Is the face off between ISI and Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif for real?

A Pakistani media report suggesting a showdown between the civilian regime and the army over the latter’s patronage of terror groups has to it a familiar ring. Something similar had happened in the aftermath of the US Navy seals’ 2011 operation that took out Osama Bin Laden.
If correctly attributed, the Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif’s comments were an inadvertent summation of the actual ground reality.(AFP File Photo)
If correctly attributed, the Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif’s comments were an inadvertent summation of the actual ground reality.(AFP File Photo)
Updated on Oct 07, 2016 11:47 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByVinod Sharma, New Delhi

A Pakistani media report suggesting a showdown between the civilian regime and the army over the latter’s patronage of terror groups has to it a familiar ring. Something similar had happened in the aftermath of the US Navy seals’ 2011 operation that took out Osama Bin Laden.

In what’s called Memogate, Hussain Haqqani, then Pak envoy in Washington got a secret memo delivered to Admiral Mike Mullen. With the army’s morale and public image at an all-time low, the idea was to seek America’s support for a new national security team after dismantling sections in the ISI that backed terrorist groups in Afghanistan.

The move boomeranged: Haqqani lost his job; the ruling PPP’s ties with the army under Gen Ashfaq Kayani turned from bad to bitter. Asif Zardari was the President then. Yusuf Raza Gilani the PM.

Reported by the influential Dawn newspaper, the instant case looks familiar but is inherently different. The showdown came in the backdrop of India’s cross-LoC surgical strikes that brought back harsh memories of 2011 compounded by Islamabad’s diplomatic isolation as a safe haven for terror groups.

The confrontation between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother Shahbaz, who’s CM of Punjab, and ISI chief Rizwan Akhtar happened at a stock-taking civil-military session. The issue: mounting international pressure for action against the (anti-India) Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani network active in Afghanistan.

When Gen Akhtar asked the government to go ahead and arrest whomever it wanted, Shahbaz accused the “security establishment” (a euphemism for ISI) of working at cross purposes with the police. It all happened in the presence of Nawaz Sharif who sought to defuse tension by decreeing the ISI chief wasn’t to be blamed -- policies pursued in the past falling in the “collective” responsibility domain.

Read | Sharif’s directive to Pak army: Experience shows it’s easier said than done

If correctly attributed, the Pak PM’s comments were an inadvertent summation of the actual ground reality. The anti-India groups have forever enjoyed the army’s patronage and that of the Sharifs who haven’t had the political conviction to act against them. They fear in fact the LeT-JeM’s socio-religious clout riding on a network of seminaries. They just have to lay a finger to destabilize Punjab, the PML (N)’s electoral mainstay.

In fact, the LeT’s political arm, Jamaat ud Dawa has had government funds allocated to it for the seminaries, schools and crèches it runs across Punjab. “The news report is partial. It’s driven by the civilian narrative of the meeting. Isn’t it a bit rich for Shahbaz to put the entire blame on the ISI,” asked a Pakistani analyst. He then pointed out that the state’s interior minister Rana Sanaullah protects and uses jihadi elements in Punjab for political purposes.

Unlike the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that’s at war with the civil-military establishment, terror groups holed up in southern and central Punjab feast on hatred for India. Instances of policemen interceding with them at politicians’ behest prove how thick they are with each other. A writer who once crossed the LeT’s path took this route to escape.

So, what’s it: a case of pot calling the kettle black? Or a mock civil-military fight to ease global pressure?

Vinod Sharma is political editor, Hindustan Times.

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