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War of turf between Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan army

In March, the country’s largest television news network, Geo, was blocked by cable providers in military-controlled areas, while elsewhere where it could not be blocked it was moved lower down the channels list. This resulted in lesser viewership just because it televised an interview of Nawaz Sharif.WAR OF TURF BETWEEN SHARIF AND PAKISTAN ARMY-1

Both these developments suggest that there is an escalating war of nerves between deposed prime minister Nawaz Sharif and the powerful military. Pakistan’s civilian authorities say they have not ordered them. Hence suspicion goes to Pakistan Army or Deep State.

What prompted the blockades?

War of turf between Sharif and Pakistan army
War of turf between Sharif and Pakistan army

The action against Dawn comes in the wake of a Nawaz Sharif interview it published earlier in May, in which he questioned the wisdom of “allowing” Pakistani militants to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai.

He also asked why Pakistan had not prosecuted the Hafiz Saeed mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, who was arrested in Pakistan but has since been surreptitiously released.

The comment was seen as a broadside at the military, which is widely believed to harbour militants and which Mr. Sharif has openly blamed for being behind his disqualification from office last year.

One of our freelance reporters who closely followed the corruption case against Mr. Sharif, and dug up information that suggested the grounds for his disqualification to be “extremely weak”.

Why would the military worry?

Critics of Pakistan Army say it is trying to control the media at a time when its business empire is being challenged on two fronts.

The first was opened by Mr. Sharif who, after being ousted by the Supreme Court, has grown increasingly defiant.

This is all the more menacing given that his popularity hasn’t shown any signs of a fall, which creates an uncomfortable possibility for the Pakistan Army that he may win the election if not stopped. It would not be surprising if Pakistan Army is contemplating a Benazir type exit strategy for Nawaz Sharif during this election campaigns.

The second front is the rise of a grassroots movement from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the base from which the military has allegedly orchestrated its regional proxy wars.

The Pashtun Tahaffuz (Safety) Movement (PTM) is expressly peaceful but its leaders have knowledge of how those proxy wars were orchestrated and what price local people paid. Today these leaders are asking uncomfortable questions at mass rallies across the country. An unannounced ban on their coverage is also in force.

So today Pakistan Army is facing two opponents at once. While the PTM has the potential to evolve into a fearsome adversary, the threat posed by Nawaz Sharif is of a more immediate nature.

What does Sharif know?

Nawaz Sharif has been prime minister three times since 1990, and his association with power goes back to 1980 when military ruler General Ziaul Haq appointed him to finance minister of Punjab.

As such, he is privy to how Pakistan Army evolved into what some call a “sovereign” entity in its own right.

He was initially an ally of the Pakistan Army, and was in the forefront of a political alliance – bringing together ultra-right wing groups and political fronts for militant organizations – that was cobbled together by a former chief of the ISI intelligence service soon after the death of Gen Zia in an air crash in 1988.

Mr. Sharif is named among recipients of cash distributed by the ISI to members of the alliance to fight elections.

He also knows the inside story of the 1999 Kargil war, when he was prime minister. Pakistan said it was the work of Kashmiri militants, but it was later revealed that Pakistan army had actually orchestrated the conflict.

Mr. Sharif has indicated to the US president and in other forums that the war was planned and executed by then army chief Gen Pervez Musharraf behind his back. But he is yet to come out with a full story. During the Kargil conflict, Indian Army had pulled off an excellent fight back with all odds against it and won the war.

Analysts believe the war was meant to wreck Nawaz Sharif’s efforts to normalize relations with India. Tensions with Gen Musharraf culminated in the army coup of 1999 in which he was overthrown and exiled.

Mr. Sharif is also privy to the military’s strategy of employing militants to wage wars in Afghanistan and India from their sanctuaries in FATA. The entire Deep State is Panic and turmoil.

How far could Sharif go?

But the main question is, will Mr. Sharif go the whole hog and spill the beans to Pakistan Army ‘s detriment, especially once his party hands power to a caretaker administration later this month ahead of the general election?

There are high stakes. Since the 1980s,  Pakistan Army has evolved into the country’s largest business empire, while developing a capacity to control the country’s political decision-making.

At home, Pakistan Army derives its main strength and support by painting India, and at times Western powers such as the US, as a perpetual enemy.

But the history of Pakistan shows that whenever politicians, were in firm control of affairs, have invariably tried to normalize relations with India. Their attempts to do this always resulted in their death or ousting from power.

“This may be one reason why successive civilian governments that warmed to India have been pulled down through covert subversion,” says Afrasiab Khattak, a former senator and head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

When civilian governments have been destabilized in the past, religious and militant groups – the judiciary now, too, some would say – as well as “surrogate” politicians have been deployed.

Something similar is happening in Pakistan right now. And Mr. Sharif is at the center of it, threatening the military with uncomfortable truths. Or perhaps seeking a deal.

What is clear is the media are being gagged like never before, and efforts are underway to drive a wedge into Mr. Sharif’s PML-N party before the elections can be announced.

30 May 2018/Wednesday                                                            Written by Mohd Tahir Shafi

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