By Humayun Gauhar
When almost everyone was expecting Nawaz Sharif to announce a military operation against the Taliban, he strode into the National Assembly after a truancy of six months and announced, “Let’s talk”. He formed an unlikely four-member committee to negotiate with them. I suspect I know why, and I strongly emphasize the word ‘suspect’.
Sharif is bent on talks with the Taliban because having failed to bring what he thinks is an Islamic system in the country during his last tenure, he is now trying to bring it through talks. Imposition of the Mullah Omar type of Sharia is their prime objective. What else would the Taliban talk about? Sharif knows that they will insist on it and that may be exactly what he wants. But an agreement, if any, will have to go through parliament, if any.
Soon after we tested our nuclear device on May 28, 1998 Sharif tabled a ‘Sharia bill’ in the National Assembly that passed quickly because he had a two-thirds majority there. It couldn’t become law because Sharif was waiting for Senate elections in March 2000 when he would have won a majority there too and the bill would have become law, making the prime minister a holy dictator as ‘Commander of the Faithful’. It didn’t happen because a hubris-ridden Sharif committed political suicide on October 12, 1999 by inviting the army’s countercoup with his unconsidered actions. Is he beckoning yet another political suicide?
I have this suspicion because of a conversation my late father Mr. Altaf Gauhar and I had with Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif on June 6, 1998. My father had written the speech the prime minister delivered after our nuclear test. Now he was helping him with his speech on the national agenda. I was with my father because he was suffering from cancer. We were sitting on the dining table in the residential wing of the Prime Minister’s House. As Nawaz Sharif stood up to offer his Maghrib prayers next to the table he said, “We will now have to bring the Islamic system in the country.” While he was praying Shahbaz said to my father: “Gauhar Sahib, my brother is saying very dangerous things. Please explain to him.”
After finishing his prayers Nawaz returned to the dining table and turned to Shahbaz and asked, “What dangerous things am I saying?”
“That you will bring an Islamic system in the country,” said Shahbaz.
“What’s wrong with that?” asked Nawaz plaintively.
“What is it? What do you mean by it?” asked Shahbaz in return.
At this my father told Nawaz to be careful and think things through. “I want to bring speedy justice to this country,” said Nawaz passionately. “Do you know how I feel when I visit the parents of a village girl who has been raped by some feudal lords and thrown in a field and I cannot give them justice then and there because our system does not allow me to?”
Turning to me he continued: “Do you who sit in air-conditioned rooms know how hot it is in a sugarcane field? Or how the back of a farmer hurts after he has been planting rice in a paddy bent over the whole day in knee-deep water? I want speedy justice for my people.”
Then came the frightening bit: “Do you know that a bird cannot dare flap a wing in Iran? And you can go out in the dead of night anywhere in Afghanistan with 110 tolas of gold in your hands and no one dare lift a finger against you? There is peace in Afghanistan.”
“But that is the peace of the graveyard, Sir,” I said, the only time I spoke. Nawaz just stared at me.
It was also in this meeting that my father advised Nawaz Sharif not to freeze foreign exchange accounts. “Of course not,” he said and picked up the phone and spoke to then finance minister Sartaj Aziz and confirmed that this would not happen. But it did, thanks largely to the then awful State Bank governor who had allowed $11 billion of private money that he held in trust to be misused and disappear under his nose. It damaged Pakistan nearly as much as Bhutto’s nationalisation did and it damaged Nawaz Sharif no end.
I never intended to relate these stories but I am constrained to do so now because of this suspicion I have. I suspect that Nawaz Sharif wants to turn his dream of his Sharia bill into reality through negotiations with the Taliban. Put the onus on them and agree for the sake of peace.
It’s not a bad dream. Our people do need speedy justice. They need an equitable social and economic order and so much more. But Sharif is going about it the wrong way. A good dream will turn into an Afghan nightmare. Dreams of changing the status quo can only be translated into reality through revolution. Mao Zedong had much the same dream but translated it into reality by revolution, not by talks with Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang. The Taliban will do to Pakistan what they did to Afghanistan and the fallout will be much worse.
Nawaz Sharif is rightly worried about a horrific blowback if a military operation is launched. But when it becomes inevitable the only answer is to have a good counter-blowback strategy rather than opt for what looks suspiciously like appeasement if my suspicion about Sharif trying to impose the Taliban’s Sharia is not correct. If my suspicion is correct then thinking that using the Taliban to turn your dream into reality is even more dangerous than Shahbaz Sharif thought. The nightmare that will follow will be far worse than any blowback.
There could be different reasons. Nawaz Sharif could have the Red Mosque fallout in mind: the media were goading Pervez Musharraf to launch an operation to liberate the mosque. When he did they turned on him for killing innocent people. The situation is much the same on a national scale: media are baying for an operation against the Taliban. Sharif fears that when he does they will turn on him and accuse him of killing Muslims, Pakistanis and ‘stakeholders’.
In a way I sympathize with Nawaz Sharif. For one thing, the big talk of his people during the election campaign is coming home to roost. They raised people’s expectations higher than it is possible to deliver on such complex and intricate problems. As if rampant terrorism, alarming economic decline, acute energy shortages were not enough, he had to go and initiate a treason case against General Musharraf, putting the entire army on trial, which is his real target. He still hasn’t learned the limits of power. Nawaz Sharif is his own worst enemy.
The Supreme Court had the chance to stop Sharif out of the corner he has painted himself in, but it illogically rejected Musharraf’s petition to review against the bad judgment of July 31, 2009 ordering the government to initiate a treason trial against him on grounds that it was time barred: it should have been filed within a month and not after four years. How do they reconcile this with allowing Nawaz Sharif’s review petition after eight years against the hijacking judgment and accepting his plea? That was on July 19, 2009, soon after the July 31, 2009 judgment. It didn’t see any contradiction in this – what’s good for the politician should also be good for the general. Another contradiction: the current chief justice headed the July 19, 2007 bench and also headed the bench hearing Musharraf’s review petition. Wrap your mind around this one without any legal mumbo jumbo.
If the army insists, as it should, that the Taliban must lay down their weapons, stop terrorist attacks and accept the constitution prior to talks, what then, because they are unlikely to comply. Imagine, trying General Musharraf for allegedly violating only one article of the constitution while holding talks with those who don’t accept the constitution at all. Hypocrisy wept. Will the families of our 50,000 martyred soldiers, policemen and civilians appreciate this? But the mantra is: “Let’s talk.” Eight-two percent of drinking water in Pakistan is polluted. Let’s talk to the bacteria, what?
The world is suffering from an acute leadership crisis. There are crises in politics, in the private and public sectors, in every sphere of national life. Today’s international banks are the latter day incarnation of highway robbers and India’s thugs. America and Europe have lost two expensive wars and are bankrupt – and not just financially. Japan is bankrupt. The global financial system is in turmoil. Western political systems are not delivering democracy or good leadership. The Arab world is in flames. There is open talk of Balkanization in many lands near and afar.
Never before in the history of humankind has there been such a collection of fools leading countries as there is today. Times were when there was a raft of statesmen running countries and liberation struggles. Today the quality of leadership has declined precipitously. Compare Roosevelt to Bush and Obama; Churchill to Blair and Cameron, de Gaulle with Allemande, Sonya, Manmohan and the upcoming Modi to Gandhi and Nehru; Zardari and Sharif to Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The list is long and doesn’t bear printing.
What is one to make of this? It will be a gay wedding and the Taliban will extract a huge dowry from the government without giving anything in return. The shining jewel will be the imposition of their version of Sharia. They will want miles without giving an inch. They will outwit Nawaz Sharif and his merry men. They are cleverer than all our politicians put together.