An even more fundamental question is whether the devout Sharif sees Islamist extremists as enemies or friends. Sharif’s PML-N party historically has been the “natural ally” of religious parties, some of which nurture extremists. The Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), for example, is one of the oldest and most influential proponents of Islamic revolution in South Asia and a supporter of the Taliban. The JI was the strongest partner of the PML-N in the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad, an alliance of nine conservative parties whose support made Sharif’s electoral victory in 1990 possible. Sharif repaid the IJI for its support by expanding the controversial Islamization policies of his political mentor, the former military dictator General Zia ul Haq.
Another long-term ally of the PML-N, the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, operates freely in Punjab, a province controlled by the PML-N, despite being banned in 2012 for sectarian violence. During the recent electoral campaign Sharif never criticized the Taliban by name, and the PML-N was conspicuously excluded from the parties whose candidates were attacked by the Taliban. Hafiz Muhammed Saeed, a founder of the LET and leader of the LET affiliate Jaamat-ud-Dawa, lives and preaches with impunity in Punjab despite a $10 million bounty on him by the U.S. and an extradition warrant by India. LET’s headquarters in Muridke near Lahore, a sprawling 200-acre complex, includes a mujahideen colony. Saeed reportedly has enjoyed the patronage of the Sharif family for decades and is said to receive funding still from the Punjab Government, which is governed by Sharif’s brother Shabaz.
Even if Nawaz Sharif were willing to abandon his party’s well-established connections with hardline Islamist groups, he is likely to be deterred by economic and political self-interest from cracking down on their violent activities. Sharif owes some of his personal fortune, much of his political success and possibly even his life to the patronage of the Saudi royal family, which sees him as a reliable defender of Saudi influence and a bulwark against leftists, secularists, and Shias in Pakistan. In 1991, Sharif ensured that Pakistani armed forces participated actively in the First Gulf War, and rushed Pakistani special forces to Saudi Arabia to provide security to the royal family. King Fahd in turn intervened personally with General Musharraf in 1999 to save Sharif, then in jail and under trial for capital crimes, by negotiating a deal that released Sharif to live in Saudi Arabia for ten years. Sharif was flown to exile in Jeddha on Saudi Arabian Airlines, given a comfortable government-owned house, and loaned enough money to establish there an iron and steel mill that today is worth millions of dollars.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
In 2007, the Saudis rejected Musharraf’s plea that they prevent Sharif from returning to Pakistan. They reportedly argued that if the Pakistan government could permit a secular female leader, Benazir Bhutto, to return to Pakistani politics, it should be willing to permit a conservative Muslim male to return as well. Well-informed Pakistanis have complained since then about the generous levels of Saudi funding to the PML-N, presumably to prevent the PPP, the PML-N’s principal competitor, from being re-elected.
What does such foreign patronage mean for the third Sharif administration? It means, for one thing, that the prime minister will be even less inclined than otherwise to take decisive action against Pakistan-based terrorist organizations if they receive Saudi support. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) was one of only two countries, along with the UAE, to join Pakistan in recognizing the 1996-2001 Taliban regime in Afghanistan as a legitimate government—and a strategic victory in a campaign to spread Wahabism throughout the region. Pakistani experts say that the KSA still plays an important role in funding and arming extremist groups such as Ahle Hadith, LET, and Ittehad Islamic Afghanistan, among others, and in building mosques and madrassas that serve as bases for ideological indoctrination and militant recruitment. Unless these organizations can be curbed, significant reconciliation with Pakistan’s neighbors will be difficult, and could become even more difficult.
Media sources claim that the KSA also funds the Laskar-e-Jangvi (LeJ), a vicious terrorist organization that targets Shias, both Pakistani and Iranian. The LeJ is reported to have killed or wounded some 3,000 civilians from the Hazara community alone in the past 15 years. It killed more than 400 Pakistani civilians in 2012 and is becoming stronger and increasingly lethal, especially in Balochistan. According to knowledgeable Pakistanis, including clerics, The LEJ is seen by the Saudis and other Sunni donors as a frontline force in a proxy war in Pakistan between Arabs and Iranians, who have been competing for influence in Asia and the Middle East since the 1979 Iranian revolution. Despite the LEJ’s efforts to stoke intense Sunni-Shia violence as a step toward establishing a Sunni theocracy in Pakistan, the leader of the organization reportedly has been acquitted numerous times of charges of culpable homicide and terrorism. On August 18, Sharif ordered an immediate stay of the executions of hundreds of convicted prisoners, including two LEJ killers scheduled to be hanged later in the month. Although moratoria on capital punishment was imposed by earlier leaders, Sharif’s action is seen widely in Pakistan as the continuation of a policy of leniency toward religious radicals.
None of this proves, of course, that a politically resurrected Nawaz Sharif will not provide the wise and courageous leadership for change that Pakistan so desperately needs. The strong forces of restraint surrounding him, however, will make reform much more difficult and will require strong countervailing support to overcome.
Robert Boggs is a professor of South Asia studies at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, DC. He spent 32 years as US diplomat and intelligence analyst, specializing in South Asia.