Decoding the High-Stakes Game Between Sharif Brothers and Pak Army

Even after Pak Government denied a report of a meet between civil and military leaders, the rift seems apparent.

Updated
India
5 min read
Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif; Pak Army General Raheel Sharif (Photo: Reuters)

Dawn’s veteran journalist Zahid Hussain gave a sharp insight on the state of Pakistan’s civil-military relations in a recent column. He wrote, “The proxy war between the two institutions is now being fought on TV talk shows.” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s diplomatic assault on Pakistan followed by the surgical strikes has worsened the rift. The Pakistan government’s bizarre reaction to the Cyril Almeida story is a clear pointer of the country heading into stormy weather.

On 6 October, Dawn’s assistant editor Cyril Almeida reported that at a meeting of top civil and military leaders presided by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhari conveyed that Pakistan’s leading international partners wanted the country to change course and take action against the Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Haqqani network. He also underlined that the international community had shown little interest in Pakistan’s diplomatic outreach to highlight India’s ongoing actions against the Kashmiris.

Snapshot

High Stakes Game

  • Indian surgical strikes against terrorists across LoC has widened the rift between Pakistan’s civil and military establishments.
  • A Dawn report highlighted that Pakistan’s growing international isolation was the result of the army failing to act against terrorists.
  • The story was based on a deliberate leak authorised by the Sharif brothers, who chose a moment of the army’s vulnerability.
  • Pak army’s vulnerability springs from its inability to even acknowledge that India carried out a successful strike.
  • If the army under General Sharif has taken Pakistan to the verge of diplomatic isolation, a case for his extension can hardly be made.
  • By shifting the blame to the army, Nawaz Sharif has deflected attention from his own political problems.
  • Pak army will not relinquish its hold over country’s security and vital areas of foreign policy.

Message to the Army

Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif complained that the army prevented the civilian authorities from taking action against these foreign-oriented terrorist groups. In sum, Almeida reported that the civilians gave a blunt and orchestrated message to the military that Pakistan was facing international isolation.

Clearly, the Almeida story was based on a deliberate leak that could have only been authorised by the Sharif brothers. They chose a moment of the army’s vulnerability to strike not only in private, but also in public.

The army’s vulnerability springs from its inability to even acknowledge that the Indian army had carried out successful attacks against terrorist launch pads on Pakistani-controlled territory in response to the Uri attack. If it did, it would have had to answer the Pakistan public for its failure to detect and counter the Indian action while it was taking place.

Denying Dawn’s Story

Nawaz Sharif’s spokesperson almost immediately denied the Almeida report. He called it factually incorrect and irresponsible. The newspaper, however, stood by the report. Another denial followed, but still the story did not end there.

Pakistan’s PM Nawaz Sharif and <i>Dawn</i> Journalist Cyril Almeida. (Photos: Reuters/ Facebook/Cyril Almeida)
Pakistan’s PM Nawaz Sharif and Dawn Journalist Cyril Almeida. (Photos: Reuters/ Facebook/Cyril Almeida)

At a civilian-military meeting on 10 October, the news report was discussed. Afterwards another statement, the third, asserted that the report had violated “universally acknowledged principles of reporting on national security issues and risked vital state interests through inclusion of inaccurate and misleading contents, which had no relevance to actual discussions and facts.” It also said that Nawaz Sharif took serious notice of the violation and directed that those responsible should be identified for stern action.

Political Situation

A day later, Almeida disclosed that he had been punished and put on the ‘exit control list’. The main Pakistani newspapers stood up in solidarity with Dawn and Almeida in defence of press freedom. That is important in itself, but what does the episode reveal about Pakistan’s current political situation?

The next few weeks are particularly sensitive for Pakistan. General Raheel Sharif retires next month. His stated position is that he does not want an extension. He comes from a distinguished military family and does not want to stain his family’s daaman. He is very popular in Pakistan because of his decisive action in the zarb-e-azb operation against domestic-oriented terrorists. However, no voices have been raised for his extension despite acute tension with India.

Ruffling the Army’s Feathers

Why are the Sharif brothers ruffling the army’s feathers at this juncture instead of quietly appointing a new chief? Is it because through this salvo they wish to pre-empt any move in this direction? If the army under General Sharif has led to taking Pakistan to the verge of diplomatic isolation, a case for his extension can hardly be made.



Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the United Nations General Assembly. (UNGA). (Photo Courtesy: PTI)
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the United Nations General Assembly. (UNGA). (Photo Courtesy: PTI)
The success of the recent round of Modi diplomacy has chastened Nawaz Sharif as he met with failure at the UN. No country responded positively to his plea to put pressure on India on Kashmir. The SAARC summit rebuff would have hit him hard too.

The past three months of Pakistan’s diplomatic campaign have failed and the Uri attack, instead of drawing attention to the dangers from Kashmir to international peace and security, have put the spotlight on Pakistani terror. By going public, the Sharifs were publicly shifting the blame for the failure of Pakistan’s Kashmir diplomacy on the army. There is a political reason too for the leak.

Nawaz Sharif’s Troubles

Nawaz Sharif has been in a political corner because of the Panamagate scandal about his family’s properties and holdings abroad. Imran Khan has pursued the Prime Minister doggedly on the issue. There is no doubt that the army has egged him on.

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chief Imran Khan wants an independent panel to investigate Pak PM’s Panamagate scandal. (Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chief Imran Khan wants an independent panel to investigate Pak PM’s Panamagate scandal. (Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

Khan has announced that he will travel with his supporters for a sit-in in Islamabad on 30 October to force Nawaz Sharif to announce an independent panel to investigate the charges. Two years ago, the Khan and Qadri protest in Islamabad had driven Nawaz to the brink. It was premised on election fraud charges. This time around it is family corruption, which cuts much closer to the bone.

High-Stakes Game

The Sharif brothers are signalling to the army that if the coming confrontation compels them, they would be willing to embarrass the army on its failure regarding the surgical strike. They are also indicating that they are united. They are playing high-stakes poker in the event the army comes together to defend its corporate interests. The Sharifs know this from personal experience.

In all this, one thing will not change: the army will not relinquish its hold over Pakistan’s security and vital areas of foreign policy.

(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached at @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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