Sharif Sees Quelling Militants as Job One in Pakistan Return

Nawaz Sharif, the two-time Pakistan prime minister seeking a return in next week’s election, will prioritize quelling militancy ravaging the country should he win power, according to one of his party’s top officials.

Leading in opinion polls before the May 11 ballot, Sharif, 63, would seek the support of military commanders and political rivals to counter extremism, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, who led Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League party in opposition in the last parliament, said in an interview April 26.

Faced with insurgent groups and extremist networks with differing loyalties, the “government of the day and the armed forces’ leadership must sit together and be clear as to who are with us and who are against us,” said Khan. Overhauling the crippled power sector and stemming losses at state-run companies would follow.

Sunni radicals have stepped up attacks on Muslim sects they consider infidel, killing 250 people in bombings targeting the Shiite minority in Quetta and Karachi this year. A government minister and a provincial governor who opposed blasphemy laws were killed in 2011. Pakistan’s army, which is fighting Taliban guerrillas in the northwest, dominates security policy and has its own links to extremist groups that have been enmeshed in conflicts in India and Afghanistan.

If elected, “Sharif will likely lead a weak government and from a position of weakness, he won’t be able to take drastic steps needed to challenge the militants,” Muhammad Waseem, a political science professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, said May 2. “The policy to deal with them will firmly remain within the domain of army. I don’t think he is going to challenge that.”

‘Changed Man’

The Taliban have escalated their fight to topple the state from bases near the Afghan border, killing 60 people in attacks on election candidates.

Sharif, whose first administration was cut short over corruption allegations and his second by Pervez Musharraf’s 1999 army coup, would face stiff challenges. Economic growth has slowed to an annual average of 3 percent since 2008 as a record power crisis shuts the grid for up to 18 hours a day. Ties with top aid-donor the U.S. have deteriorated.

Sharif “is a changed man,” said Khan at his home in Rawalpindi, abutting Islamabad. “A lot of democracy has seeped into our decision-making. Nawaz Sharif consults very often, very vigorously.”

Sharif received 37-percent support in a Gallup survey in March, double that for President Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party or former cricket star Imran Khan. The Sharif stronghold of Punjab province sends more than half the elected 272 lawmakers to parliament.

House Arrest

In a stark reversal of fortunes, Musharraf is under house arrest, shut out of the election over his 2007 emergency-rule declaration, subsequently judged illegal. Unidentified gunmen today shot dead the chief prosecutor investigating Musharraf over the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, police said.

A distinction had to be drawn between militants like the Taliban at war with the state and followers of radical ideology who don’t resort to violence, said Khan.

“If somebody is an extremist and retains it in his heart, he doesn’t expound it, doesn’t implement it, fine,” he said. “Dealing with them is a longer term process” requiring better governance and an attack on poverty. Still, “those people who challenge the constitution and the state will be taken on.”

Political Career

William Milam, U.S. ambassador to Pakistan from 1998 to 2001 and a scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington, said the issue of extremism loomed over Pakistan’s future.

“There’s real serious concern about whether Pakistan is losing control of one of the things that’s most important for a state -- the definition of what’s legitimate violence,” Milam said in an interview. In five to 10 years, “we could see an accelerated unraveling, a real unraveling, if the government doesn’t take action on the economy and violence.”

Sharif’s family moved to Pakistan from India in 1947, building a business group that included steel and sugar mills. He entered politics under military ruler Zia-ul-Haq and as civilian government was restored became the chief rival of Bhutto, who had inherited control of the Peoples Party.

As the two took turns in power for a decade, the armed forces backed successive dismissals of each over graft allegations.

Kargil War

Sharif ended state monopolies in shipping, airlines and telecommunications and ordered highways built when in office. He ordered nuclear tests in 1998, weeks after rival India.

In 1999, the army attacked Indian troops in disputed Kashmir. Sharif, fearing a wider war and under pressure from U.S. President Bill Clinton, ordered a withdrawal. Months later, Sharif dismissed Musharraf, triggering the coup.

Sharif will appoint professionals to run state-owned companies, especially power firms loaded with debt, to stop “a massive amount of economic hemorrhage,” Khan said. Ultimately, loss-making firms would be privatized. Taxes would be overhauled to reduce the burden on manufacturing while encouraging more people to pay.

“It is our party, which initiated privatization, opened up the economy, brought in private banks, private insurance companies. So we know what we are talking about,” Khan said.

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