Pakistani government feels weight of army’s heavy hand

Asked to sum up the message General Raheel Sharif wanted to convey at the gathering, he added: “The time for talk is over.”

By (Reuters)

Published: Fri 23 May 2014, 5:37 PM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 2:02 AM

At Pakistani 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 Taleban was over.

Sharif came to power a year ago promising to find a peaceful settlement with the Islamist 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, Pakistani forces launched rare air strikes against militants holed up in the remote, lawless tribal belt near the Afghan border. It is not clear whether Sharif authorised the operation.

On Thursday, they backed that up with the first major ground offensive against the Taleban there, undermining Sharif’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 Taleban 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, which has a long record of intervening in civilian rule through plots and coups, 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 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 Sharif’s cabinet said.

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