Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Why Can't Nawaz Sharif Criticize The Taliban In The Pakistani Press?

Via this Daily Times report, I saw this interview of Nawaz Sharif in USA Today. Here's what he had to say:
LAHORE, Pakistan — Pakistan's top opposition leader, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, expressed concern Monday about a controversial peace deal with Islamist militants but backed off calls he made last month for a "revolution" to topple the government.

Unable to contain an insurgency through military force, Pakistan's government agreed last week to let Taliban militants impose sharia, or Islamic law, in the northern Swat Valley region. Sharif said militants there are trying to export their particularly harsh version of sharia, in which the hands of thieves are amputated, women are forbidden from going outside, and adulterers are stoned to death.

"How do we deal with the situation in Swat?" Sharif asked in an hour-long interview with USA TODAY at his palatial home on the outskirts of this city. "They are now threatening to get out of Swat and take other areas into their custody. So we've got to avoid that situation."

I wholeheartedly agree. Thing is, though, that we never see Mr. Sharif actually say anything like this in the local press, in Urdu, to a mass audience. Why not?

Look, I really don't want to be interpreted as picking on Nawaz Sharif. The reason why I want him to act a certain way is because I realize how important and how popular he is. He is very much a stakeholder in the politics of Pakistan -- unlike Mr. Imran "one seat in three elections" Khan.

Nawaz Sharif is very important to the future of Pakistan. His opinions matter, because he matters -- to tens of millions of people. So why can't he do the responsible thing and denounce the Taliban, their goals, and their methods in a forum where every Pakistani will hear him loud and clear?


AKS said...

Interesting that Dawn had to pick the news up from USA Today. Somebody from the PML(N) camp should really have released a statement echoing their worries about the peace deal to the local press. The PML(N) until now has been completely quiet on the topic, as a result of which Mr. Shariff's interview to an American audience appears entirely disingenuous.

Bad politics.

A large portion of Nawaz League's vote bank comes from urban areas who are increasingly worried about the Taliban incursion into 'settled areas' (they took complete control of Buner yesterday) and the only person voicing out their fears is the MQM. That they have ulterior motives goes without saying - by beating the anti-Taliban drum the MQM is further solidifying its hold on urban Sindh. But that shouldn't take away anything from how important it is that there's someone beating that drum. Its importance can be gauged from the fact that they have struck a chord with people in urban Punjab - Najam Sethi's ebullient praise of the MQM in a speech two days ago really took me by surprise.

The longer PML(N) waits, the more likely it is that they will be playing second fiddle to the MQM - or at best as an equal partner. I don't see them hijacking this issue from MQM in the same way as they hijacked the judges issue from the PTI.

Ahsan said...


I think the PML-N is banking on the fact that 99.99% of Pakistan's population is not going to see the statements he made in the interview. And in that estimation, they are right.

Also, minor correction, but it wasn't Dawn but Daily Times.

AKS said...

"PML-N is banking on the fact that 99.99% of Pakistan's population is not going to see the statements..."

Not sure about that. Dawn reported the interview on its front page, as did Jang. Geo and AAJ also carry the news on their website, I don't know if they carried it on air as well.

I think he's in a pickle.

If NS doesn't speak directly to urban Pakistanis and they find out what he's been saying then they'll think that he's trying to win the support of a western audience without any intentions of redressing their fears.

At the same time the Americans may have learnt from their past experiences and wont trust a man who says one thing in NYC but who doesn't have the courage, or maybe even the intent, of saying the same thing in Lahore.

One can understand his reluctance to appear to be an American pawn but not engaging Pakistanis while speaking to American audiences and leaving it to the likes of Kamran Khan and Zaid Hamid to communicate his views is plain stupid.

Perhaps he know what we don't i.e. that his audience isn't interested in hearing him bitch out the Taliban. But I think he's wrong. At least I hope he is.

You're right to highlight the importance of Nawaz Sharif's opinion. We can't have both the major parties sitting on the fence on this issue. In my opinion, a force like the Taliban that disrupts the political space in which these parties operate is bad news for both. One of them has to come out with a clear message and communicate it to the millions who listen to them.

The most troubling thing for me has been the near capitulation of the ANP. I wonder if it's because they're worried about their personal security or if it's because what their voters want. If it's the former then they’ve just gone and alienated a great deal of people, it will be important to see who these people turn to.

GA said...

Nawaz Sharif has shored up a LOT of political capital over the last year or two and I guess he doesn't want to mess up and lose it. Let's look at where his political support in Punjab, in terms of his vote bank, comes from.

Group 1: liberal lawyer/student types in Punjab. They would clearly not mind NS going all out against the Taliban in public.

Group 2: Both the working class and the industrialists in urban Punjab, a pretty conservative, Shariah-loving bunch in general. Having said that, I don't know if that makes them pro-Taliban. My hunch is that in their mindsets, the battle of Religion v. Country might actually be won by the latter (albeit by a narrow margin).

So if NS's votebank was to remain secure even after a denunciation of the Taliban, who is he worried about pissing off? The only answer that comes to my mind is the Taliban itself, or Taliban-exporting countries like Saudi Arabia. If that is the case, i.e., if Nawaz gives a crap about the fundos, then I believe we are truly screwed on the Punjab front.

supe said...

absolutely brilliant question. and sharif and imran khan both are regarded highly by the masses and really, this is their cue to to speak up about the rising threat of taliban infiltration in the country. i wouldn't exactly call them taliban sympathisers as i'm convinced they hold similar fears as the rest of us.
if these people get their asses in gear and cascade their reasonable-ish views the rest of the countryfolk thus generating a similar kind of uprising as per the restoration of judges one, we may be in with a chance yet.
that's just my two cents.

foolsparadise said...

Taliban are in a power struggle, and have luxury of using some of the political tools,which others can not even if they love too, although these tools had been used several times in past(closest example is Hitler & his Nazi brigade), it could still appeal some pockets of world. Afghans were completely directionless and hence Taliban emerged to brush, shine and use those tools, to some extent same remains true with parts of Pakistan. The problem here is ""POWER"" and a good politician does never show his cards, you would really never know, you might sit with them in central govt. or you have to do more deals, especially, when ISI (at least some extent)+ Army still have some assets lying with Taliban.
To your point on speaking in General Public, I think they have turned heads not brains over years and none of the ""POWER"" centers really rely on them.

Ahsan said...


From the grander perspective of actually defeating the Taliban, Nawaz Sharif is doing exactly the opposite of what he should be. He should be criticizing the Taliban to the local press, and bitching out America to USA Today (so that he can retain his street cred, and tell the local Pakistani population "Look, I'm still standing up to Uncle Sam".

And you're being terribly harsh on the ANP. Calling it a "capitulation" is very unfair, given (a) they've been targeted more than any other political party, and (b) it makes no sense for them to stand their ground when the federal government and the friggin army can't stand theirs.


Yeah, good point, that's a sound way of thinking about his incentives.

Rabia said...

Ahsan & AKS I think you might be overestimating the "urban PML voter"'s outrage at Nawaz not speaking out against the Taliban.

If you check out a site like most of whom seem to be urban PML voters, do you really feel like they are dying for Nawaz Sharif to speak out against the Taliban?

You already have Munawar Hassan calling him a sell-out for taking a softer line on the drone attacks, and tbh, PML voters seem a lot closer to Munawar Hassan's line on this issue than you guys might be assuming.

Ahsan said...


I don't think I ever said that PML-N voters are outraged over NS non-denunciations. But I would only say that with the Taliban creeping into northern Punjan (the urban bit) and southern Punjab (the farming bit), you MIGHT see a turn at some point soon. From the voters that is, not necessarily NS.

AKS said...


Sure, many of NS' supporters aren't outraged. But that doesn't mean that they aren't concerned.

Plus, NS has little to lose by going after the Taliban, his supporters aren't going to desert him for that.

And isn't it his job as a political leader to create a narrative for his supporters to rally around? Perhaps one of the reasons for him being such a populist is that he can only jump onto a bandwagon but never be the one to instigate political discourse.

Rabia said...

I am guessing that he is just weighing the risk of taking a stand that would piss off his voters versus the risk of becoming irrelevant if a major concern of his voters does -- as Ahsan says -- become Talibanization on which he has said nothing.

I find a lot of similarities between what he is doing right now to Zardari and what Bhutto did to Ayub after the 65 war -- just dissociating himself from any stand taken by Zardari. I think he's a good reader of popular sentiment, like Bhutto was and he understands that if the Swat peace deal fails, people aren't going to blame him, but they are going to blame Zardari. So he doesn't have to say ANYTHING about the Taliban just yet.

Basically what I'm thinking is that he's banking on the nationalist lunacy of public opinion (kinda like Bhutto did) which in Pakistan never seems to be a bad thing to count on unfortunately.

Rabia said...

"Plus, NS has little to lose by going after the Taliban, his supporters aren't going to desert him for that."

See, I don't know about that. Currently anyone who has taken a tough stance on terrorism has ended up being labelled as an "amrika ka ghulam". Plus, think about how quickly JI turned on him in 99 after the Lahore resolution. He has a lot to lose once he starts being clearly against the Taliban

Rabia said...

oops, I meant lahore declaration :)

damn, sorry for the multiple comment spam.

Imran Anwar said...

I too am concerned, disturbed and disappointed in Nawaz Sharif failing to condemn Taliban.

Anyone who thinks the Taliban are America's problem, or not a mortal threat to Pakistan, is simply closing their eyes to reality. The longer we take to eradicate this cancer from Pakistan, the more bloodshed and instability it will take.

Thanks for raising a point that is important to highlight.