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“And then there are also people who are criminals,” he continued, “who are joining the bandwagon of extremists for their own agendas. So we need effective policing and effective intelligence to bust their ranks.”
If that sounds familiar, there’s a good reason. The U.S. government has outlined a similar vision of “reintegration” and “reconciliation” to bring the West’s war with the Taliban to a close in neighboring Afghanistan. Ultimately, most analysts agree that Pakistan will need a political solution in its own war against militancy as well. The problem, as the United States has found with the Afghani Taliban, is that it is difficult to pursue that path from a position of weakness.
“Negotiations have to be conducted from a point of strength. And everybody agrees that the government is not attacking from strength,” said prominent Pakistani nuclear expert and peace activist Abdul Hameed Nayyar. “There will have to be a strategy where first of all the militants are in some manner defanged and then they can move to take them on and try get them to negotiate.”
The worry is that Sharif’s party is going at this backwards - more willing to negotiate with militants than to fight them.
“The one thing I would say to the next government is if you want to engage with these groups, you have to engage on the basis of the law and the constitution,” cautioned Lodhi. “Because anything short of that is appeasement. And we know appeasement never pays.”
When it comes to terrorism, Sharif and his fellow party members “believe that there is no room for extremism in Islam or in Pakistani society,” Iqbal insisted.
But word and deed are two different things.
Many in Pakistan have not forgotten the image, a few years back, of Punjab’s law minister and high ranking PML-N official Rana Sanaullah appearing in a motorcade with Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi, the onetime leader of the Punjabi-based Sunni sectarian group Sipah-e-Sahaba, which is banned in Pakistan as a terrorist group. Other militant groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba - the group behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks - also call the province of Punjab home. Sipah-e-Sahaba has since morphed into the Islamist political party Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, and according to multiple reports in the Pakistani media, it reached an agreement with the PML-N to jointly support candidates for roughly a dozen parliamentary seats.
Not surprisingly, this has Pakistani liberals and minorities nervous. Sectarian violence is on the rise in Pakistan - there is evidence of it even in Islamabad, a relative oasis of calm, where calls to “Stop Shiite Genocide” are scrawled across the whitewashed walls of government compounds all over town. While Sunni extremists like Jaish-e-Mohammed have not focused on targeting the United States, there is a growing consensus in Pakistan that ambiguity towards militants plays into the hands of violent groups of all stripes.
Of course, ambiguity has been a hallmark of Pakistani counterterrorism policy for decades. The United States, for example, continues to criticize Pakistan’s military for covertly supporting militant groups fighting Western troops in Afghanistan. Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, went as far as dubbing the militant Haqqani Network a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s intelligence agency in 2011.
Sharif has also taken a tough stand against militants at times. In the late 1990’s, for example, “he wanted to be helpful where he could,” Milam recalled, “but he was very careful and cautious.”
In his own recent conversations with Sharif’s advisers, Rand Corp. counterterrorism expert Seth G. Jones said they expressed great concern about the Pakistani Taliban, and a desire to secure continued U.S. assistance to fight the group. The United States currently provides military aid and counterinsurgency assistance for Pakistan to the tune of several billion dollars per year.
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, the executive director of the Islamabad-based think tank Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, also pointed out that one of the extremists groups Sharif and his party stand accused of tolerating tried to assassinate the PML-N leader in 1999. “Let’s not forget Nawaz Sharif’s government came down very heavily against Lakshar-e-Jhangvi,” back then, which is why they targeted him, said Mehboob.
That’s why he and others predict little change in the status quo between Pakistan and the United States regardless of election outcome. “I don’t think there will be any major policy shift if the PML-N or PPP or even PTI comes in power,” Mehboob said earlier this spring, using the acronyms for the ruling Pakistan People’s Party and Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. He concluded, however, that “they have different approaches” when it comes to countering extremists.
If the PML-N does succeed in forming the next government, it will by all likelihood be via a broad coalition that could very well include members of Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat and other Islamist parties. “It seems,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Pakistani defense analyst based in Lahore, “that Pakistan’s already confused policy on countering terrorism will become more vague.”
Emily Cadei covers foreign policy for CQ Roll Call.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.