine other Lashkar-e-Taiba were, we know from subsequent investigations, were at about that time making their preparations for 26/11.

Now, as Nawaz Sharif prepares to take office as Pakistan’s Prime Minister in the wake of a sweeping electoral triumph, New Delhi ought be reminding itself of this cautionary tale. In an interview to CNN-IBN’s Karan Thapar, Sharif has said everything Indians could hope for—and then some. He urged a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Kashmir, and promised that he would “make sure that the Pakistani soil is not used for any such [terrorist] designs against India”.  He spoke of enhanced trade ties, said he would examine allegations ISI involvement in 26/11, and promised full disclosure on Kargil: enough to melt the most hardened cynic’s heart.

Nawaz Sharif victory Why India must erect more robust fences

Nawaz Sharif voting during the election. Reuters

In geopolitics, as in life, there’s this good rule of thumb: if it looks too good to be true, it probably isn’t true. Though we’re likely to get reams of gushing commentary from candle-waving enthusiasts in coming days, there’s reason for caution.

There’s this reason, for one: the last time Sharif was prime minister, things didn’t go so well.  In February, 1999, he and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee signed the Lahore Declaration, committing both countries “to implementing the Shimla Agreement in letter and spirit”.  Three months later, Indian and Pakistani troops were exchanging fire in Kargil.

Even as the Lahore agreement was being drafted, we now know, Pakistani troops were being trained to push their way across the Line of Control. From 26 May and 29 May, 1999 conversations between army chief General Pervez Musharraf and his chief of general staff, Lieutenant-General Muhammad Aziz, intercepted by the Research and Analysis Wing, we also know Sharif was briefed on the fighting. Sharif insists he was told of the operation only after the war began. Musharraf insists Sharif was briefed about it back in February, 1999, before the Lahore deal.

From an Indian point of view, it doesn’t matter either way: Pakistan’s army, not the politicians, clearly call the shots on India.

This isn’t going to change—which is the second reason for being cautious.  The Pakistani defence analyst Ayesha Siddiqa notes that “a democratic transition does not mean the army is ready to surrender its control over security and foreign policies. Afghanistan (by extension Iran as well), India, the US and China are critical to the GHQ’s [General Head Quarters’] interests. These are non-negotiable areas”.

It’s true. In 2008, remember, Zardari ordered civilian control of Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, Less than two years on, he was ruefully conceding that “for the time being, this matter has been shelved”. For all of Zardari’s make-nice words, he couldn’t push through a deal on Kashmir, terrorism or even most-favoured nation status for India. General Pervez Ashfaq Kayani flatly said that “Pakistan army was an “India-centric institution”.

For those who doubt that the ISI still calls the political shots, watch this video, from around 10:10, in which a candidate for Imran Khan’s party happily admits that the intelligence service picked him to stand for election. This isn’t unusual: party lists are routinely submitted to the ISI’s political cell, maker and breaker of governments gone by, for clearance.

The third reason why we shouldn’t expect too much is this: Nawaz Sharif is beholden to the dregs of Pakistan’s jihadist movement, and the debt’s certain to be called in.  In the election campaign, Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz allied with the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi—responsible for the killings of hundreds of Pakistan’s Shi’a minority and a welter of terrorist strikes.  Sharif’s cosy relationship with Islamists dates back to 2008, when the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan helped ensure the election of his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, from Bhakkar in South Punjab. Malik Ishaq, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi’s head, was received with garlands by PML-N workers on his release from prison in July, 2011. The Sharif have also had long-standing links with the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

There has been barely a peep of condemnation out of Sharif on the massacres of Shi’a in Pakistan, variously attributed to opportunism, ideological empathy—and fear.This shouldn’t surprise us: by one credible account, judges used to offer Ishaq tea and cookies during his criminal trials.

Ehsanullah Ehsan, the spokesperson of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, made clear the jihadists see Sharif as one of their own.  In a statement, Ehsan stated the TTP’s reason for bombings and attacks on the Pakistan People’s Party, the Awami National party and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement “their secular doctrine”.

It’s possible some kind of confrontation will prove inevitable in the long run—tigers brought up the back-yard tend to eventually do damage to their masters—but Sharif’s immediate response is likely going to be appeasement of the powerful, and savage, forces which helped him win.

For Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, this ought be a moment to step back and introspect. The Prime Minister’s expansive pursuit of peace with Pakistan has been built on circumstances which are an historical anomaly. Following 9/11, the United States tempered Pakistan’s pursuit of its covert war strategies against India—fearful that a crisis that would compromise its position in Afghanistan.  In 2001-2001, following the near-war between India and Pakistan, it persuaded then-President Pervez Musharraf to back down on support for Kashmir jihadist groups, and enter into a ceasefire with India. Pakistan, in turn, faced an escalating spiral of violence within the country—again diminishing its appetite for confrontation abroad.

These pressures  facilitated a year-on-year fall of violence in Kashmir from 2002—and paved a way for diplomats Satinder Lambah and Tariq Aziz to formulate the outlines of a final-status deal on the dispute.

Now, as the United States prepares to leave the region, and Pakistan lurches ever-deeper into crisis, thee post-9/11 shackles will fall away. It’s entirely possible the Pakistan army will push for a hostile posture on India—hoping to attract the jihadists arrayed against it back into the fold.  Sharif may have no choice but to comply. Let’s also remember that democratically-elected governments with a clear mandate don’t always have good outcomes: the last truly free and fair election in Pakistan, Shuja Nawaz points out, ended up splitting the country in two.

Ever since Kayani took office, notably, he has focussed on mending fences with jihadists. Fighting along the Line of Control has increased; the ISI, we know from the testimony of Pakistani-American jihadist David Headley, actively backed 26/11. The Kashmir peace deal was buried.

For a decade, Prime Minister Singh worked towards a seamless South Asia, believing trade and people-to-people contact it will pave the way for a durable peace. The dream is a pleasant one, but historically ill-founded:  Europe on the eve of 1914, after all, was more integrated than at any time in history. Prime Minister Singh may be tempted to revive his pursuit of a borderless world now Pakistan has a strong civilian government—but the real lesson emerging from the election is that India needs to start erecting robust fences, not dismantle them.

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