August 06, 2020
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The Beginning Of The End For Sharif?

Caught between the Clinton deal and hawks at home, it seems a no-win situation for him

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The Beginning Of The End For Sharif?
Nature was especially cruel the day Nawaz Sharif arrived in Islamabad from his Washington yatra. Strong winds and monsoon showers played havoc with the banners and posters just outside the airport. As motorists zoomed past, their mood was reflected in the banners which had portraits of Sharif and the father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan, which had been put up to celebrate the first anniversary of the emergence of an Islamic nuclear power. All the banners were hanging upside down.

This is exactly how the nation saw its Kargil policy. It appeared to be the beginning of the endgame-and of Sharif's policies of isolation. Except this time, it was the prime minister himself who was completely isolated. Former foreign minister Abdus Sattar was scathing in his criticism following the signing of the Washington declaration. "The tragic episode in Kargil has once again illustrated the tendency of the present government to act without forethought," he said, adding: "Pakistan can't afford such impulsive actions and superficial and shortsighted policies. The lessons of the past are clear and those who do not learn from past mistakes are ordained to repeat them. This too has been illustrated by the crisis. There is disparity of power, economic weakness, political dissension and international isolation. Pakistan needs peace on its borders."

Sharif returned to security rarely seen. At that point he had no well-wishers. In fact, even his partymen were heard asking, "What has the prime minister done? What do we tell our constituents when we go home this weekend?"

One thing they won't be told by Sharif or Gen Pervez Musharraf is that the endgame started with the visit of Gen Anthony Zinni of the US. "It is our guess that Zinni must have put before Musharraf satellite images taken over Kargil to prove the point that the Americans were repeatedly making," says a well-informed source. "Together with this, he must have painted the scenario where a cash-strapped Pakistan had a choice to say goodbye to all the handouts that were due from the imf and the World Bank. Plus the threat to declare Pakistan a 'terrorist state' since Osama bin Laden is still to be handed over to the US."

But today, the question that looms large over the Kargil hills is: will Sharif be able to sell his 'joint statement'? Will the army agree to what is basically an agreement between Sharif and Clinton? Will the mujahideen do Islamabad's bidding or could Pakistan's relations with the US go the Taliban way? More important, will Sharif be able to convince the people and the world at large that he has finally succeeded in internationalising Kashmir?

Two meetings on Thursday gave some indications as to which way the wind is blowing. Sharif, after a meeting with Musharraf, the director general of the isi and defence secretary Iftikhar Ali Khan, let it be known through a cabinet member that "the government will start taking concrete steps within 72 hours to implement the Washington agreement for withdrawal of the mujahideen. This depends on the Indian behaviour. If India further escalates the situation, the government will obviously hold the national security interest supreme over and above the pledge made in Washington".

On the same day, Musharraf for the first time addressed a meeting of his staff officers at ghq and those at the joint staff headquarters to brief them comprehensively about the entire background of the Kargil affairs since it began to the time that Sharif returned from Washington. Interestingly, this address to the officers was akin to the one that former chief of army staff Mirza Aslam Beg delivered during the Gulf War when all of Pakistan, including the army, was supporting Saddam Hussein but the political leadership had thrown its weight behind the Americans. At that point, Beg had made public his speech to the officers. This time, the message from ghq was that it was fully prepared for any Indian aggression but significantly that there was complete harmony between the government and the armed forces.

But that still begs a question: why did Sharif have to cover up for a policy not of his own making? The Washington joint statement is the last leadership failure of the prime minister. He will get no fresh chance and come September, political scientists see changes not only in New Delhi but in Islamabad also. The coming weeks will indicate how this will be done. The thinking is that there is no way he can deliver on his promise to Clinton. There's also doubt about how well he will be able to sell the joint statement to the Pakistani people, notwithstanding the trading roots of his family.

Sharif is already under mounting attack. In his latest weekly piece, columnist Ayaz Amir has lit into him. "Pakistan has suffered a failure of leadership, a failure of vision and, most important of all, a failure of nerve," he wrote. "When the crunch came, the politico-military leadership could not take the heat. The Bismarcks will cover for the Napoleons and the Napoleons for the Bismarcks. Begin with all the models of the Shaheens and Ghauri missiles and all the replicas of the Chagai Hills which adorn our various cities, on board the best of our naval cruisers and, in a solemn midnight ceremony, dump them far out into the waters of the Arabian Sea. If this crisis has proved anything, it is that the possession of nuclear weapons does not confer immunity from the taking of stupid decisions."

Many feel that the promise of a withdrawal counts as one such decision. "When Sharif says 72 hours, does he realise that even on a good day it takes more time than that to climb the heights to Kargil?" asks a source. Other questions are being raised as well. For instance, whether Sharif enjoys the influence on the mujahideen the US thinks he does.

All of this makes for an explosive mixture, which could go off not at Kargil but in the Pakistani capital. If at all Sharif had to climb down from Kargil, Islamabad was a good enough place to do so. But having been 'made in Washington', it makes it all the more important to deliver. Army officers say that regardless of what happened in the US, the ground situation will not change. Again, Aliffudin Turabi, naib mir of the Jamaat-e-Islami, says, "We gained a great deal in Kargil, which was our finest hour, but we have thrown it all away in Washington." Former chief of military intelligence, Asad Durrani, told Outlook, "I don't believe that the mujahideen would do anything that would harm their interests." However, he feels that the army will obey Sharif.

For now at least a few words from Sharif's spin doctor, Mushahid Hussain, provide comfort. "Never before has an American president spent three hours with a Pakistani prime minister talking about Kashmir," he says. "If this is not internationalising of the Kashmir issue, then what is?"

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