LONDON: According to Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistani government, the unusual decision to deploy the army in the capital Islamabad from this Friday is just the latest step in a two-month-old military campaign against hardline Sunni Muslim militants of the Taliban, says Financial Times in a report published here today.
Senior members of the government say the deployment is aimed at blocking Taliban reprisals for army attacks targeting the militants in the rugged North Waziristan area along the Afghan border – a zone described by western officials as the epicentre of terrorism in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
Mr Sharif’s opponents, on the other hand, have condemned the decision to hand control of the capital to the army for three months. They say his real aim is to block a planned anti-government protest in Islamabad on August 14, Pakistan’s independence day, led by Imran Khan, the cricket star turned politician.
Whichever version is correct, many Pakistanis are interpreting the move as a sign that Mr Sharif is nervous about his hold on power a year after his Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) triumphed in a general election and made him prime minister for the third time.
Mr Sharif moreover risks handing an expanded role in policymaking to the generals who have ruled Pakistan for almost half of its 67 years of existence as an independent state.
“What you are seeing effectively is the government conceding that their survival depends on the military’s support. This decision will be widely seen as a total failure of the government,” says Hasan Askari Rizvi, a commentator on national security and politics. “The average Pakistani sees this decision as an act of panic because things are looking so bad.”
Farhatullah Babar, a leader of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) warns that “the decision is pregnant with serious consequences for the people and the country as it means not only failure of the civil administration but also total suspension of the jurisdiction of the High Courts”.
The army is to be deployed under Article 245 of Pakistan’s constitution, which bars individuals from challenging the army’s actions in court.
The popular view that Mr Sharif is floundering has been reinforced by his failure to end power cuts lasting up to 16 hours a day during the heat of summer and by his 10-day visit to Saudi Arabia on a spiritual journey at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
“He does not seem interested in Pakistan,” says Saeed Qureshi, an Islamabad college student. “At a time when Pakistan is at war and there is an emerging internal crisis, he takes time to visit Saudi Arabia. This is pathetic.”
As leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) or Pakistan Justice Movement, Imran Khan says he is well placed to win support from the “many Pakistanis who are miserable and fed up with a major energy crisis and unemployment”.
In recent months, Mr Khan has campaigned for investigations into the 2013 election, which he says was rigged by Mr Sharif’s PML-N.
“We tried to go through the legal channels to expose this but the legal channels have been exhausted,” said Mr Khan in an FT interview. “We had said we will be out on the streets after exhausting the legal channels and that is our plan.”
Many ordinary Pakistanis say they are disillusioned with Mr Sharif. In the poor Barakahu neighbourhood on the outskirts of Islamabad, Faqeer Khattak, a truck driver who voted for the PML-N last year, echoes common complaints about power cuts and electrical appliances being damaged by unreliable electricity supplies.
“Our fridge broke down and we now use it for storing shoes and clothes,” he says. “I will never vote for this party again because they have failed to improve conditions in Pakistan.”