Sharif and the boys

Published June 16, 2013

GOOD idea, bad idea; should have done it/ shouldn’t have done it; old Nawaz, new Nawaz — everyone’s got an opinion, but why has Sharif kept the foreign and defence portfolios for himself?

It may not quite add up to a Churchillian riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, but neither is the thinking the easiest to pin down.

Sometimes, it helps to start by working in reverse. If Sharif had decided to appoint a foreign and a defence minister, who could he have picked?

Start with foreign. Other than Sartaj, the N-League doesn’t have much to choose from within its ranks. Nisar could have been an option but his ambitions are too well known, his camp within the party too abrasive to make rival mini-power centres comfortable with the Pindi-wala having such a high-profile slot.

Ahsan Iqbal has engaged the outside world and represented his party well but foreign policy isn’t his forte. Khurram Dastagir is young, smart and hungry but Sharif has judged him not quite ready for prime time yet — and if Sharif had, Khurram would probably have been better deployed on the electricity or energy fronts.

Take a handful of other names and the answer is the same: there’s no one in the PML-N who stands out as a logical foreign minister.

Defence is even worse. While the party is chock-full of folk close to the army, it doesn’t really have anyone who can work to bring the army to heel.

Little, then, to choose from on the foreign and defence fronts for Sharif. Fair enough, but this is Sharif and the portfolios too significant to be about personnel shortages.

Surely, Mian sahib has something in mind. But what exactly? Here the theories break down into defensive and offensive modes.

The defensive theory is that Sharif doesn’t want to rock the boat. Keep the transition to democracy on track by sniffing out grenades before they detonate. The PM-as-FM/DefM means the boys will have to think twice before foisting off security-state spiel as foreign- and defence-ministry speak.

The offensive theory is that Sharif has something up his sleeve, on India, perhaps Afghanistan and maybe even the US. By keeping the ministerial interface for himself, Sharif can push his vision, control the negotiations and keep the initiative. Foreign and defence ministers have a funny habit of drifting towards the army line if a tug of war erupts.

So far, so interesting — but not that much. A conservative approach to an old problem that may or may not work is hardly the kind of stuff to get very excited about.

But then the more exotic theories come tumbling out. What if Sharif’s move is just a temporary one? Say, until Nov when a certain Gen K retires?

That is an infinitely more interesting, and worrying, theory. For if the PM-as-FM/DefM is linked to Gen K as chief, what exactly is Sharif worried about?

And even if, for argument’s sake, Sharif has nothing really to worry about, the possibility that he could be worried is worrying enough. For from fear can come bad decisions — from both sides.

Already the whispers have begun, the boys having allegedly conveyed their desire for a go-slow approach on India — not quite an outright veto of Sharif’s ambitions but advice that may be hard to ignore. More will be suggested in the weeks ahead, not least on Afghanistan and the US.

And the US epitomises the reciprocal nature of the suspicions: segments of the PML-N remain convinced that Gen K being someone the Americans think they can do business with, the Americans have indicated a preference for letting him stay in place and deliver on what he has promised.

Does that mean a career post-Nov for Gen K? Some in the N-League aren’t willing to rule out the possibility of the party being asked to consider it — precisely the kind of conspiracy- and suspicion-fuelled speculation that tends to complicate the already complicated.

For now, the go-slow, be-careful, don’t-do-anything-sudden camp in the PML-N, epitomised by Sartaj, appears to be in the ascendant.

Theirs is a counsel of patience, of suggesting that the civ-mil imbalance is a generational struggle and that defanging and declawing must follow domesticating the beast, not precede it — essentially, winning by stealth.

But the other camp — perhaps because they believe it, possibly because it’s what they think Nawaz wants to hear — believes a harder line is needed, and needed soon.

Gen K, Gen X, Gen Y, what difference does it make, they ask. The army’s institutional interests are hardwired into the boys and Sharif’s vision is diametrically opposed to those interests.

So better to demand obedience and compliance directly than to pussyfoot around and, say, try to placate the boys on trade with India only to find another Mumbai unravelling everything.

What complicates trying to figure which path Nawaz will walk is that he hasn’t said much — even to folk within the party. It’s not as if he has much depth or quality of thinking on this issue inside the party to engage anyway — if he did, it wouldn’t have been difficult to find a foreign and defence minister to begin with.

So, offence or defence, go slow or go hard, wait or pounce, and how to do any of that — even by the standards of it being lonely at the top, Nawaz is a man alone.

Man against mountain — one man alone could be enough. Man against a moving, thinking, scheming target: he sure as hell better know what he’s doing.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm



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