Strings attached to Sharif's return
Strings attached to Sharif's return
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI - There was a day when former premier Nawaz Sharif was part of Pakistan's ruling military oligarchy. He tried to be independent and a strongman, and consequently was removed from power in a bloodless coup by now President General Pervez Musharraf on October 12, 1999. However, after serving a year in jail and then going into exile in Saudi Arabia to avoid charges of treason and hijacking, he has once again dealt with the military and finalized a deal with the director general of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lieutenant General Nadeem Taj, in Saudi Arabia. As a result, they both returned to Pakistan - on flights half an hour apart - on Sunday. Sharif returned to the country two months ago, but was hustled straight back onto a plane to Saudi Arabia. This time there was no such drama as the circumstances have changed. According to Asia Times Online contacts, a retired military brigadier and the publisher of a large media group were involved in backroom negotiations between the military, Sharif and Saudi Arabia which resulted in him being given the go-ahead to return to Pakistan provided "he did not make trouble". Musharraf is expected to be sworn in as a civilian president this week, which means he will step down as chief of the army staff in preparation for national elections in January. According to the contacts, following the elections, Shabaz Sharif, the younger brother of Nawaz, has been earmarked to lead a unity government comprising liberal democratic forces, but under the umbrella of the military. Initially, former premier Benazir Bhutto had been chosen for this job and she, too, returned from exile, only to fall out with the United States-inspired plan and Musharraf himself. It is not yet clear what part Nawaz Sharif, considered a conservative and traditionalist and an acceptable face for Pakistan's religious forces, will play in this new political dispensation. Just a day before his return, two devastating suicide attacks killed at least 16 people in the garrison town of Rawalpindi adjoining Islamabad. One attacker targeted a vehicle carrying ISI personnel, the other a gate at the military's general headquarters (GHQ). The attacks serve as a strong hint to the Pakistani army to reverse its intervention in the Taliban's fight against foreign forces in Afghanistan. The attacks, impeccable sources at GHQ reveal, were based on precise intelligence. However, the sources refused to name the victims or their ranks. Mounting US pressure has forced Pakistan this year to do more in the fight against Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in the country, leading to head-on confrontation. As a result, Pakistan's channels of communication with militants have been choked and the situation is reaching a point of no return in the battle between the Pakistani Taliban and the Pakistani army. The deal with Sharif has both internal and external aspects. The Pakistani military is concerned that the "war on terror" is spilling far too much into the country. The Pakistani Taliban already have a strong presence in the tribal areas and in North-West Frontier Province. Pakistan's leading security think-tank, the National Defense University, has floated the idea that Afghanistan and Pakistan could be prevented from falling into the clutches of extremism by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces withdrawing from Afghanistan and being replaced by troops from the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC). Ironically, four Muslim countries with the strongest armies in the OIC are non-Arab - Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia and Bangladesh. If a decision is taken to send in the OIC, these four countries would be at the helm. With the insurgency in Afghanistan spiraling out of control with every passing day, Washington is giving an ear to this suggestion. But the biggest problem would be for Muslim countries to find leaders to speak to the insurgents in a spirit of mutual trust. Otherwise, OIC forces could be just as much of a problem as NATO's. For instance, if the militants declare the troops infidels, it would only add to the hopelessness of the situation. Apparently, the deal brokered by Saudi Arabia to allow Nawaz Sharif back into Pakistan aims to bring his brother Shabaz into the spotlight. Nawaz Sharif had personal interactions with Osama bin Laden (The pawns who pay as powers play, Asia Times Online, June 22, 2005) many times when both were planning to dislodge Bhutto's government in the late 1980s. In Pakistan's charged environment, anything is worth a try, including this old wine in a new bottle - it's worked before.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org