ISLAMABAD: At Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s palatial offices in Islamabad this week, the army chief sat down to deliver the head of government a message he did not want to hear: The time for talks with the troublesome Pakistani Taliban was over.
Nawaz came to power a year ago promising to find a peaceful settlement with the militant group, but as round after round of talks failed, the powerful armed forces favoured a military solution. Their patience finally ran out and, late on Tuesday afternoon, during a tense meeting, the army effectively declared it would override a crucial plank of the government’s strategy and take matters into its own hands.
“The army chief and other military officers in the room were clear on the military’s policy: the last man, the last bullet,” a government insider with first-hand knowledge of the meeting told Reuters. Asked to sum up the message General Raheel Sharif wanted to convey at the gathering, he added: “The time for talk is over.” The next day, armed forces launched rare air strikes against militants holed up in the remote, lawless tribal belt near the Afghan border. It is not clear whether Nawaz authorised the operation.
On Thursday, they backed that up with the first major ground offensive against the Taliban there, undermining Nawaz’s year-long attempt to end a bloody insurgency across his country through peaceful means. Disagreement over the militant threat is the latest row to flare up between the government and military, and relations between the two branches of power are at their lowest ebb for years, according to government officials. The government did say talks with the Taliban would go on.
“We will talk with those who are ready for it and the (military) operation is being launched against those who are not ready to come to the negotiating table,” spokesman Pervez Rashid told local media on Thursday. But the operations put the military firmly back at the centre of Pakistan’s security policy. The balance of power is shifting at a time when foreign troops are preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan, and arch-rival India has just elected a far-right Hindu nationalist leader promising to be more assertive on the international stage. “This is the clearest signal yet that the army will dictate its terms now,” a member of Nawaz’s cabinet said.
The Pakistani Taliban is believed to be behind attacks on Pakistani soldiers and civilians that have killed thousands in recent years. The Pakistan Army has distinguished between “good” Taliban like the feared Haqqani network - who do not attack Pakistani security forces but fight in Afghanistan - and “bad” Taliban, indigenous Pakistani militants who are seeking to create an Islamic state.
While the military wants to go after the “bad” Taliban, it has, despite pressure from Washington, largely avoided taking on groups who launch attacks against coalition forces in Afghanistan from the North Waziristan region. Prompting the latest intervention, the Pakistani Taliban have become increasingly bold, striking the army in tribal areas including a recent battle in which an army major died. Earlier this month, nine soldiers were killed in an explosion near the Afghan border.
“We will avenge the blood of every last soldier. Talks or no talks, the army will retaliate,” said one military official, who, like most others interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject. Nawaz manoeuvred carefully, hand picking a new army chief and trying to forge a partnership with the military in the early days of his tenure, but the overtures had little lasting impact.
There are other signs of civil-military discord. Nawaz came to power promising to rebuild relations with India, but has been under pressure to toughen his stance from hardliners at home, particularly within the army. Nawaz’s policies towards India have been heavily scrutinised; some in the army justify its hefty budget by pointing to - and, critics say, playing up - the potential threat from India.
And despite signs the military has become more amenable to overtures from its old foe than in the past, a trade deal pushed by the prime minister and aimed at improving ties with India was cancelled at the last minute after pressure from the army, top government officials said.
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