Sharif, the army and the Taliban

Not only Pakistan’s army, but the foreign interests that come with aid-dependency have defined Pakistan’s security policies during the past decade. A new course for Pakistan, where long-term economic policies are prioritized over short-term military operations will clash with US interests.

The recent Pakistani general elections have been congratulated for high voter turnout and a historic civilian transfer of power without military interference. But western leaders involved in war in neighbouring Afghanistan are still holding their breath. Their main concerns seem to be how the coming prime minister and civil government will deal with or demote those policies of Pakistan’s army that are known to be autonomous vis-à-vis those of the civil government. And how the new government will deal with the Pakistani and the Afghan Taliban. A ‘softer’ approach will potentially affect the endgame in Afghanistan and who comes out as the winner and loser.

It was the military dictator Zia ul Haq who first brought Sharif to the political stage. But Sharif in his actions and policies since the 1990’s has indicated that he wants the prime minister – not the army, and not the president – to be in charge of the country’s security policy. He managed to fire one army chief under his second term as prime minster, and attempted to remove his successor too, but General Musharraf managed to overthrow him first, through a military coup in 1999. The tension between the two powerful leaders arose over a disagreement on how to handle the relationship with India: Musharraf allegedly using paramilitary means to push India on the disputed issue of Kashmir, and Sharif wanting the army to withdraw from the conflict scene in Kargil – a messy clash that brought the two neighbouring nuclear states to the brink of war.  

Tensions are expected to reappear around Sharif’s handling of the Pakistani Taliban – an umbrella movement established in 2007 with the dual agenda of chasing out the foreign troops from Afghanistan and removing the traitorous civil government in Pakistan who joined an alliance with the US in the war on terror. His handling of the Afghan Taliban will be watched closely, particularly since Pakistan is expected by Afghanistan to play the role of facilitating some sort of reconciliation between the Karzai government and the Afghan Taliban – a role that the US dislikes for many different reasons but most importantly because it gives Pakistan considerable power to define what will be the endgame in Afghanistan.

For Pakistan the issue of the economy and the civil government’s authority over security politics are interrelated. Firstly, during the past decade, Pakistan’s heavy dependency on foreign aid and its balance of payments crisis has been a useful instrumental for the US in the War on Terror. It is not completely true that it is the Pakistan army that defines Pakistan’s security politics – instead the condition that comes with foreign aid simultaneously opens up a venue for foreign interests. The multibillion-dollar aid plan known as the Kerry-Lugar aid package made military support conditional on the Pakistan Army’s effectiveness against the Taliban and other militants sheltering on Pakistan’s soil.

Prioritizing long-term economic policies over the short-term military operation could help restore the skewed power-balance between the army and civil government in Pakistan. Sharif has promised to turn Pakistan into an Asian Tiger – a shaky promise certainly not delivered during his previous two terms as prime minister, the first term ending in corruption charges. However if he manages to resist the lure of putting state money aside for private leisure purposes, he might improve the unstable security situation through economic rather than military means.

So how can this be bad news for western involvement in Afghanistan? It would involve less use of the military instrument to deal with insurgency, instead shifting the prime focus to the economic conditions that lead recruits into the arms of insurgent movements. Perhaps paradoxically this is against what the US has been pushing Pakistan to do for the past twelve years, where economic aid has been conditioned on military operations. Under the reign of Musharraf, for example, the Pakistan army invaded the Tribal Areas, and demolished – with its military machinery – a female madrassa affiliated to the Red Mosque in the capital city of Pakistan.  These events prompted the burgeoning of the Pakistani Taliban – an attack  that will forever hang over Pakistan as a dark shadow. 

Sharif’s reign will foreground the fact that Pakistan’s highest concerns do not correspond to those of the US in the region. Put simply: Pakistan’s stability is more important to Pakistan than US interests in the Afghanistan endgame.  For the US, Pakistan’s financial crisis has until now been a means to push both the civil and military powers to secure what the US came to the region for. Prime concern for the US is not the militancy that is targeted at the Pakistan army, but the militants that target US troops in Afghanistan.  If Sharif makes the Taliban’s life easier in Pakistan, and signs a peace deal with them, which he has a better chance to do than the previous government, this will make life harder for the US in Afghanistan. It will increase the risk that they will focus their attention on Afghanistan instead of on Pakistan and continue to facilitate cross-border attacks till the invasion ends.

The tragic irony is that even though western leaders look upon Sharif’s more pragmatic approach to the Taliban with great concern, an approach to the Taliban which is less militaristic, more focused on the economy and political dialogue, holds much more promise for the region than the approach taken so far. The Pakistani Taliban never had resonance in Pakistan before the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, and the subsequent army raids in the tribal areas of Pakistan. To what extent the Pakistan army was forced to launch wars within Pakistan is hard to know, but in any case the past decade of war shows that the Taliban cannot simply be wiped out in Afghanistan. In Pakistan, the military invasions have meant that a new conglomerate of Taliban movements were created. These lessons are what will may well set the direction of a Sharif-led government in Pakistan.  

About the author

Mona Kanwal Sheikh holds a PhD. in Political Science from the University of Copenhagen and has previously been affiliated to the University of California Santa Barbara as visiting research scholar. Currently she is conducting postdoc research at the Danish Institute for International Studies where she works on security issues relating to Afghanistan and Pakistan.  She has worked particularly on the Pakistani Taliban and their justifications for violence.