Indians are feeling morally vindicated that a mainstream politician in Pakistan has finally spoken the truth about the Mumbai terror attacks in November 2008. It was nothing short of an act of war: Ten terrorists of the Lashkar-e-Taiba group entered the city via the Gulf of Karachi and launched multiple attacks, killing 166 people including six Americans.
This week, ousted former prime minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif acknowledged the perpetrators to be Pakistani and alluded to the deliberate delay in bringing the conspirators to justice. He was hardly sharing classified or even new information. So why have his comments led to a train wreck?
With these words, Sharif has directly taken on Pakistan’s all-powerful army and the security satraps who continue to rule the country from the shadows. We in India may applaud the moment, but our sense of vindication is premature. What is being outed is not really the Pakistani Deep State’s patronage of terrorism and its asymmetric war against India, since everyone knows about that. What is being revealed is the serious friction between a democratically elected civilian politician and the generals who control governments in a country at war with itself. This development will sadly change nothing for India, or for the families of the victims of the terrorist attack. All of this is more about Pakistan’s domestic fissures. Nawaz Sharif has gone all in with this high-risk gamble for survival.
Sharif has been prime minister of his country three times; in each instance, he was removed before he could complete his term. In 2017, Sharif had to step down from office ostensibly because of a corruption case, but he is widely seen to have been targeted because he is on the wrong side of the ever-powerful military. He was eventually sent packing not because of the Panama Papers in which his family was named; but because the court said he had failed to be ‘sadiq’ and ‘ameen’, or ‘honest’ and ‘trustworthy’. These vaguely worded morality tests were introduced into law by Zia-Ul-Haq, another military dictator.
“With his back to the wall and the decisive phase in the long, excruciating and humiliating process of eliminating him from frontline politics and public office, Nawaz has dramatically escalated a simmering feud with the military and unleashed chaos for his party,” says Cyril Almeida, the journalist Sharif gave his interview to. Sharif’s choice of reporter made its own big statement. In 2016, Almeida reported on a closed-door meeting in which the Sharif government first confronted the Pakistani military on the dangers of “growing international isolation” for its failure to shut down militant groups. At the time the outcry led to Almeida being put a watch-list. Sharif sacked a key adviser and put the blame on him for the story.
Sharif is indeed displaying the bravado of a man who has nothing left to lose. But there might be a plan to the seeming self-implosion. He is clearly sending smoke signals to the international community for intervention and help. In his interview, he specifically referenced Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin as having asked Pakistan to shut down its support to terror groups on its soil. By naming two countries that have publicly sided with Islamabad (Pakistan is seen as a virtual vassal of Beijing), Sharif has revealed that China and Russia’s support cannot be taken for granted. At least privately, the two countries’ patience could be wearing thin.
As Pakistan’s army pushes Sharif six feet under, he is sending a warning that he will be the one to write his own epitaph. He is reminding the military that he could spill secrets that could expose it further on the global stage.
In 2013, the government of Asif Ali Zardari (husband of Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated by terrorists) handed over power to Sharif’s party in what was the first democratic transition of power in Pakistan’s history. This led many to describe Pakistan’s rocky and faux-democracy as finally stabilizing and entering a post-coup phase. Before this, the Army had managed to displace elected governments every few years.
But the way Sharif has been crushed by the behemoth that is the Pakistan Army proves that the country’s military has mastered the art of the post-coup coup. In other words, its control over institutions is so complete that it no longer needs to officially impose martial law. Not only did Sharif have to quit as prime minister, he also can no longer lead his party or contest another election for as long as he is alive.
This could have been a moment for Pakistan’s political parties to stand in solidarity with Sharif and endorse his statement that you cannot “run a country with two or three parallel governments”. After all, his predecessor, from the opposition PPP (People’s Party of Pakistan) Yusuf Gilani said exactly the same thing when he called the ISI, the country’s main spy agency a “state within a state.” But they all missed the chance and pounced on Sharif for being a traitor who was speaking for India instead of his own country. The other parties have also lashed out at him. Sharif is hoping that by presenting his competitors as supplicant to the military he may strike a popular chord with voters in elections that are to take place in the next few months. And in his speeches he urges people not to elect a “government of puppets” But at the moment his main challenge is to keep his party and his brother, Shebaz who stepped in for him, on his side.
What Sharif said about Pakistan’s role in the November 2008 attacks is backed up by plenty of evidence. Even if Pakistan refuses to credit the multiple dossiers of proof presented to it by India; a Chicago court has already convicted David Headley, a Pakistani American, for his role in enabling the terror attack. His testimony is full of damning details on the role of security agencies in Pakistan in plotting the attacks.
One can criticize Sharif for being opportunistic in the timing of his candor. He could be accused of not having done enough to shut down the extremists when he had the chance. But it doesn’t take away from the truth of his words. Or from Pakistan’s more complex – and less obvious — truth: Instead of growing up, the country’s democracy remains stillborn.