Former—and disqualified—prime minister Nawaz Sharif gave an interview to daily Dawn in which he talked about the Mumbai attack, non-state actors, Pakistan’s isolation and said, “It’s absolutely unacceptable. This is exactly what we are struggling for.”
Predictably, all hell broke loose.
Predictably, too, talking heads on TV channels began to berate and condemn Sharif, calling him a traitor; meanwhile, the Army, through an Inter-Services Public Relations tweet, “suggested” to Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to call a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on National Security to discuss the matter.
The Committee met and, yes, predictably again, rejected and denounced Sharif’s claim about the Mumbai attacks and subsequent trial in Pakistan as “incorrect”, “misleading” and “fallacious”. For good measure, the post-meeting press release also noted that Sharif’s outburst could have been triggered either by “misconception or [because of his] grievances.”
Sharif’s younger brother and Punjab chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, had earlier rejected the interview, saying it had “incorrectly attributed certain remarks to PMLN Quaid Nawaz Sharif, which do not represent PMLN’s party policy.” The party also issued a clarification Sunday, saying that the Indian media had “grossly misinterpreted” Nawaz’s remarks.
In the wake of this brouhaha, the elder Sharif on Monday, during an appearance before the accountability court, not only stood by what he had said but asked, “What did I say in the interview that was wrong?”
“Former president Pervez Musharraf, former interior minister Rehman Malik and former National Security Adviser Major-General Mehmood Durrani (retd.) had already confirmed [what I said]. Despite our 50,000 sacrifices [of lives], why is the world not paying heed to our narrative? And the person who is asking this question has been labeled a traitor.”
What is one to make of this?
First and foremost, the PMLN is deeply divided. There’s the elder Sharif and then there is the PMLN government, which, despite being badly mauled and bruised, is technically still running the country and prepping for upcoming polls. While its vote gravitates to Sharif for the most part, the younger Sharif, as also many other PMLN leaders, believe they will be made to fail at the hustings if the elder Sharif continues with brinkmanship. The ousted Sharif—and his daughter—think that supplicating the establishment, a squeamish euphemism for the military, will not cut it.
They also appear to believe that standing firm and pushing the issue is the best strategy to get votes and offset the pressure from the judicial-military combine, including such tactics in the run-up to the polls as getting PMLN MNAs et cetera to jump ship and join Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf, an exercise that is on rather brazen display.
Corollary: this is the difference between kowtowing and damage control and brinkmanship.
Going by Thomas Schelling, brinkmanship is about a shared risk of war. Each side pushes the other towards the brink to force the other side to capitulate at the last second, a concept generally, and somewhat simplistically, referred to as the game of chicken: who will swerve first getting to the single-lane bridge and yield the bridge to the other.
The idea hinges on conflicting requirements of rationality and credibility: the two sides are rational and want the best outcome for themselves, which implies that each calculates what the other might do. Simultaneously, credibility is the belief about what strategies will be chosen and involves audience and reputational costs.
While neither must keel over, the payoffs depend on driving straight or swerving away, what Sagan described as “threats that leave something to chance.” But there’s always the chance of “uncontrollable risk”—i.e., both drivers believing the other will swerve away at the last minute, increasing the risk of collision.
That’s where the elder Sharif and the military stand. The brinkmanship now involves compellence, more than deterrence: to force the adversary to do something, having failed to prevent him from starting something. The problem is (a) compellence is more difficult to achieve (you drive head-on and leave the decision to clear the path to the other driver) and (b) unlike deterrence, it is time-bound (you get out of the way. But when?).
Neither side is prepared to back off. In the interview the elder Sharif said: “Look, we have no other choice. These games have gone on too long. Something has to change.”
Sharif is now pinning his hopes on the Punjab voter. Will he deliver? Will the Janubi Punjab Mahaz that has miraculously subsumed in PTI elect the ‘electables’? These questions remain and given the fluidity of the situation even sharp psephological projections and predictions will be akin to putting one’s neck on the chopping block.
The military is an institution and also the coercive apparatus of the state. It is no secret, former generals’ mealy-mouthedness on TV channels notwithstanding, that it is also an (armed) political player. It might be less predominant today than it was yesterday, but it is still primus inter pares. It has also learnt the strategy of the indirect approach in this digital age. It doesn’t have to move out of the way of Sharif’s speeding car because it can park a tank on that single lane.
On the softer side it can, has, and is deploying the argument that Sharif is corrupt, Panama wasn’t started by the military, Sharif could offer nothing in his defense except the infamous Qatari letter and the judiciary (Baba Rehmatay et al) is a bunch of Yeats’ sagacious Chinamen staring at the tragic scene through their ancient, glittering eyes.
Some of which is true; a lot of which is a mix of clever half-truths.
But what is being avoided in all this is what the elder Sharif said, regardless of why he said it. Put another way, while Sharif would not have said what he did if he were still the P.M. and things were looking up for him, what he has said does not in and of itself lose its value or currency simply because he is wounded and has decided to push the strategy of brinkmanship.
And that is about civil-military imbalance; it’s about policy; it is also about the lopsided interaction between foreign and security policies; it is about the state and its direction; it’s about military/operational (mis)adventures; it is about multiple, overt and covert ways in which dissent is suppressed and even disappeared; it is about the usual university or job interview question: where do we see ourselves in the next five to 10 years? Except, it is not banal by any stretch of the imagination.
At that point, this is the juncture at which the issue rises beyond the person of the elder Sharif, as does the fight. And at that juncture, it becomes a battle of one idea against another. In fact, given that Sharif didn’t learn to govern in and through the institutional framework, it is deeply ironic that he has emerged as the man who is asking the right questions, albeit for reasons of self-interest.
No one on TV is talking about this battle because it’s easier to beat the elder Sharif with the stick of multiple allegations. That only serves to confuse the broader issue, the principal contradiction.
But this is exactly the battle the world is watching.
And this is the battle whose outcome will decide the fate of Pakistan.
Haider is the executive editor at Indus News. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider