The Pulse

Pakistan’s Sharif is Under Siege

Just months into his latest term as prime minister, Nawaz Sharif finds himself under pressure internally and externally.

It’s been less than five months since Nawaz Sharif began his third term as Pakistan’s prime minister, but his honeymoon period is long since over. In fact, PM Sharif finds himself increasingly under siege from all sides, being challenged internally by Pakistan’s security services and the Pakistani Taliban, and externally by the United States, India, Afghanistan and possibly Iran.

One of the central themes of Sharif’s current term has been a desire to improve relations with India. “We want to move toward better relations with India, to resolve the remaining issues through peaceful means, including that of Kashmir,” Sharif said shortly after taking office.

One of the central challenges in realizing this goal was always going to be getting Pakistan’s military and intelligence service on board. Recent weeks have made it abundantly clear that Sharif lacks this support as cross border raids by Pakistani militants into India have skyrocketed. According to some estimates, there have been 150 violations of the Indo-Pakistan ceasefire agreement since 2003. 40 of these have taken place this month alone. The attacks and infiltrations are also affecting areas that have been relatively stable in recent years, such as the southern part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir State. These attacks are almost certainly taking place with the passive and most likely active assistance of the Pakistani military and border patrol.

These attacks couldn’t come at a worse time as India enters into campaign mode ahead of the 2014 general election in that country. The prospect of a crushing defeat for his party by the nationalist BJP at the polls next year leaves Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with little room to maneuver. Although Singh probably genuinely wants to improve relations with Pakistan, he has been forced to take a hardline against these attacks, even singling out Sharif personally for criticism.

Sharif has also hoped to bring some internal stability to Pakistan. As part of his efforts to achieve this, Sharif has made a number of overtures to the Pakistani Taliban. Not surprisingly, Sharif’s efforts to reach out to the militant group have once again only emboldened it. Although the group rhetorically responded positively to Sharif’s call for talks, the last few months have witnessed the Pakistani Taliban increase its assassinations of Pakistani political leaders. The group has also renewed attacks against polio campaign workers, and continues to promise that it will free Pakistan from its anti-Islamic democratic system and impose Sharia law. This leaves little common ground between Islamabad and the militant group.

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One of Sharif’s top external goals has been to stop U.S. drone strikes inside Pakistan. Earlier on his term he seemed to find some success in this area as Washington began drastically reducing the number of drone strikes it carries out in Pakistan. Still sporadic attacks have continued and Sharif has been increasing his attention on the issue, including raising it at the UN General Assembly last month. Ahead of his trip to the U.S. to meet with Barack Obama last week, Sharif told domestic media outlets that he would raise the issue directly with Obama during their meeting. He made good on his promise.

Unfortunately, the response he received was far from encouraging. While Sharif was still in the U.S. the Washington Post published an explosive article detailing just how involved Pakistan has been in carrying out the drone campaign that it rails against publicly. The timing of the leak was undoubtedly done with the intent to send a clear signal to Sharif that he should reduce the pressure he was bringing to bear on the issue. Notably, the Washington Post article was based partly on Pakistani diplomatic records, suggesting that some elements in Pakistan collaborated with the Obama administration with the leaks.

Indeed, the Obama administration in general has indicated that currently prefers to work with the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies over the civilian government led by Sharif. Shortly before Sharif began his trip last week the U.S. announced it was releasing US$1.6 billion in aid to Pakistan that it has held up after bilateral relations deteriorated in recent years. According to reports, of the US$1.6 billion in aid to be released, US$1.38 billion will be military aid.

Sharif’s weakened position has not been lost on others, least of all Afghan President Hamid Karzai. As with India, Sharif has made a valiant effort to improve relations with Kabul. He seemed to get Pakistan’s military on board for this initiative when it was announced last month that Islamabad had released Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a moderate member of the Afghan Taliban who is seen as key to peace talks between the Quetta Taliban and the Karzai government.

Baradar has failed to surface more than a month after that announcement, however. The Afghan Taliban are claiming that he remains in Pakistani custody. As Sharif and Karzai got set to meet this week in London with UK Prime Minister David Cameron, Karzai and his team have told anyone who will listen that they planned to use the meeting to grill Sharif on Baradar’s whereabouts.  

“Mullah Baradar is still under strict supervision” in Pakistan, a Karzai spokesperson told reporters over the weekend. “We will be seeking an explanation from Pakistan on the whereabouts of Mullah Baradar” during the trilateral talks in London.

Karzai’s pressure on Sharif is unlikely to produce Baradar, but does underscore just how powerless the Pakistani prime minister is in a country in which the military continues to reign supreme, especially on national security issues.

As if matters weren’t bad enough for Sharif, he now confronts the possibility of increased tensions with Iran after Pakistani-based militants killed 14 Iranian border guards and injured six others in an attack last Friday. In recent years Pakistan and Iran have seen their relations greatly improve and Sharif has continued his predecessor’s policy of seeking Iranian assistance in alleviating Pakistan’s dire energy shortages. Failing to find outside financing, Islamabad has recently begun pressing Iran to finance the entire proposed natural gas pipeline.

The prospects of Iran agreeing to this now seem dim. Not only is Iran’s energy situation improving, but the recent attacks seem to have greatly angered Tehran. Indeed, Iran has blasted Pakistan for failing to secure its borders, with one Iranian law enforcement official stating: “The Pakistani government has always condemned these attacks, but it brings excuses that it does not have a strong presence along the border with Iran and it cannot, hence, control the border, but these are all excuses and we cannot accept them.” These sentiments were echoed by an MP, who said: “If Pakistanis are unable to take appropriate measures in that regard, they should allow our forces to enter the Pakistani soil to hunt for and pursue the rogue elements.”

Running Pakistan is never an easy task but recent days have been particularly difficult for the Pakistani premier.

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Zachary Keck is Associate Editor of The Diplomat. He can be found on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.