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Nawaz Sharif’s comments expose Pakistan’s duplicitous stand on terrorism

Former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s comments on the Mumbai 26/11 attacks trial expose the civil-military tensions in Pakistan

opinion Updated: May 25, 2018 08:26 IST
Nawaz Sharif,Pakistan,Mumbai terror attack 2008
Former Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif with former law minister Zahid Hamid as he leaves after addressing a press conference in Islamabad, on May 10, 2018.(AFP Photo)

Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s comments on the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, the lack of progress in the trail to bring its conspirators to justice and Pakistan’s international isolation have drawn enormous attention in Pakistan and India. In the latter, it is seen as indictment, if it was needed, of the forces that powered the attacks and have kept a protective cloak around its leaders. In Pakistan reactions varied.

A few acknowledged the fact that no more than the truth was spoken and Pakistan’s poor international image was standing proof of all that had gone wrong in Pakistan. More felt betrayed that ground was being conceded to the Indian position on account of Pakistan’s internal politics. Many more probably while conceding the truth in both these positions nevertheless were more interested in witnessing the latest unfolding of a major political party’s tangle with the military establishment.

From mid-2013 till July 2017 Sharif’s tenure as PM was regularly punctuated by very visible run-ins with the military. After his ouster he has been vocal in speaking out against the forces that unseated him — sometimes directly, sometimes by allusion but no one was left with any doubt about who his defiance was aimed at. The remarks on the 26/11 attacks have given the civil-military tussle in Pakistan an added intensity. This is not surprising in itself and this has happened in the past on a number of occasions. Even as the terrorists in Mumbai were being neutralised, on November 28, 2008, the Pakistan foreign office had announced that the DG ISI would visit Mumbai as part of the investigation into the attacks by the LeT. Within hours the decision was annulled — not so much formally as simply not acted upon. It was a Pakistan Peoples Party government in Pakistan then, itself still reeling from the impact of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination less than a year earlier. The fact is that where dealing with India is concerned Pakistan’s military trusts neither the PPP nor the PML(N), it believes that the role is its, and its alone.

In any event the trail, such as it was, of the lead plotters of the attacks became an instrument in the hands of the military to thwart political initiatives to stabilise and improve ties with India. Both houses of our Parliament had spontaneously adopted resolutions of support and grief after the Army Public School massacre in Peshawar in December 2014.

Before this move could gather momentum and barely three days later came the news that an anti-terrorist court had granted bail to Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, one of the 26/11 masterminds. He was released on bail within days of the Indian foreign secretary’s Islamabad visit in March 2015 to restart a dialogue stalled then for some months after the Pakistani high commissioner’s ill-fated meeting in Delhi with the Hurriyat. Not surprisingly this step came to nothing. The fact also is that the 26/11 attacks and the trail has been the site of civil-military contestation in Pakistan from the very beginning.

What underwrote Sharif’s remarks is Pakistan’s own experience of the backlash from terrorist outfits long-sponsored by the military. How much things have actually changed because of this is impossible to gauge and there is no basis to be overly optimistic. At about the same time as the controversy over Sharif’s remarks there was much anguish in Pakistan over the failure of its application to the UNSC that Umer Khalid Khurasani, the leader of Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, be listed by the Al Qaeda/Taliban sanctions committee. He is believed to have been the mastermind behind many major terrorist attacks in Pakistan, including the Army Public School massacre.

It was widely reported in the Pakistani media that the application failed because the United States objected to it. The Pakistan foreign office spokesperson speaking about this last week expressing deeply disappoint at this outcome said “if the organization Jamaat-ul-Ahrar has been listed by the sanctions committee, its leader should also have been listed.” This is a fair point. But the same analogy exists with the Jaish-e-Mohammed and Masood Azhar where Pakistan effectively lobbied China to block Azhar’s listing. This failure of Pakistan to apply uniform standards to terrorist outrages even as it reels under attacks is the heart of the problem.

It is to Sharif’s credit that he said this so pointedly. Whether he does so out of careful political calculation or gut instinct or straightforward frustration, perhaps even desperation, is more difficult to decipher. In any event, Pakistan’s general elections will reveal the answer.

TCA Raghavan is a former high commissioner to Pakistan

The views expressed are personal

First Published: May 25, 2018 07:54 IST