ISLAMABAD — With Pakistanis heading to the polls Saturday, the man who’s expected to be the country’s next prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, has signaled his determination to seize control of policy toward longtime foe India from Pakistan’s overbearing military and prevent militants from staging attacks on India from Pakistani soil.
Pakistan and India have fought two wars since they each gained independence from British rule in 1947, as well as four localized campaigns along the border. The two have a history of mounting covert operations on each other’s soil, notably Pakistan’s use of militant extremist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba to fight what it sees as Indian occupation forces in the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir, part of which is held by China.
Sharif said that was a chapter in relations with India that he now intended to close.
"If I become the prime minister, I will make sure that Pakistani soil is never used for any such design against India," Sharif said in an interview with CNN’s India affiliate that aired Sunday.
Sharif is the head of the Pakistan Muslim League-N, the party that’s widely forecast to win the most seats in Saturday’s parliamentary elections. The balloting marks the first time in Pakistan’s history that a democratically elected government completed its term in office and a new government is being selected without the army staging a coup.
The run-up to Saturday’s vote has been violent, with more than 100 people killed in election attacks, staged mostly by the Pakistani Taliban. The Taliban spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, has promised Saturday will be "bloody.”
Pakistani intelligence agency reports have warned of attacks on voter lines, and on Thursday, suspected militants kidnapped the youngest son of former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. The son is running for a provincial legislative seat.
The violence has overshadowed the candidates’ positions on the issues, but Sharif has made it clear that he intends to restart peace negotiations between Pakistan and India that began after the two countries staged tit-for-tat nuclear tests in May 1998.
As part of that, Sharif also has said he plans to hold former military strongman Pervez Musharraf accountable for staging a 1999 covert operation to occupy vacant Indian military mountain posts at Kargil in the disputed Kashmir border region. The operation was conducted by plainclothes paramilitary troops of the Northern Light Infantry – now a regular army unit – and forces from several anti-India militant groups, including the Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Sharif was the prime minister at the time, but he’s adamant that Musharraf, then the army chief, conducted the Kargil operation without his prior knowledge or approval, and had carried it out to sabotage any diplomatic rapprochement with India.
Musharraf also kept the operation a secret from other armed services chiefs, Sharif said.
"No (army) corps commander had any knowledge . . . even the armed forces chiefs complained they had not been informed. I think the (investigating) commission will have to bring out the full truth. This will be an open secret," he said.
Sharif’s version of events has been backed over the years by many in Pakistan, including Parvez Mehdi Qureshi, who was the commander of the air force. Qureshi has said he refused Musharraf’s request to provide air cover to the infiltration units, saying he’d accept such orders only from the prime minister.
The use of air power would have started all-out war, Qureshi said, something that was narrowly averted when President Bill Clinton intervened after Sharif sought his help at a meeting on July 4, 1999, in Washington.
Three months later, Musharraf overthrew Sharif in a coup that was partly the result of the tensions between the two arising from the unauthorized covert operation.
Pakistan and India came close to war again after militants of two Pakistani militant groups, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, attacked the Indian Parliament building in New Delhi in December 2001. Again, conflict was averted only by U.S. diplomatic intervention, with Musharraf agreeing to shut down a Pakistan intelligence-backed council of anti-India militant groups.
That started peace negotiations that progressed almost to the point of a landmark agreement in late 2006, which was delayed by an Indian general election and then scuttled by events in Pakistan that led to Musharraf’s exit from power in 2008.
Sharif’s statement of intent against Musharraf comes as the former military dictator has been confined to two rooms in his luxurious farmhouse on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, by courts that are hearing mounting charges against him. They range from the illegal confinement of rebellious judges in November 2007 to aiding and abetting the December 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the head of the Pakistan Peoples Party and a former two-time prime minister.
After winning the February 2008 general election, the Pakistan Peoples Party government of Asif Ali Zardari, the president, briefly attempted to kick-start the stalled initiative. In November 2008, Zardari offered to drop Pakistan’s stated nuclear-weapons policy, under which it retains the right to launch a nuclear strike against India in the event of an Indian invasion, in return for a comprehensive peace agreement.
But the policy shift was immediately and publicly shot down by Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and rendered irrelevant by the three-day rampage in Mumbai later that month, which was blamed on Pakistani militants.
Sharif’s plans for an investigation into the Kargil operation haven’t surprised political analysts in Pakistan, who expect a Sharif-led administration to press prosecutions against Musharraf on all outstanding counts, including charges of high treason arising from the coup.
But most analysts were rocked by his promise in the CNN interview to agree to a joint investigation with India into the November 2008 assault in Mumbai by Pakistani militants, which killed 166 people over three days. "Let both countries sit together, exchange the evidence they have. Let the investigation be conducted and the . . . matter (pursued) jointly. I will certainly take up this matter," Sharif said.
Sharif also has said he’ll ban speeches that incite jihad against India, and he went as far as singling out those frequently made by Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, who heads educational and charitable front organizations for Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group that stands accused in the Mumbai attack.
Whether Sharif will be able to follow through on his pledges will be a huge test of Pakistan’s march toward civilian-led government. The military has maintained its control of foreign and security policy, and it’s staged four coups and ruled the country for half its 65-year existence.
An investigation into the Mumbai attacks might embarrass, and maybe implicate, many Pakistani officers. But analysts say Sharif may have time on his side. Kayani, the army chief, will retire at the end of the year, and Sharif, as prime minister, would appoint his successor.
Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent.