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Sharif under siege

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MATTERS are getting increasingly ominous for Nawaz Sharif, although he may still be in a state of denial. It is not just about Imran Khan’s threatened lockdown of the capital; it is his increasingly tense relations with the military that must be his main worry. It is a much more serious situation than what Sharif faced during the 2014 dharna.

Naming the new army chief before Nov 2, as rumour has it, is not likely to mend matters. The unresolved issue of the ‘leak’ to the media of the proceedings of a top security meeting is not going to go away with a change of guard. Hence, Imran Khan’s planned storming of the capital could not have come at a worse time for the beleaguered prime minister.

It is highly unlikely that the other opposition parties will come to Sharif’s rescue, as they did in 2014, without him agreeing to a judicial inquiry into the Panama scandal involving his family. It is time for the prime minister to remember the Ides of November that demand ‘sacrifice to the Thunderer’. The ball is in his court.

It is no more a solo flight for Imran Khan, with Tahirul Qadri finally deciding to join the Nov 2 march. Surely his is not a mainstream party, but as offensive as he may seem, the cleric has the capacity to mobilise a highly motivated crowd of followers that could lend muscle to the siege.

It is highly unlikely that the other opposition parties will come to Nawaz Sharif’s rescue this time.

What is most alarming, however, are the reports of some extremist religious groups joining the assault, not necessarily in support of the PTI, but to take advantage of the impending chaos. The so-called Difai-i-Pakistan Council, which includes Hafiz Saeed and leaders of some other proscribed groups, has also announced that it will take to the streets. It certainly must be a cause of serious concern, both for domestic and external reasons. That will only reinforce doubts of the international community on Pakistan’s efforts to eliminate all kinds of militant and extremist groups.

The implications of an uncontrolled mob storming the capital are extremely serious. Any use of force would further aggravate the situation, thus worsening the government’s predicament. The administration is reportedly considering calling in the army under Article 245 of the Constitution to secure the red zone. But such a move has its pitfalls given the new low in civil-military relations. What would happen in the event of violence and mobs paralysing the city is anybody’s guess.

What is alleged to have been a deliberate leak to this paper is a clear manifestation of the uneasy civil-military relationship. It seems a part of the blame game that has long been played out in the media over who is responsible for the failure to implement the National Action Plan. The military has on several occasions publicly decried what it describes as the government’s inaction.

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This criticism of the civilian government has also been constantly aired through some TV anchors and commentators. This has certainly been upsetting for the Sharif government, which believes it is part of an orchestrated campaign against it at the behest of the intelligence agencies. For many, the Dawn report merely presented the other side of the story. The denial by the Prime Minister Office has failed to defuse the situation as the military demands that some heads roll. For the Sharif government, action against any cabinet minister or official would mean pleading guilty.

There is a strong view in the government that the issue will fizzle out with the passage of time and the announcement of the new army chief before the end of this month. Many believe that the matter has been blown out of proportion, with no smoking gun found implicating anyone in the government. But this is not how the military thinks.

Gen Raheel Sharif is due to retire in the third week of November. Speculations about his seeking an extension to his term already seem to have died down. But he will not be a lame duck until he passes the baton on to his successor. Another thing that Nawaz Sharif, despite his past experience, has failed to understand is that it is not just about an individual but an institution.

It may be true that there are limitations to what the military can do against an elected civilian government, but the widening trust deficit and the military stepping back from supporting the government in the event of a political crisis is certainly not a good omen for Sharif.

Moreover, the conflict has also adversely affected the country’s fight against militancy and religious extremism. The recent surge in militant violence in Quetta and other parts of the country is indicative of a policy paralysis. The government wakes up after each incident reiterating its resolve to fight to the end, only to go back to sleep.

The latest terrorist attack on the Quetta police academy that killed at least 60 people is yet another grim reminder of the continuing militant threat. The civil-military discord is, indeed, a major cause for lack of a coherent and coordinated approach to dealing with the menace. The blame game will take us nowhere. The responsibility lies with both the civilian and military leaderships to sort their differences out.

It is also the responsibility of the government to defuse the political crisis that threatens to derail the democratic process in the country. One can certainly not support Imran Khan’s relentless agitation and storming of the capital. But the government must not take cover of his folly to avoid accountability on the money trail leading to the prime minister’s family’s foreign properties.

A way out of the crisis is for Sharif to reach an agreement with the opposition on the terms of reference for an independent inquiry into the Panama scandal. There is always danger of an extra-constitutional intervention when politicians fail to resolve their differences in a democratic way.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Published in Dawn October 26th, 2016

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