Twice bitten, fully shy


Sharif keeps foreign, defence portfolios but stern tests lie ahead

Apparently, the decision by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to retain the portfolios of foreign affairs and defence is, politically speaking, an astute one. It puts him at rest about the two most sensitive jobs falling into ‘vulnerable’ hands.

Islamabad’s foreign policy has long been outsourced to the military with the foreign minister merely a figurehead, enacting the script as given. The gorgeous Hina Khar did a decent job of profiling the same, and with distinction. But no-one ever accused her of minding the store independently!

Shah Mehmood Qureshi, whom Khar succeeded, didn’t quite cover himself in glory as the PPP’s chosen one. The media widely reported him as going along with the security establishment in the Raymond Davis affair, for instance, where contrary to President Zardari’s keenness to see the CIA contractor released on account of ‘diplomatic immunity’, Qureshi resisted the move with a nod and a wink from Aabpara. He stuck his neck out for ‘national honour’, thereby annoying his party boss, who was eventually forced to lump it till such time the khakis wheedled out a deal with the Americans.

An aggravated Zardari merely pretended to swallow the insult, but soon forced a cabinet reshuffle in which Qureshi was demoted. But the MNA from Multan refused to have anything to do with the ‘unattractive’ agriculture ministry and before long quit the PPP altogether.

It is therefore, understandable for Sharif to have sweaty palms over it, and to keep the job with him. Obviously, the prime minister wants to be the master of his destiny by driving the relationship with important capitals like Washington, New Delhi, Kabul, Riyadh and Beijing – capitals with which, save for the last two, the military has a mind not necessarily in sync with Sharif.

The third-time PM wants to pursue an independent policy with India that banks heavily on trade. He understands that the surest way to divest Pakistan’s fragile democratic system of its military overreach is to turn the economy around, and for which, it is perhaps, crucial that Pakistan realizes the full potential of trade with India.

The spin-off would be that the two neighbours would per force have to normalize relationship in other spheres – even the revival of a bilateral cricket series in the true sense with India touring Pakistan has great potential to restore normal and peaceful ties. India has long been favourably disposed towards Sharif, who wants to capitalise on this as a great CBM.

Potentially, such a relationship will free up the eastern borders thus providing room to focus our energies elsewhere, purely in military terms. However, it is easier said than done with the security establishment ever so wary of New Delhi, and unsurprisingly, the military leadership has already reportedly ‘advised’ Sharif twice in the space of a fortnight or so to go slow.

Hina Khar wooed India with her gloss quotient, and even though it led to the clamour for a sustained composite dialogue no-one was fooled by where the honed script was coming from, and how much of a chance the PPP government had of breathing life into the process given its gingerly approach to issues it felt were not in its domain.

With Sharif, an industrialist-businessman to boot, there’s a fair chance there will be movement on this crucial area of Pakistan’s limited foreign options to kick start the economy by easing trade barriers.

The PML-N supremo also wants to have a handle on defence. Again, it is understandable both in terms of his past aborted stints in power and the immediate past where PPP’s Ahmed Mukhtar’s unimpressive record as defence minister thanks to near-total lack of control kept the civilian government majorly out of the loop.

Ideally, the defence minister should be the PM’s point man on military matters, but the PM himself taking charge of the Ministry of Defence is a stellar statement from Sharif.

Even though in practice, the military has tended to stamp its feet on the line, hopefully, in Pakistan’s changed environment of today, it might not be all that easy to do so with a powerful PM.

Such a move also has an inherent damage-control benefit when you consider how, in late 2011, civil-military relations took a nosedive over the infamous Memo Gate, leading the-then Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to openly accuse the military establishment of running a parallel government. In a battle of attrition that ensued, the prime minister ended up sacking the defence secretary in a derring-do that led to much chaos and immediate speculation of even a possible coup.

Having been bitten twice at the hands of the military, Sharif would be extremely wary of such an unintended implosion, and by keeping the defence portfolio appears to give the impression he wants to keep the lid tight.

As a prime minister with a heavy mandate and both the foreign and defence portfolios under his belt, he believes, will keep him from having to take a chance with ‘vulnerable’ helmsmen as well as drive his own ambitious policies – even if these somehow find favour with the security establishment. As they say, you can take out the army from Pakistan but not Pakistan from the army!

Having said that, such moves are not the perfect recipe for decent governance. As it is, Sharif will have his hands full with Pakistan facing existential crises. The energy riddle alone is going to take a lot out of him – and for considerable lengths of time.

Perhaps, in due course, he will have a change of heart. The need for full-time ministers may soon be felt for strategic geo-political reasons where, at least the foreign minister will have a hectic calendar, hosting and traveling to present Islamabad’s case. Some countries may not be in awe of second-tier handlers.

It may be that Prime Minister Sharif wants to test the security establishment’s sincerity in cooperating with him before he feels comfortable enough to let his aides do business.

The continuing drone strikes and the military’s reluctance in pursuing the India gambit will have done nothing for his confidence.

The writer is Editor Pique Magazine based in Islamabad. He can be reached [email protected]


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