Poor relations at home, abroad leave Nawaz exposed

Jon Boone

THE bloody assault on a police training college in Quetta by a team of suicide attackers is another reminder that, for all its progress against militants in the past two years, Pakistan remains vulnerable to terrorism. It comes at a time of looming political crisis in Islamabad, the shunning of Pakistan by its regional neighbours and a renewed rift between the government and the military establishment.
It was the third time the facility had been attacked in the past decade. It was also the second devastating assault on an education facility since the December 2014 massacre by Pakistani Taliban gunmen of more than 130 schoolboys at the army public school in Peshawar. That heralded a harsh crackdown on domestic militant groups, the unveiling of a “national action plan” against terrorism and added security for schools and colleges, which were all ordered to build tall perimeter walls.
Rates of violence fell overall and the army chief, Raheel Sharif, was glorified as a national saviour. But attacks have continued, including major ones such as the bombing of a Quetta hospital in August that killed 73 people. The country also remains as politically unstable and crisis prone as ever. The opposition leader, Imran Khan, and the religious leader Tahir-ul-Qadri are preparing for a rerun of their 2014 mass protests, which brought the capital Islamabad to a standstill for four months. They say they will shut down the capital with protests beginning Nov 02.
Khan, the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and Qadri, leader of the Pakistani Awami Tehreek (PAT), say they are protesting about financial sleaze allegations against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, following revelations in April that his children owned valuable London properties through offshore companies. The PTI leader has picked an extremely sensitive time for his protests. The prime minister must select a successor for the hugely popular Raheel Sharif, who is due to step down at the end of next month. Although the army chief has said he does not want to delay retirement, there have been widespread calls for him to continue in office. The prime minister’s ruling faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) is still reeling from its latest confrontation with the powerful military establishment following an incendiary newspaper story by Cyril Almeida published in Dawn on Oct 6 that leaked details of a high-level security meeting. The story reported that the government had delivered an unprecedented dressing down to top generals, warning them that their policy of protecting jihadi groups that use Pakistani soil to fight in Afghanistan and India was leaving the country internationally isolated.
Good relations with Afghanistan are crucial if Pakistan is ever to get its jihadi problem under control – on Tuesday morning a top security official in Balochistan claimed the Quetta attackers were in continuous communication with handlers based over the border in Afghanistan. But Kabul remains deeply alienated from Pakistan following the failure of peace overtures by the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, shortly after he was elected. A Pakistan-brokered programme of peace talks with the Afghan Taliban failed to get off the ground and insurgent violence inside Afghanistan only increased.
Nawaz Sharif has a long and turbulent history with the army, having been thrown out of power in a coup by the then army chief, Pervez Musharraf, in 1999. Sharif ordered an unprecedented high treason trial for Musharraf when he returned to power in 2013, provoking a major confrontation with the army.
Things deteriorated further when the PML-N was perceived to have supported Geo, part of a major pro-government media group, when it broadcast incendiary allegations in 2014 that the army’s top intelligence officer had conspired to assassinate one of its known journalists. Bombs in Balochistan and street protests in Islamabad could provide the army with the perfect opportunity to cut the prime minister back down to size. — Courtesy: The Guardian

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