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Couped up: Sharif confronts assertive military

By Graham Cooke - posted Thursday, 29 August 2013

There was a hint of desperation about Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's televised address to the nation last week. The man who assumed office in June with a substantial parliamentary majority, promising a new approach to the country's many problems, now seems to be beaten down by them, uncertain about how to proceed, mouthing platitudes rather than presenting policy.

Addressing the country's long war against Islamic militants, which has claimed close to 50,000 lives since 2001, Sharif said he would welcome talks with Tehrik-i-Taliban, otherwise known as the Pakistani Taliban, the main, but by no means the only group in revolt against the State.

Saying that as Prime Minister, he felt every death in the conflict like it was a member of his family, Sharif said he was "willing to hold dialogue with those who have unfortunately adopted extremism…wisdom and mind-set demand such a way out to avoid further loss of innocent lives".


This was a softer approach than his Independence Day speech a few days earlier when he pledged "the absolute defeat of terrorists" as a way of turning the country into a "cradle of peace".

It is perhaps, asking too much of Sharif, or anyone else to have all the answers in a nation where, terrorism aside, corruption is endemic, the economy is in disarray and where electricity supply, even in the major cities, is problematical. Moreover, Sharif knows full well that in Pakistan, holding political power does not necessarily mean an unfettered right to chart the course ahead.

In 1999 he had a bigger parliamentary majority than he holds now when he decided to take on the country's military. His attempt to sack Army Chief Pervez Musharraf ended in Musharraf deposing him in a coup and sending him into exile.

The tables have certainly been turned in this regard. After quitting the presidency and spending time in self-imposed exile in London, Musharraf returned to Pakistan earlier this year expecting to be welcomed as a hero and encouraged to play a major role in the country's future. Instead he was put under house arrest and charged with conspiring in the death of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto who was assassinated in a bomb blast while campaigning for the 2008 national elections.

But while Musharraf is now very much yesterday's man, the Pakistani military remains a powerful, and to a certain extent, independent influence in the country under its current commander, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and there are clear signs that the general sees himself at least the equal of the president when it comes to deciding policy for Pakistan.

For instance, one of Sharif's first initiatives after winning the election was to call for better relations with India. That obviously did not suit Kayani, who is believed to have told Sharif to "go easy" on any such moves.


It was hardly a coincidence that shortly after, a patrol by Indian troops on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LoC) in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir was ambushed with five left dead. Survivors said their attackers were wearing Pakistani Army uniforms. Sharif's Government has stuck to the claim that they were terrorists wearing stolen army uniforms, but after some initial hesitation, that explanation is no longer being bought by anyone in authority in New Delhi and skirmishes have continued along the LoC ever since.

So what is the reasoning behind the determination of the Pakistani military to keep things on the boil with India in Jammu and Kashmir? The answer is linked with the United States decision to quit Afghanistan, and the largely unheralded but extraordinary success of the American drone program in identifying and eliminating terrorist leaders during incursions over the border into Pakistan's largely lawless Waziristan area.

A recent article in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, quoting a US State Department source, said the Al-Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan had been "decimated", and that the frontline on the war on terror had now shifted to Yemen. Given the destruction of one of their main allies, Tehrik-i-Taliban may well be receptive to Sharif's overtures with a very real chance of ending its part in the armed resistance which has continued for more than a decade.

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About the Author

Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.

He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.

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