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Clarity required: PML-N stance on militancy

May 15, 2013

CONTINUING from where he left off in the last days of the election campaign, prime minister-in-waiting Nawaz Sharif has said all the right things about the US, India and Afghanistan in interviews with the foreign media on Monday. Calling for a reset or improvement of ties with the US, India and Afghanistan, Mr Sharif took an encouragingly pragmatic and positive line on Pakistan’s key external relationships. Even when discussing the fraught issue of US drone strikes in Fata, Mr Sharif took a measured line, refusing to be drawn into jingoistic and bellicose rhetoric while under-lining the problems the strikes have created politically inside Pakistan. It is encouraging that Nawaz Sharif the incoming prime minister is speaking in much the same way as Nawaz Sharif the candidate spoke.

For all the positivity Mr Sharif’s comments have generated, however, there is still a very grey area in the PML-N’s policy framework: what, if anything, does the party intend to do about the domestic threat from militancy and extremism, particularly in the N-League’s Punjab electoral base? On Afghanistan, Mr Sharif’s suggestion that his government will help foreign powers draw down their forces will be a reassuring early signal to the outside world from the PML-N supremo. But the outside world will surely want to know about his plans to tackle the external and internal threat that militant groups operating on Pakistani soil still project. The US, India and Afghanistan have specific groups in mind who continue to be given space inside Pakistan, and increasingly in Punjab. Actions not words will be sought, and in the absence of action by the Pakistani state, tensions with the outside world could rise.

Framing the issue as predominantly an external concern, however, would be disingenuous. The PML-N’s links to, tolerance for and encouragement of Islamist organisations with militant wings has set up a problem that is potentially explosive: could those groups, who have avoided turning their violent attention on the PML-N so far, now expect more space for themselves in Punjab and the country’s trouble spots? While simply turning the state’s guns on militant Islamists embedded in Pakistan proper is no real solution, neither has the PML-N put forward anything that approaches a rational or acceptable approach to incrementally tamping down the militancy threat. As a conservative, popular, Punjabi leader, Mr Sharif has the credentials to take up the fight against terrorism — but those same credentials can also act as an impediment to action. The country needs clarity from Mr Sharif on these issues soon.