Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s recent remark that the Mumbai attacks originated from Pakistan has angered the country’s all-powerful military and created a rift within the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

At a meeting on Monday of the National Security Committee (NSC), Pakistan’s primary civil-military body, army leaders were adamant that Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi must distance himself from Nawaz Sharif’s statements. Political observers say Sharif made his remark to shore up international support in an election year, partly because the military and the judiciary appear to have combined forces to isolate Sharif in the general election slated for later this year.

Sharif made a pointed reference to the terrorist attack on Mumbai, India’s financial capital, in November 2008 by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba. While hundreds were killed and injured in the attack, the capture of one of the attackers established Pakistan’s links to the assault. While the lone terrorist, Ajmal Kasab was hanged following a lengthy trial in India, the trial in Pakistan has not made any progress.

“PM Abbasi has been told by the military leadership to address the Parliament and distance himself from Nawaz Sharif’s statement about the Mumbai attacks,” an official privy to the NSC meeting told Asia Times. The official NSC meeting handout dubs Nawaz’s statements “incorrect and misleading”. However, military leaders were outraged at what they saw as a “treasonous betrayal” of Pakistan.

“Nawaz Sharif is echoing Indian propaganda and throwing mud on Pakistan. His comments are not anti-army, they are anti-Pakistan,” said a senior army official while talking to Asia Times.

Lieutenant General Talat Masood, a retired Army officer and former secretary of Pakistan’s Ministry of Defense Production, says the NSC meetings are designed to maintain the Army narrative, so the handout shouldn’t be interpreted as the civilian government stepping away from Nawaz’s statement. “The civilians don’t really have much of a say in the NSC meetings,” he told Asia Times. “But the reaction over his interview will naturally come from all quarters, not just the military.”

The backlash comes after an interview with Sharif, published in Dawn on Saturday, discussed the stalled investigation into the 2008 Mumbai attacks and prevailing jihadist militancy in Pakistan. The former PM said: “Militant organizations are active. Call them non-state actors, should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai? Explain it to me. Why can’t we complete the trial?”

Civil-military divide over militancy

The interview was done by Dawn’s Cyril Almeida, the journalist whose 2016 expose of the civil-military divide over militancy – since dubbed the Dawn Leaks – resulted in two PML-N ministers being forced to step down, with analysts suggesting that Sharif’s own disqualification as the PM was also influenced by the leaks.

For the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which was put on the United Nations’ list of terrorist organizations earlier this year by Pakistan, Nawaz’s statement “vindicated” their claims that Sharif and his administration were “anti-Pakistan”. “His government’s actions against [JuD leader] Hafiz Saeed, the detainment, all while following orders from the US and India, prove our claims that he is truly anti-Pakistan, and hence targeting Hafiz Saeed,” JuD spokesman Nadeem Awan told Asia Times.

However, for the ruling party, the most worrying aspect of Sharif’s statements are the divide they are creating within the party. Insiders say there are “clear differences” over the matter between Nawaz and his brother Shehbaz Sharif, the current PML-N president and the Chief Minister of Punjab.

“While the comments are being misinterpreted – especially by the Indian media, because Nawaz Sharif never said the government or state was involved in the attack, their timing just before the election could definitely impact our vote bank,” a PML-N leader told Asia Times on the condition of anonymity.

And while Shehbaz Sharif said the ousted premier’s statement “did not represent party policy”, Nawaz’s daughter Maryam maintained that the remarks were in Pakistan’s “best interests”. That underscores the divide within the family, and in turn the party.

“This is Nawaz Sharif’s personal position, which has rendered the PML-N speechless. It is embarrassing for the party, it’s embarrassing for Shehbaz Sharif,” former PML-N minister Ayaz Amir said. “I don’t know whether there will be a proper split or not, but many in his party are shying away from his anti-establishment course, which could lead to defections.”

Desperate ploy to stop Army rigging poll?

Yet, those close to Nawaz Sharif suggested the timing of his remarks deliberately coincided with the election, coming before a caretaker setup is finalized, so as to summon international watchdogs and prevent the Army from rigging the election.

Other party leaders suggest Nawaz is going full-on against the military’s interference in the civilian government’s realm because he feels that not only does he have overwhelming support among the masses, but it is this challenging of the Army that has maintained his popularity, and could prove decisive in the election.

Retired army officer Masood believes Nawaz’s statements will further aggravate the civil-military divide. “Yes, it will create a further rift, but Nawaz Sharif believes that such a position and his narrative is selling. Hence the timing of his claims.”

However, Ayaz Amir, a journalist and a former member of the Pakistan National Assembly, believes Nawaz’s position isn’t judicious. “Nawaz Sharif’s has adopted a reckless course – that I’m out on a limb, I have nothing to lose, I’ve been pushed into a corner and I’m throwing down the gauntlet.”

As all the major stakeholders prepare for the election later this year, Sharif knows that he is fighting for survival. Banned by the Supreme Court from contesting the polls, Sharif has a tough road ahead.