Islamabad Security Dialogue: Nawaz Sharif Stands Vindicated

31 March 2021 Dr Qaisar Rashid, FDI Associate

In Pakistan, if an elected prime minister makes a policy shift for the betterment of the country, it is a crime, the price of which he has to pay, but if the same shift is announced by a military general, it is plausible and tenable.

 

Background

Addressing the opening session of the Islamabad Security Dialogue held in Islamabad on 18 March 2021, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa said, ‘We have realised that unless our own house is in order, nothing can be expected from the outside.’

Comment

This was the first-ever security dialogue arranged by the National Security Division of the Government of Pakistan on 17-18 March 2021. Speaking on the occasion, General Bajwa also said, ‘Now, after having overpowered the menace of terrorism and tide of extremism, we have begun to work towards sustainable development and improving economic conditions of under-developed areas.’ The context of his comments was his geo-economic vision centred on four pillars, the first two of which are moving towards a lasting and enduring peace within and outside Pakistan and, second, non-interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan’s neighbours and regional countries.

Most Pakistanis admired General Bajwa for his courageous admission, which vindicated Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Sharif had previously reprimanded the military for protecting religious groups when there was mounting tension between the civilian government and the military on how to deal with Islamist terrorists in 2016.

To elaborate, at a meeting in October 2016, Sharif warned the military leadership of Pakistan’s isolation of if it failed to take concrete steps against Islamic militants. Sharif sought to build a civil-military consensus that would not be violated by the military. Sharif issued an order that had two components. First, military-led intelligence agencies should not interfere if civilian law enforcement forces acted against proscribed militant groups that had been protected from civil law. Second, fresh attempts had to be made to conclude the investigation into the Pathankot airbase attack and to restart the trials of perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks on mainland India in a Rawalpindi-based anti-terrorism court. At that time, India had linked the restoration of its talks with Pakistan on punishing the culprits of the Mumbai attacks of November 2008 and the resumption of investigation of the Pathankot attack of January 2016.

On 6 October 2016, the DAWN newspaper published the details of the meeting, which subsequently became known as the DAWN Leaks. The leaks invited the ire of the military, which demanded an inquiry into the leaks. Sharif had also called for “putting our house in order”. Nevertheless, a campaign was launched to brand Sharif a traitor.

Related to trade and commerce, the next two pillars of Bajwa’s geo-economic vision were first, to boost intra-regional trade and connectivity and, second, ensure sustainable development and prosperity by establishing investment and economic hubs in the region.

Most Pakistanis also admired General Bajwa for admitting that Pakistan needed to focus on regional trade to ensure economic prosperity. Nevertheless, the admission once again vindicated Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who wanted to restore trade relations with India, which effort saw him was condemned as a “Friend of Modi”, India’s Prime Minister. As if that was not enough, the campaign disparaged Sharif by making two main allegations. First, it was claimed that Sharif employed over 300 agents of the Indian intelligence agency, RAW, as labourers in his sugar mills in the Punjab. In keeping with that claim, a fake list of names was circulated to further smear him. Second, Sharif was said to have invested around US$4.5 billion  ($5.9 billion) in India. Right-wing Islamist parties were prompted to stage sit-ins in Islamabad in 2017 to weaken the Sharif Government. Those efforts were made to make the public lose confidence in Sharif and to ensure that his party lost the 2018 general election.

Sharif weathered that pressure but was tried for the Panamagate scandal, despite the fact that his name was not mentioned in it. Eventually, his government suffered a soft coup launched by the military and judiciary. Behind the scenes, pre-poll rigging saw the use of religious and ethnic cards to impair his party’s standing. Poll-rigging was also committed by subduing the Results Transmission System of the election commission. Consequently, Sharif suffered heavily in the general elections of July 2018.

Since June 2018, Pakistan has been on the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Ironically, to avoid falling into the black list, Pakistan is now doing what Sharif asked the military to do in 2016. Further, economic recession has hit Pakistan hard, forcing it to compromise on several issues domestically and internationally. Interestingly, in the past, Pakistan’s focus was geo-strategic – a legacy of the Cold War – but is now geo-economic, which indicates that Pakistan has been introspective, even though that is quite late. Further, the shift in focus was announced by General Bajwa publicly and not by any elected representative of the incumbent government, which shows who is at the wheel. Nevertheless, during his tenure Sharif laid out his geo-economic vision for Pakistan, but he was derided through various disinformation campaigns calling him a security risk. The point is simple: an elected prime minister could not shift Pakistan’s national priority from the geo-strategic to the geo-economic. Only could a military general do that.

Since mid-2018, Pakistan’s electronic and print media have faced strong restrictions. Renowned journalists, analysts and writers have been dismissed and dissenting voices muted. If any journalists dissent, they are picked up or threatened by intelligence agencies. The courts are influenced by the military. Defence analysts, retired generals and brigadiers hog slots in talk shows that are televised by private TV channels. In these talk shows, claiming to be most patriotic, these individuals project themselves as experts on topics ranging from social to economic issues – to the disbelief and hilarity of many viewers.

General Bajwa’s reasons for announcing the shift in priority are not just persistent economic recession or the dictates of the FATF, but also because of the change of government in the United States. With Joseph Biden as US President, many Pakistanis hope that his administration will rescue the media in Pakistan as a condition for foreign aid.

About the Author

Dr Qaisar Rashid is a freelance writer who has contributed weekly columns to Pakistani English-language dailies since 2004. He writes on local, regional and international political and social issues, and the current affairs of Pakistan.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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