Watching Nawaz Sharif

From nuclear decision-making to foreign relations, Pakistan’s prime minister seems to be gasping for breath.

“The government is just stupid. Couldn’t it have behaved like Asif Zardari? He was not good but at least he didn’t rush into taking senseless decisions. Couldn’t they have waited until the next elections?” Salman Taseer’s killer’s uncle stood near his nephew’s grave in Bara Kahu in the suburbs of Islamabad complaining. Then he crooned about the high spiritual status that god had awarded Mumtaz Qadri. The uncle and dozens of others gathered around the slowly evolving shrine that day looked mildly confused but not as confident as those who marched towards parliament on March 27. What then prompted the procession and the combination of various Barelvi groups to lay siege to Islamabad’s high-security zone that day? After all, even senior officers at the National Counter-Terrorism Authority (Nacta) don’t take Barelvi protests seriously. “Bury an animal and you will have a shrine in few years with people worshipping.” For police officials, the Qadri shrine was nothing more.

The Barelvi march into Islamabad turned into a laughing stock when the mullahs began throwing rubber sandals at choppers flying overhead, but the questions still remain: Why was Qadri’s chelum, a 40th-day ceremony, being held 27 days after his burial? Why were the Islamabad police unable to control a mob of approximately 30,000 when they managed to control over 3,00,000 people on March 1, the day of Qadri’s janaza? Then, a small number of police and paramilitary managed to stop the bulk of the crowd at Faizabad from going to Bara Kahu for the burial. Why was there no prior intelligence about the gathering, considering there has never been a seamless or smooth integration between various Barelvi religious factions?

The Easter day attack in Lahore that killed about 72 innocent people and injured over 300 is less of a surprise. The law enforcement agencies in Punjab are better poised as far as local intelligence is concerned. The police have a good database about those who have fought in Afghanistan and returned, those who are members of militant groups, engaged in extremism or even petty crime. Yet, for years, the police in Punjab has been hostage to inaction against militants due to the strategic policies of the state. What can a police officer do if he is instructed to release someone he has captured, or told to ignore Jaish-e-Mohammed leaders moving around in Bahawalpur in brand-new SUVs with armed gunmen?

In 2013, one could spot Uzbek militants in Multan. This district in south Punjab was also home to the Lashkar-e-Khorasan. The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi’s militant and political wings have bases in various parts of south Punjab. Not to forget systematic ideological dissemination by the JeM based on Masood Azhar’s seminal work, Fathul Jawwad, which specifically categorises Christians as a threat to Islam. Azhar interprets significant portions of the Quran to argue that Christians, like Jews and other non-Muslims, should be punished with death for depopulating mosques.

In a nutshell, the wherewithal of violent extremism was in Punjab for long without necessarily generating violence at all times, or without the Taliban having to send a message to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that “they had arrived in Lahore”. Punjab was the reason why the army claimed to shy away from launching operations in northern Waziristan. Later, when the army did move in North Waziristan, there was no real reaction from the Taliban. Punjab largely remained safe.

Now, the army is said to have launched an operation in Punjab. It doesn’t seem likely that a large province can be cleaned of militants when the army met with limited success in the same objective even in Swat, a far smaller area. It is not even clear what is being done. In the words of a journalist friend trying to report from Punjab, “they have launched a big operation but nothing appears to be happening”. Groups like the LeT and JeM and their subsidiaries do not seem to be in any panic despite news about over 5,000 people being arrested from south Punjab and the army carrying out a secret operation in the region.

If army presence was the sole guarantor of the much-needed clean-up, the JeM would not have become more visible even in parts of Balochistan, especially in recent weeks and months. This deliberate law and order engagement came after the army claimed that military action in Punjab had become inevitable as the police had collapsed. What are the chances of a fair campaign that does not necessarily aim at targeting Nawaz Sharif but genuinely cleans the province of bad elements?

Nawaz Sharif is certainly not in an enviable position especially as far as his strength vis-à-vis the military is concerned. Recently, he was forced to give Pervez Musharraf permission to leave the country. Medical treatment was the stated reason.

The army entering Punjab and forcibly taking over administrative functions by stealth could impact Nawaz Sharif’s political future in the long run. The tussle between the generals and the government is becoming increasingly visible. Nawaz Sharif appears challenged in giving direction to policies. From nuclear decision-making to foreign relations, Pakistan’s prime minister seems to be gasping for breath.

Note: This article originally published here.