Why you should care

Pakistan is on the front lines in the fight against terrorism. And, oh: It also has the bomb.

Here, in this room, Nawaz Sharif once thought everything might turn out for the best in Afghanistan. “We sat right here with the leaders of the Afghan parties and worked on a united government,” Pakistan’s prime minister says in a rare interview, sitting in the marble hall of his residence on a hill above Islamabad. It was 1991, during his first term as prime minister, and the Soviet Union had just retreated from Afghanistan. For seven days, he says, the group deliberated to create a Cabinet. There was great hope.

And then the U.S began to pull out of the country. Eventually the Taliban took power in next-door Afghanistan, leading to a cascade of events — up to the September 11 attacks in 2001. Not the best of results.

There’s one crucial question, not only for this troubled country of 200 million, but also for a world it has kept on edge for years: Will the third time be a charm for Sharif? The so-called “Lion of Punjab” is now a year and half into his third (nonconsecutive) term, and he insists he’s still holding out some of the same hope he had in 1991 about lassoing the region’s evil forces. For him, it’s personal: “We are at war with these people,” he says of violent extremists, citing how many Pakistani soldiers and civilians have lost their lives fighting terrorism. Yet he knows all too well that to many people, his country — which still has its own nuclear arsenal and once played host to Osama bin Laden — is part of the problem.

Can he fix it? Many are not sure. “He’s not capable of turning these groups off. The government has lost control over what Pakistan is. It’s a withering state with a bunch of nuclear weapons,” says Stephen Cohen, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. Then again, “maybe no politician can bring the country back,” Cohen adds.

The comeback kid has done it once before.

That’s not the only trouble ahead for the arguable lame duck Sharif. But the guy has had doubters more than once. Previously convicted by a military court of a slew of ugly charges, including kidnapping and corruption, Sharif found himself facing a death sentence in Pakistan. He managed to barter his way into exile in Saudi Arabia instead — with American assistance — where he lived in a house he owned called the “Sharif Villa.” It’s been only seven years since his re-entry into Pakistan, and only seven years since most would have guessed he had no political future. The comeback kid has done it once before.

In person, the slightly balding, stout Sharif looks his age — 64. One recalls, in the deliberate but not showy timbre of his voice, his history as one of the country’s most successful and wealthiest industrialists. Sharif’s father landed in Pakistan as a Muslim religious refugee from India and worked his way up to becoming one of Pakistan’s most successful steel entrepreneurs. Sharif himself combines economy-friendly growth policies and a moderately Islamic orientation that speaks to conservatives.

Many say he worked it out exactly as planned: “While in exile, he was basically plotting to come back the whole time. He’s a businessman turned politician, and was not going to go gently into [that] good night,” says Sumit Ganguly, a professor of political science at Indiana University. And Sharif does have successes to his name, says Dan Markey, a senior fellow in South Asian issues at the Council on Foreign Relations: like handling energy policy and building infrastructure. Plus, he’s handled the debt: “Everybody owes everybody else” in Pakistan, Markey says; Sharif helped put a stopper in the circular debt cycle. Then there was the 1999 Kashmir War, which some argue Sharif quelled — even staving off a “very possible” wider nuclear war.

When he came back to power in June 2013, Sharif promised peace talks with the Taliban. It didn’t much help, Sharif admits; the attacks kept right on coming. Last year, Pakistan finally did start a push to root out extremists — an action that Western states had been demanding for years — in the half-autonomous tribal areas of North Waziristan on the Afghan border, one of the main areas of retreat for both Pakistani and Afghan fighters. American generals praise the operation. On top of the military battles ahead are a slew of other economic issues: Pakistan, among the world’s 50 poorest nations, faces a devalued rupee and needs investments. Demographics: More than half of the country’s 200 million inhabitants are less than 22 years old. And energy: Pakistan is plagued with regular blackouts and needs an overhaul of its energy system.

In many ways, pulling Pakistan out of its terror-mired history means vaulting it past the first decade of the 21st century. Sharif may be able to do that — if you believe his stumping. The man who once wanted to enact Sharia in his home province does, after all, say such ideas are a thing of the past. Pakistan, he says, is now a “modern land.”

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