Friday, March 27, 2009

CHANGING HORSES WON'T HELP IN PAKISTAN

By

SUSHANT SAREEN

    The sudden rediscovery by the Americans and the British of the potential usefulness of Nawaz Sharif as an ally who can deliver in the War on Terror is nothing but a sign of their growing cluelessness, helplessness and desperation. Quite clearly, the Western powers are clutching at any and every thing that they think will help to extricate them from the pit that they continue to dig for themselves in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the process, they are ignoring the fact that the inimical forces at play today in the 'Af-Pak' region cannot be reined in merely by a change of face, even if that new face comes riding the wave of popularity among the people.

    Forget Nawaz Sharif, even Mullah Omar will not be much help simply because what the West is fighting is a maniacal mindset and a deep-seated radically hostile religious philosophy that transcends individuals. Instead of cosmetic and symbolic changes, what is required is a strategic overhaul that involves demonstration of unflinching commitment (no talk of withdrawal and no suing for a dialogue), application of overwhelming force (not just bombs from the air but also boots on the ground) and complete intolerance for any double-dealing (by making an example of anyone or any organisation found to be indulging in it).

No doubt, this new strategy will be more effective if it enjoys the backing of a credible, courageous, committed and clever political leader who is able to carry the people with him. But whether Nawaz Sharif is such a leader is something on which the jury will be out until the cows come home. Of course, Nawaz Sharif is very popular among a section of the Pakistani public. His right-wing, conservative politics sits well in a polity that is increasingly gravitating towards social conservatism and religious orthodoxy. As compared to a left-of-centre party like the PPP, it is easier for a right-of-centre politician like Nawaz Sharif to bring around those who are on the extreme right. Some people believe that his own Islamist leanings coupled with his links with Islamist parties like Jamaat Islami could come handy in starting a dialogue with the militant Islamist insurgents in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

At the same time, being a mainstream politician he understands the realities, compulsions and complexities of both domestic and international politics. As Prime Minister he adopted quite a pragmatic approach to managing the competing and often contradictory pulls and pressures of Pakistani politics, particularly on issues like relations with the US and India. The fact that he has proved that he is able to stand up to US pressure (for instance, on the issue of nuclear tests in 1998) and still maintain good relations with the Americans adds to his credibility both at home and abroad. His approach to India, especially in his second term as prime minister was a refreshing break from the past and held the promise of normalisation of relations between the two countries until it was sabotaged by the Pakistan army in Kargil. His extremely close relationship with the Saudis is yet another factor that can come in handy in manoeuvring through the minefield of Pakistani politics.

Clearly, on the face of it, Nawaz Sharif has enough going for him – much more than Asif Zardari – to be considered as the man on whom the Americans and other Western powers can hitch their wagon. But as happens so often, a closer examination of the assumptions being made about Nawaz Sharif tend to nullify many of the advantages he is considered to enjoy over his political rivals.

In a sense, the reappraisal of Nawaz Sharif today is almost similar to the way in which Benazir Bhutto was seen as the only credible political option that could add strength to the war effort then being guided by Gen. Pervez Musharraf. At that time, the Americans bought the line being sold to them by Pakistani liberals that Musharraf's political allies in PMLQ are more of a liability than an asset. The Americans were convinced that only a power sharing arrangement between a liberal and popular force like PPP and the military establishment under Musharraf could deliver the goods. Now, the opposite line is being sold, i.e. a right-wing party like PMLN is better placed than a liberal party to forge a political consensus in favour of the War on Terror inside Pakistan. Given that both PMLQ and PMLN have a common political DNA, what are the chances that PMLN will succeed where PMLQ failed? Is Nawaz Sharif alone enough to make the difference?

This question acquires a greater salience given the limited area of Nawaz Sharif's political popularity. Sharif's critics are quite correct when they refer to Nawaz Sharif's party as GT Road party. In other words, his popular appeal is limited to the Lahore-Rawalpindi belt (essentially Central and North Punjab). This area is extremely important not only electorally but also in terms of influencing events in Islamabad, as became clear during the successful movement for restoration of the chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. Large scale unrest in this belt is enough to pull down any government. But overwhelming support in this belt cannot be construed to constitute national consensus. Therefore even if Nawaz Sharif is brought to power, and assuming he is able to sway his supporters to back the War on Terror, his effectiveness in rest of the country – Sindh, South Punjab, Balochistan, and NWFP – is an open question. Although Nawaz Sharif does have some support in the Hazara belt of NWFP, he is a minor player in the Pashtun areas of the province and in the tribal belt, FATA, which are the real troubled areas.

There are also questions marks around Nawaz Sharif's acceptability among the top brass of the Pakistan army. Despite his pragmatism on many issues, Sharif can also be very obstinate and single-minded on issues that become his obsession. For instance, he is totally uncompromising on ending the military's influence in Pakistan's politics. Under normal circumstances, Sharif should be supported in this endeavour. But at a time when the Pakistan army is purportedly engaged in a life and death struggle for saving the country, any attempt at its political castration could easily lead to a reaction – either directly against the government or indirectly by sabotaging the government's anti-terror strategy - that could destabilise the entire system.

His influence among the Islamists should also not be overstated. Parties like Jamaat Islami are no longer in the vanguard of the militant Islamist movement but are agents, collaborators and supporters of the main players. In fact, if the Islamist political parties were to oppose the insurgents, they would become the targets of attacks. In any case, an ambivalent attitude that Nawaz Sharif is likely to adopt towards the Islamists, is not going to be very helpful in crushing the insurgency. Instead, it will add to their strength. What is needed is an unequivocal commitment against radicalism, something that Nawaz Sharif is not likely to make.

Finally there is the catch 22 situation in which Nawaz Sharif will find himself in his ties with the Americans. As soon as Nawaz Sharif is seen to be playing the American game – this being the primary reason why he will be brought to power in the first place – he will lose his credibility and much of his popularity. Given that he will be expected to broadly follow the policy that was handed down by the Americans to Musharraf and Asif Zardari, it will severely compromise his ability both to influence the Islamist insurgents and convince his own supporters to back the War on Terror.

Therefore, if at the end of the entire 'Bring Nawaz Sharif to power' exercise, the Americans will be back to square one, what sense is there in rooting for a change at the top in the political power structure of Pakistan?

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    <1315 Words>                    27th March, 2009

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1 Comments:

Blogger Raymond Turney said...

Hi,

Though I'm not personally a big fan of the "Get on the Nawaz Sharif bandwagon" school of thought, I can see where its advocates are coming from.

The US is looking hard for an even halfway decent option in Pakistan. Musharraf has failed, Zardari looks to be dying a basically slow death, and there aren't any decent pro-US options in sight. I think Gilani, or even Sherry would be a better bet than Sharif, since they at least favor the things that we want. But let's face it, none of these people are what the US wants.

Ray,

12:03 AM  

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