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Sharif gets army to back off on India peace bid

Unlike his predecessors, Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif seems to have got some leeway from the country’s powerful military establishment in pursuing peace with India.

world Updated: Sep 22, 2013 03:28 IST
Nawab Sharif

Unlike his predecessors, Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif seems to have got some leeway from the country’s powerful military establishment in pursuing peace with India.

Islamabad’s relations with New Delhi fall under the ambit of the army leadership, which closely monitors any dealings Pakistan’s diplomats or politicians make. “The ISI works out of the foreign office. India, China and the US are areas of special concern,” concedes a former Pakistan envoy to India.

Since his return to power in May, the Punjabi PM’s India strategy has been to focus on trade and people-to-people relations. Even here, the army has stepped in on many occasions, such as in the case of according India MFN (most favoured nation) status and easing visa restrictions. A former secretary of the commerce ministry recalls how he had to give two briefings after talks with Indian delegations, one to Sharif and the other to the ISI.

However, there is a change, albeit a small one. Sharif is now effectively curtailing the military’s role in civilian affairs. He has been consistent in his stance that the army stay away from political issues. Even on the thorny subject of talks with the Taliban, he publicly berated the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, for issuing a statement ahead of his policy announcement.

Power politics in Pakistan suggests a leader from the country’s largest province is the only person who can push back the army, which also gets the bulk of its and soldier strength from Punjab. "This is how it works in Pakistan. Only a Punjabi can push back a Punjabi," says Ayaz Khan, a senior Lahore journalist.

Expectations from Sharif are high. Private discussions with Sartaj Aziz, his de-facto foreign minister, suggest the challenge is two-pronged: pursue confidence-building measures to win back India’s trust while checking the activities of militants and non-state actors, who get an active push from the intelligence agencies. “The more difficult challenge is to check people like (Lashkar chief) Hafiz Saeed who operate with impunity thanks to official patronage,” says defence analyst Aisha Siddiqa.

Political governments have traditionally been against adventures in Kashmir. But the army has consistently indulged in this, the recent incursions across the Line of Control being a case in point. Of late, non-state actors have been used but the army pulls the strings. And for Sharif to cut these strings, he needs to have more control of the army. He has been unable to do this so far and it isn’t expected to happen any time soon.

But all that comes later. The Sharif regime’s priority right now is to bring India back to the negotiation table by taking all the measures in its power. To that end, it has repatriated almost all Indian prisoners. There is also talk about increasing cross-border trade and giving Indian goods passage through Afghanistan, a move the ISI opposes tooth and nail.

Sharif is also keen on people-to-people contact. “There is nothing he’d like more than going to Delhi and playing a cricket friendly with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to illustrate goodwill and brotherly ties,” confesses an aide.

The premier has also hinted off the record to journalists that he’d like to drive to his ancestral village in Amritsar and be back in Lahore by evening. “No border control and better still, state-of-the-art infrastructure on both sides,” he said.

But till the larger issues — Kashmir among them — remain unaddressed, his advisors say he is aware this won’t happen.

For now, Sharif has pushed back the army leadership and made overtures to India, like his insistence on talks at a time when the Indian response remains cold. New Delhi is still mum on the proposed meeting between Singh and Sharif on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York later this month.

This has brought Sharif a lot of internal criticism, much of it from right-wing religious parties that have traditionally been close to the intelligence agencies.

An important factor in all this will be the change of guard in the army and ISI, both of which will get new chief within the year.

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