ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Nearly 15 years after he was ousted in a bloodless coup, business tycoon Nawaz Sharif and his center-right party are poised to regain control over Pakistan’s government, after the historic May 11 vote - the first transfer of power from one elected government to another in the country’s history.
As with the last two times he won the premiership, Sharif appears to have ridden to power on the back of strong support from his Punjabi heartland, a province that is home to much of the Pakistani elite, but also a patchwork of violent sectarian and Islamic groups.
Nobody has ever accused Sharif himself of being an extremist, but like anywhere else, success in Pakistani politics requires playing to the base. Take Sharif’s push in 1998, during his second stint as prime minister, to pass a constitutional amendment that would have imposed sharia law across the country.
“He doesn’t believe in sharia,” said William Milam, the U.S. ambassador in Pakistan at the time. “This was a totally cynical thing to do, it was obviously directed to try and keep the Islamists attached to him.”
Few, if any, in Washington or Islamabad think Sharif and his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), will try to change the overall trajectory of bilateral relations between the United States and Pakistan - on security or other priorities. But Sharif’s track record of ambivalence towards extremists could prove troubling in more nuanced ways.
Sharif’s senior advisers insist he would be committed to working in close collaboration with the United States, including on security issues, the fact that PML-N governments have, as Millam put it, “played footsie,” with extremist groups in the past represents exactly the sort of mixed message many in Pakistan worry the violence-wracked country simply cannot afford.
Since the end of last decade, Pakistan has faced a growing threat from the domestic insurgent group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, also known as the Pakistani Taliban, composed of Islamic fundamentalists intent on overthrowing the state. What once was a movement largely confined to the country’s remote tribal areas now has a growing presence in major urban hubs, most worryingly Karachi, Pakistan largest city and its economic heartbeat. In a bid to disrupt the elections, they’ve launched terrorist attacks that have left more than 100 people dead in recent months.
Gone are the days when Pakistan’s powerful military could take on foes - both its own and Americas - with impunity and not face popular pushback. A decade ago, President Pervez Musharraf, a general who assumed power in a 1999 military coup, enjoyed almost unfettered power to partner closely with the United States in its post-Sept. 11 “war on terror.” Now he is under house arrest in his estate on the outskirts of Islamabad, facing trial for his actions during the waning days of his term. According to retired three-star Pakistani Army Gen. Talat Masood, today in Pakistan “there is a lot of confusion, especially amongst the political class” about the military campaign against extremists.
“And because of the political confusion and in the media, the people are also equally confused as to exactly what this war is all about, whom it is directed to,” Masood explained in Islamabad earlier this spring - a key reason, he said, for Pakistan’s recent failures in its fight against militants.
Former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States Maleeha Lodhi put it more directly. What Pakistan needs, she said, is a strong government that will tell its people, “we need to confront this threat, here’s how we’re going to do it, we need your support.”
In the last few years, she lamented, “I have not . . . seen anybody stand up and make that kind of a speech.”
In the waning days of this year’s campaign, Sharif began to speak out publicly - including to Western media - against what he has characterized as a flawed U.S. “war on terror.”
But Sharif’s senior advisers have also taken pains to highlight the party’s longstanding partnership with the United States, including their boss’s close relationship with former President Bill Clinton during his time in office. The message: Sharif is a known quantity to U.S. policymakers, as opposed to, say, Pakistani cricket icon Imran Khan, who has publicly threatened to shoot down U.S. drones if elected prime minister.
Sharif’s advisers said in March that should the PML-N form the next government - which is likely to be a coalition - the plan is to “pursue a policy of close cooperation, of intense dialogue,” said Tariq Fatemi, Sharif’s senior foreign policy adviser and a former ambassador to the United States, particularly in neighboring Afghanistan, whose stability is a top priority for both countries.
When it comes to actual prescriptions for reining in the patchwork of militant groups whose violence is paralyzing more and more of the country, PML-N officials emphasized a holistic approach.
“Force alone will not resolve this problem,” Iqbal insisted. “We have a whole comprehensive package of . . . reforms that we believe will go after acts of militancy and terrorism at the root,” the deputy secretary explained, launching into a presentation on the party’s scheme for dividing and conquering militants’ various sources of support.
“There are elements who have been misguided on religious message, which is the wrong narrative of religion. So we need to engage them by giving them an alternate narrative,” said Iqbal. “There are people who have joined this movement for social reasons, social inequality and other reasons. So we need to have justice and good governance.”
“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.