In a striking development, perhaps demonstrating the tremendous international pressure on Pakistan to crack down on terrorist groups within its borders, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has reportedly ordered the Pakistan army and Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate (ISI) to back the civilian government in reining in such groups. Rarely has any civilian government in Pakistan stood up to the military leadership on the issue of terrorism. If the story is accurate, it would mark a fundamental shift in Pakistan’s approach to fighting terrorism, but could also presage increased civil-military tensions in the country.

According to an October 6 article in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, Pakistani civilian leaders warned ISI Director Rizwan Akhtar that Pakistan was isolated internationally on the issue of terrorism, particularly after the September 18 attack on the Indian military base in Kashmir. Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif (brother of Prime Minister Sharif) reportedly complained to the ISI chief that whenever civilian authorities took action against terrorist leaders, the security establishment had worked behind the scenes to free them from jail.

According to the Dawn article, as a result of the discussions, ISI Director Akhtar and National Security Advisor General Nasser Janjua will travel to each of Pakistan’s four provinces to instruct local ISI officials not to interfere in the civilian government’s enforcement of the law against proscribed terrorist groups, like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM).

Prime Minister Sharif also reportedly ordered that investigations into the attack on the Indian air base at Pathankot in January, as well as the 2008 Mumbai attacks, be re-started.

A spokesperson for the prime minister denied the substance of the Dawn article, dismissing it as “speculative, misleading, and factually incorrect.” The spokesperson went on to note that, “intelligence agencies particularly ISI are working in line with the state policy in the best interest of the nation both at the federal and provincial levels to act against terrorists of all hue and color without any discrimination.”

Is it possible that Pakistani leaders have finally absorbed the message from the U.S. and other countries that continued refusal to thwart terrorist groups on Pakistani territory would result in Pakistan’s international isolation and economic sanctions? Will Pakistan once and for all crack down on terrorist groups, such as LeT and JeM, by making arrests, shutting down known offices, and prosecuting individuals charged with previous attacks?

Time will tell.

The other fundamental question is whether the civilian government really did confront the military/ISI leadership, as reported in Dawn. If so, the U.S. should be ready to watch civil-military relations deteriorate in Pakistan.

Let’s hope that this is Pakistan’s October surprise to salvage U.S.–Pakistan relations just before the U.S. gets ready to elect a new President. It would be the kind of surprise that any candidate would welcome.