Is Pakistan's incoming PM, Nawaz Shari, the pivot on which Pakistan's freedom from religious terror and his country's military revolves?
Nawaz Sharif is returning to power for the third time in fourteen years as his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has emerged as the winner on May 11th general elections. The rising question within his country and abroad is whether he would be able to pull out his troubled country from the quagmire of home-grown Islamic terrorism and sectarian violence?
For many political observers, the spreading religious militancy in Pakistan is a direct by-product of misrule by the country's powerful military and its intelligence agency (ISI), which have controlled all important state and government policies for at least half of Pakistan's 66-year history. The problem of religious extremism would never go away unless the new prime minister encounters the military and by consequence put a curb on the terrorists with transnational agendas. This is a daunting task that all Pakistan civilian leaders, including Mr. Nawaz Sharif failed to achieve any success in the past.
Amidst rising violence, Pakistani people demonstrated their deep frustration and desperation in the elections by giving an ambitious leader, Mr. Sharif a third chance to bring a radical change to the Pakistan's past and its military's use of radical Islamists as a cheap weapon for maintaining their dominance in the country.
Given his repeated failures in the past, the incoming prime minister seems powerless to turn the tables on Pakistan's past. Nawaz Sharif rose to prominence during the era of ex-Pakistani dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, when Zia appointed him as the chief minister of Punjab province in 1985. During his two terms in office in the past and in the run-up to his election, he has broadly used anti-Americanism and an Islamic card in order to attract crowds. After winning the election, he has reiterated his willingness to make overtures for peace with the al-Qaeda-affiliated Pakistani Taliban last week. His soft approach to the Taliban was the main reason why his election campaigns were not attacked by them.
Conservative Nawaz Sharif is a man with a past. The Pakistani English newspaper, the Daily Times wrote on June 23, 2005 that the former ISI official Khalid Khawaja confessed that he arranged five meetings between Nawaz Sharif and al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. Furthermore, the ISI official added that "I still remember that Osama provided me funds that I handed over to the then Punjab chief minister Nawaz Sharif to topple Benazir Bhutto's government."
In his second term in 1999, when at skirmish with the country's military in 1999, many expected his possible execution by General Musharraf, who in a bloodless coup deposed him and wanted to try him in a military court for treason. Musharraf was his own handpicked chief of staff. With the mediation of former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Saudi authorities, his life was saved when Musharraf pardoned him and allowed him to live in exile in Saudi Arabia.
Pakistan's ethnic and religious communities' participation in the turnout was nominal. Many refused to risk their lives by going to the polling stations for fear of the Taliban. Shiites, Christians, Hindus and others fallen prey to the Taliban's incessant suicide bombing. The Sunni and Shiite hostilities took the life of thousands of the followers of Shia Islam in Pakistan.
In a bitter irony for Pakistan, the founder of the country, Mohammad Ali Jinnah's grandfather was a Hindu and a late convert to Ismaili Shiism, which is a minority within Shiite minority. Since its creation, Pakistan's many presidents and prime ministers, such as Liaqat Ali Khan, Iskandar Mirza, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto, Asif Ali Zardari, and Yusuf Raza Gilani were all Shiites. The first foreign minister of Pakistan and the President of All-India Muslim League (1930-1931), Sir Chaudhry Zafarullah Khan was a prominent activist of Ahmadiyya sect. As a key aide to Jinnah, he also drafted the 'Pakistan Resolution.' The state ideology of Pakistan developed in the last few decades when Islam undergone gradual metamorphosis. The amended Pakistani constitution (Article 260, clause3) declares Ahmadiyya sect as Kafirs (infidels).
The deteriorating situation of human right across the country is another challenge that the new prime minister has to tackle. Arbitrary abduction, secret detention and a policy that is termed as kill and dump turned out to be an everyday reality in Baluchistan and Khybar Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North-Western Frontier). In Baluchistan, Pakistani army is fighting a raging separatist war with Baluch nationalists. In the Pashtun tribal belt the ISI introduced violent and utopian radical Islam as a quid pro quo for traditional Pashtun nationalism. Courted by ISI, thousands of Pashtun youth in the tribal area continue to join the Taliban and their utopian ideology. Afghan sources indicate that recently hundreds of religious madrassas in the tribal areas were temporarily closed in order to encourage students to go for "Jihad" in Afghanistan.
Mr. Sharif may bring some change for tackling Pakistan's chronic economy, energy crisis and corruption. However, he seems unlikely to change Pakistani army or cut off its symbiotic nexus with the violent religious extremists, the nexus which is measured as the only way for the survival of Pakistan as a country. This is the hard truth of Pakistan that takes the gloss of the new prime minister and his harebrained schemes.
Dr. Ehsan Azari Stanizai is an Adjunct Fellow with Writing & Society Research Centre (UWS)