Maryam Nawaz Sharif posted a tweet on December 11, 2016, quoting from a popular American television drama series, Grey’s Anatomy: “There’s an end to every storm. Once all the trees have been uprooted, once all the houses have been ripped apart, the wind will hush. The clouds will part. The rain will stop. The sky will clear in an instant and only then, in those quiet moments after the storm, do we learn who was strong enough to survive it.”
She posted the tweet almost two weeks after the new army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, had taken over from General Raheel Sharif and only four days before the farewell reference for Chief Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali who retired on December 30, 2016. His successor, Justice Saqib Nisar, has old ties with Nawaz Sharif who made him law secretary in 1997 and later appointed him a judge of the Lahore High Court in 1998.
A couple of days earlier, a five-member bench of the Supreme Court, headed by Justice Jamali, practically consigned the Panama Papers case against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his children – Maryam, Hassan and Hussain – to the dustbin after almost six weeks of hearing. The proceedings in the case, based on the petitions filed by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), among others, will now resume virtually from scratch.
Raheel Sharif was of the view that protracted controversy over the Panama Papers was affecting governance and national security, and the issue needed to be urgently addressed.
All these developments must help Nawaz Sharif breathe easy after a very difficult 2016. From his worsening relationship with the army under Raheel Sharif to allegations of corruption and money laundering against him and his family, from Imran Khan’s protest campaign to his heart problem — Nawaz Sharif has been through a lot in the last 12 months.
During the month he spent in London after his open-heart surgery last summer, rumour mills in Pakistan worked overtime to create all kinds of doubts over his return home. Many commentators and talk-show hosts took extra pains to ‘inform’ their audience that Nawaz Sharif had decided to resign to make way for someone from his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) to head the government. That was the only option he was said to have to ensure PMLN’s stay in power after having mired himself in corruption charges.
The outgoing year started on a bad note for Nawaz Sharif. A terrorist strike on India’s Pathankot airbase on January 2 extinguished hopes for the revival of peace talks with New Delhi. The attack upended the optimism generated by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s December 2015 visit to Nawaz Sharif’s Raiwind home to attend the wedding of the latter’s granddaughter.
By the end of Raheel Sharif’s term in November 2016, Nawaz Sharif had lost much more than just his peace initiative with India. The army had firmly established its control over anti-insurgency operations in Balochistan, maintenance of law and order in Karachi and the fight against militant groups in the tribal areas, as well as relations with India, Afghanistan and the United States.
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, President of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (Pildat), a think tank based in Islamabad, believes there was no effective institutional mechanism to hammer out differences and disagreements between the civilians and the military during this period. “Instead of using the Cabinet Committee on National Security, Nawaz Sharif preferred to resolve disagreements with the military command through one-on-one meetings with the army chief.” That only worked to the prime minister’s disadvantage.
The gulf was manifest in many ‘unilateral’ decisions made by the military — for instance, handing over control of the newly-constructed border-crossing facility at Angoor Adda to Afghanistan in May without asking the interior ministry. Raheel Sharif also ordered action against the perpetrators of the March 2016 bombing in Lahore – that killed at least 72 people and injured over 300 others, many of them local Christians – without approval from the federal or Punjab government. The army, in short, did not miss a chance to embarrass the civilian government.
The government’s failure to try former dictator Pervez Musharraf on treason charges was very obvious proof of the army’s ascendency. When he left Pakistan in March last year, ostensibly for receiving treatment for an unspecified ailment, the army’s hand was all too visible in affording him that relief. “Pervez Musharraf stayed in [a military] hospital for such a long time without any reason and then he also stayed in Karachi for such a long time without going to court that you can say that the [army] was involved to some extent [in his departure from the country],” is how federal minister Abdul Qadir Baloch explained the whole episode in a television interview.
The army’s campaign to portray Raheel Sharif as a larger-than-life character also led to the diminishing stature of all elected civilian politicians — but most importantly of the prime minister. At one stage towards the end of 2015, Imran Khan cited an opinion poll saying the army chief was Pakistan’s most popular personality, way ahead of Nawaz Sharif.
Civil-military tensions grew more rapidly after Raheel Sharif mounted direct and indirect pressure on Nawaz Sharif through statements on corruption in the aftermath of revelations in the Panama Papers that the prime minister’s family owns vast properties in London through offshore companies. Addressing troops in April, for example, he remarked the “war against terrorism and extremism … cannot bring enduring peace and stability unless the menace of corruption is uprooted”. He added that “across the board accountability” was “necessary for the solidarity, integrity and prosperity of Pakistan”.
Two days later, reports quoted anonymous military sources as claiming that Raheel Sharif had sent six high-ranking army officers on forced retirement after charges of corruption were proven against them. Many construed the action as an effort to bring more pressure on Nawaz Sharif to take similar measures on the Panama Papers.
Raheel Sharif was of the view that protracted controversy over the Panama Papers was affecting governance and national security, and the issue needed to be urgently addressed. A short video clip of a meeting, in which he delivered this “pointed message” to Nawaz Sharif, was also leaked to the media to the embarrassment of the government. Nobody knows who was responsible for the leak.
Political analysts say the PTI-PAT sit-in radically weakened the elected government’s standing, both domestically and internationally.
To make matters worse, another leak emerged from an early October high-level meeting where, according to daily Dawn, the civilian leadership made observations about alleged support militants were getting from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The military was so livid with the news report that it wanted strict action against those behind it. After some initial flip-flop, Nawaz Sharif had to sack his information minister Pervez Rashid for failing to stop the publication of the report. The prime minister also set up a committee to investigate it and apportion blame. (The probe’s findings are due early this month but the new army leadership does not seem keen on pursuing the matter as vigorously as its predecessors was.)
The only area where the government appears to have resisted the army’s advances is the multibillion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. The army has always wanted to take it under its control but the federal government refuses to allow that since the ruling PMLN sees its success as the ticket for victory in the next election.
When Nawaz Sharif was elected prime minister for a third term in 2013 in what was the first smooth transition from one elected government to another, he appeared firmly in control. His ruling coalition enjoyed more than two-thirds majority in the National Assembly and expectations that democracy will establish its roots firmly under him were high. Nawaz Sharif’s control on national security and foreign policy was also complete. He initiated peace talks with the Taliban and offered dialogue to Baloch insurgents; he also put Musharraf on trial for high treason; externally, he set about improving ties with India, Afghanistan and the United States — all in spite of the army’s reservations.
But his executive authority started slipping through his fingers even before the completion of his first year in office. He chose Raheel Sharif, who was third on the seniority list, to be Chief of Army Staff (COAS), but ironically his own hand-picked man proved to be the catalyst for negative change in his fortunes. When the PTI and Tahirul Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) arrived in Islamabad in August 2014 for an anti-government sit-in that lasted five months, the ‘transition of power’ from the civilians to the military was well under way.
By then the military had launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb against militant groups in the tribal areas without bothering to consult, let alone seek permission from, the government, which was still pursuing peace negotiations. The security forces had also intensified their campaign – launched under General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani – to dismantle “the nexus between criminals, militants and political parties” in Karachi and stepped up the drive against separatist insurgents in Balochistan, scuttling the possibility, if there was any, of a peaceful resolution of the conflict there.
Political analysts say the PTI-PAT sit-in radically weakened the elected government’s standing, both domestically and internationally. “Nawaz Sharif has not recovered from the setback he suffered as a result of the sit-in,” says Mehboob.
The National Action Plan (NAP), formed in the aftermath of the deadly terrorist attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School in December 2014, formalised the role of security forces in internal security. Federal and provincial apex committees were formed under the NAP to oversee the working of civilian governments on law and order. The committees lack any constitutional or legal basis, according to Mehboob, but they have provided senior army and intelligence officers the opportunity to have a commanding position within the executive. And, in spite of being dominant in the apex committees, the army has continued blaming the civilians over NAP’s failures.
Nawaz Sharif may have weathered the storm, at least for now, but it has left him shrivelled and scarred
The military spent the next two years consolidating its role in the domains of internal security and foreign policy. It was not surprising then that other countries, too, sensed the exclusion of the government from the decision-making process on these issues and started dealing directly with Raheel Sharif — underscored by his frequent trips to world capitals and meetings with foreign diplomats and dignitaries.
“The military [not only] wants complete autonomy in its own matters but also [wants to] direct the course of civil matters,” says Husain Haqqani, a former ambassador to the United States and the author of Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military and Magnificent Delusions. Mehboob, on the other hand, argues the military took over national security and foreign policy because the government was not proactive in these areas. “The civil government is to blame for leaving the vacuum for the army to fill in,” he says.
Nawaz Sharif made things worse for himself with some ill-advised moves, says Mehboob. “When an attempt was made to assassinate popular television host Hamid Mir in Karachi (and the ISI was blamed for it), Nawaz Sharif chose to visit the journalist at the hospital but did not attend an ISI briefing on the issue. Consequently, the civilians had to go on the back foot.”
The prime minister also did not discourage his party men from giving statements about former senior army officers. Defence Minister Khawaja Asif, for instance, publicly accused former ISI chiefs, Zaheerul Islam and Shuja Pasha, of conspiring with PMLN’s political opponents to weaken – even topple – the government in 2014.
Raheel Sharif’s departure has changed the optics at least. A November 26 photograph shows COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa sitting on an office chair across from the prime minister. No one recalls Raheel Sharif having ever met Nawaz Sharif in this type of seating arrangement.
The optics, however, leave the most important question unanswered: will Nawaz Sharif reclaim authority over national security and foreign policy? “I don’t see the prime minister making any meaningful effort to wrest back his authority during his present term in the office,” says a journalist based in Lahore. “He would not want to be adventurous during whatever time is left of his present tenure and will, instead, focus on the next election.”
Mehboob is of the view that it will not be possible for Nawaz Sharif to take back his executive powers without ensuring the rule of law. “How can the government justify Maryam Nawaz Sharif’s or Shahbaz Sharif’s presence in official meetings [where they do not legally belong]? The prime minister himself does not accord any importance to parliament or to his cabinet. By personalising governance, you weaken the rule of law and invite others to cross their constitutional limits.”
The civilian government also needs to devise a mechanism for listening to the military’s point of view, Mehboob says. “The decisions of the civil government must prevail but it should not hesitate from listening to the military.”
Unlike in the 1990s, Nawaz Sharif, however, has not lost his cool. He is biding his time and letting the crises die down. “This time around [he] has handled the civil-military relations in a much better way. He did not say anything publicly and [has] waited to exercise his powers,” says Haqqani.
Mehboob has a similar opinion. “Nawaz Sharif displayed greater tolerance and accommodation in the face of encroachment on his authority by the military. He did not act rashly and waited for his time to come.”
The waiting game has allowed Nawaz Sharif to fend off the challenge from the military, says Haqqani. But this “process of standing still” has not allowed the prime minister to accomplish much in 2016.
Nawaz Sharif may have weathered the storm, at least for now, but it has left him shrivelled and scarred.
This article was written as part of the Person of the Year series for the Herald's Annual 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is chief reporter at daily Dawn, Lahore. He tweets @nasirjamall