Nawaz Sharif’s Baggage: Impediments to Change  (Page 2 of 3)

This year Sharif has expressed repeatedly his interest in turning a “fresh page” in relations with India. Since his election he has talked amicably with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh by telephone, invited him to visit Pakistan, and agreed to meet with him in September on the margins of the UN General Assembly. “Instead of spending so much on arms,” he told the press, “[Pakistan and India] should focus on investing in the social infrastructure for the benefit of our people.” Yet on August 8 Indian authorities charged that Pakistani “specialist troops” had ambushed an Indian patrol on the Indian side of the LOC in Kashmir, killing five soldiers. This was arguably the worst violation of the ceasefire agreement between the two neighbors since it was signed in 2003. Both the Pakistan government and the Taliban denied involvement in the attack. Sharif was quick to call for the resumption of the ceasefire and renewed bilateral dialogue, but diplomatic damage had been done. With parliamentary elections due next year in India and the Singh government on the defensive, increased violence along the LOC provides political ammunition for Singh’s political rivals and reduces his latitude for flexibility in bilateral diplomacy. Clearly, elements within Pakistan—including within the government—who oppose Indo-Pakistan rapprochement have easy opportunities to sabotage it.

Afghan-Pakistan relations suffer from the same vulnerabilities. As new prime minister, Sharif has pronounced his commitment to supporting a free and prosperous Afghanistan and to facilitating a peace process that is “Afghan-led and Afghan-controlled.” In fact, Islamabad has acceded to Afghan requests that it release specific Taliban militants from prison and assisted with the travel of Taliban spokesmen to Qatar to begin exploratory talks with representatives of the Karzai government. Afghans continue to suspect, however, that the real intent of Pakistan’s security agencies is to ensure that any political settlement in Afghanistan solidifies the influence in Kabul of Pashtun groups patronized by Pakistan and therefore attentive to Pakistani security interests, such as containing the activities in Afghanistan of Indians.

Afghan suspicions appeared to be confirmed on August 3, when a team of militants, including three suicide bombers, attacked the Indian consulate in Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan. Afghan and Indian security agencies, working together, succeeded in blunting the attack although nine Afghan civilians were killed and more than a score were injured. Spokesmen for the two governments subsequently announced that their combined intelligence pointed to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET) as the perpetrator. The LET, declared a terrorist organization by the U.S. government and banned by the U.K., India, Russia, EU and Pakistan, is believed to have been responsible for the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament and the 2008 attack on Mumbai. There is also persuasive evidence that the premier Pakistani intelligence agency, ISI, has protected the LET for decades, seeing it as a valuable instrument of deniable force projection into India and Afghanistan.

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In his Eid-ul-Fitr address on August 9, Sharif called on the Pakistani nation to “stand united against extremism and terrorism.” Since then, Sharif’s interior ministry has unveiled a draft of Pakistan’s first-ever national counterterrorism policy. However welcome these public gestures, it is not clear that he can mobilize either the military capacity or the political will to take strong measures against extremist organizations operating in and from Pakistan. The prime minister’s foreign affairs advisor has explained publicly that, because of overstretched military resources, the new administration would pursue dialogue with militants before resorting to military force. “And if that does not work,” he explained, “then we will see under what conditions and by what time frame we will do the alternative actions.” This strategy ignores the fact that multiple peace accords with Taliban elements by past governments have failed, after being exploited by the militants to regroup and strengthen their forces.

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