The moment Nawaz Sharif becomes Prime Minister of Pakistan, the clock will begin ticking against him. There is nothing surprising in this, in all democracies, the highest point in the political life of a prime minister is on the day he takes office. Thereafter, it is downhill till the next election.
Now, if Sharif is conscious of this, the one thing he should do on day one is to issue on order placing the Inter Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) under civilian leadership. In one fell swoop, he will defang the Army of the most potent instrument it uses to distort Pakistani democracy. Every day that he delays taking action against the ISI, will be a delay that will cost him much more when the confrontation with the Army takes place, as it inevitably will, down the line.
New Hope: For Nawaz Sharif challenge lies in dealing with ISI
This is a no brainer. In July 2008, Pakistan People’s Party prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani issued a notification placing the ISI under the control of the Interior Ministry headed by Rehman Malik, but within hours the Army and the then president, Pervez Musharraf, forced him to withdraw the notification. That had a lot to do with the fact that Gilani was a light weight and that the PPP had waited several months till after the general elections that swept them into power, to act.
Nawaz Sharif has come to power with a much stronger showing and he has the clout within the Punjabi establishment to put the army in its place. More than that, he has reasons to distrust the Army which overthrew his government in 1999 and sought to hang him for treason. Sharif has shown an inclination to take on the men in khaki. In October 1998, he sacked General Jehangir Karamat from his position as the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee and the Chief of Army Staff of the Pakistan Army. It is another matter that he made the disastrous choice of replacing him with Pervez Musharraf. This time around, Sharif is on record declaring that he will go by seniority when it comes to appointing a new chief in succession to Ashfaq Pervez Kayani who retires at the end of July this year, having enjoyed a three-year extension of service.
But the ISI is quite another thing. Last November, the Pakistan Supreme Court ruled in the Asghar Khan case that former ISI chief Lt General Asad Durrani and Army chief Mirza Aslam Beg had collected Rs 140 million to rig the elections against Benazir Bhutto and the PPP in 1990. Ironically, one of the recipients was Nawaz Sharif who was at that time seen as a creation of the Army to offset the political allure of Benazir. But while politicians got half the money, the ISI and the Army kept the balance for their own use.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of the ISI’s malign activities within Pakistan which includes all manner of skullduggery, including the intimidation of journalists and other democratic elements. No democracy, such as one Pakistan aspires to be, should permit an intelligence agency to be run the way the ISI is. While all countries need intelligence services, they also need to be under the control of the government of the day, not its army.
Even as an external intelligence agency, the ISI has been a law unto itself. The attacks on the Indian Embassy in Kabul in 2008 and 2009 are instances of action which went against Pakistan’s own foreign policy. As for the Mumbai attack of November 2008, there are clear indications that some elements of the ISI were involved in what was clearly an act of international terrorism. All this may still happen in an intelligence agency controlled by the civilian government, but at least the accountability for its actions will be transparent.
Nawaz Sharif has a huge agenda before him. Pakistan is being torn from within by Sunni extremists like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. Groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba are involved in terrorist operations in India and Afghanistan, if not other countries. And the Haqqani network facilitates the activities of these groups, as well of the Afghan Taliban from Pakistani territory in North Waziristan. Any new government in Pakistan must establish its complete authority in its boundaries. But here, again, the government comes up against the activities of the ISI which use groups like the LeT and the Haqqani network to further its policies.
Then, there is the need for Sharif to right the listing Pakistani economy. He is aware that in great measure the support he got was because the people were fed up of the misgovernance of the PPP government.
However, first things must come first. And that is to establish the writ of the Pakistani government over all the segments of Pakistani society and its sovereign territory. To this end, the biggest obstacle it confronts is the ISI and the Army who feel that they represent the idea of Pakistan better than any group of elected officials. Sharif must act, because it is his survival which will eventually be at stake.
The writer is Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi