Speak to the Pakistan Army, too

 “Peace remains elusive as all major political parties put together are unable to change the Army’s perspective.” Picture shows the Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Raheel Sharif, with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad.

In a study conducted in 2014 on Pakistan’s trade with India, Iran and Afghanistan, the business community, despite some reservations and caution, supported increased trade with India. Most heartening was the shift in Punjab, considered central to the idea of enmity with New Delhi. There are numerous other studies that point to a similar sentiment. Earlier in 2014, even the Indian High Commissioner in Islamabad sounded convinced that from an Indian perspective, it was a different Pakistan. Despite his limited access, the diplomat could notice the change — that Pakistanis were eager to do business and reach out across the border.

And then Pathankot happened.

Historical attempts

But the diplomat wasn’t incorrect in his assessment. The public view in Pakistan today does not necessarily represent the popular view prevalent in the years after Partition, especially in Punjab which was one of the main victims of the carnage. For instance, it couldn’t have been imagined in the 1970s for a Prime Minister to reach out to his or her counterpart as Benazir Bhutto did in 1990. By inviting India’s then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, she not only deviated from her father Zuqfikar Ali Bhutto’s legacy of “a thousand years of war with India”, but also began a new chapter in the political imagination of bilateral linkages with an old enemy. This is not to argue that things were perfect. Political realities also forced Benazir Bhutto to seemingly retract, behaviour owed to politics of survival vis-à-vis a strong military rather than a lack of clarity.

In fact, one of the common threads between the governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif during the 1990s was an emerging clarity in the mind of top leadership regarding peace with India. The two main political parties, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), realised that greater political empowerment and improvement of civil-military balance required improving relations with India. A military for which the threat from India remains the raison d’etrecould not be engaged evenly without improving ties.

It was this civil-military balance that Mr. Sharif hoped to change in 1999 when he welcomed Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Lahore and signed the famous Lahore declaration. Unfortunately, that effort was scuttled due to Kargil. A similar initiative taken during the military government of General Pervez Musharraf was also thwarted but later under the political government of President Asif Ali Zardari.

Sadly, the situation does not seem to have moved considerably from 2008 when the Mumbai attacks took place. The peace initiative now seems to be a tragic cyclic process in which hopeful overtures end with some act of terrorism, then tension, and finally an effort to begin again. But on the other hand, most major political parties including Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) desire peace with New Delhi.

However, peace remains elusive as all major political parties put together are unable to change the Army’s perspective. The political parties may represent an alternative pole in the overall power politics of the state but they are still not in a position to challenge the military’s political prowess. In one way or the other, all major political parties are a product of the Army General Headquarters (GHQ). This does not mean that they will not deviate from the path set by Rawalpindi but that the Army remains in a better position to checkmate them.

This is not to forget the fact that over the years Pakistan’s military has begun to manipulate the national narrative as well. It has indeed moved from Military Inc. to Media Inc. What this means is that domestically there are very few voices that will challenge the perception that the Pathankot attack was possibly a setup by the Indians themselves to scuttle peace talks and malign Pakistan. In any case, Syed Salahuddin of the Jihad Council has already taken responsibility for the attack. It does not matter that domestically in Pakistan, the Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) people proudly own the attack.

The tone of the popular national discourse is set by the armed forces and their public relations agency. The Army on the one hand and the militants on the other manage to challenge the political class. A politician, who is constantly challenged on grounds of corruption or declared anti-nationalist, has less credibility to author a grand national strategic narrative.

Fear of India

However, another reality for this ongoing tension is the military’s fear of India or that New Delhi seeks to destroy Pakistan. Although unable to present any convincing evidence internationally, Rawalpindi has managed to convince itself that New Delhi remains hostile to the idea of Pakistan. The 1971 debacle remains fresh in the minds of many. The military establishment is of the view that it is not alone to be blamed for the repeated scuttling of the peace process. A popular notion is that the Indian Army is equally sceptical of peace and hence central to the conflict. It is indeed the historic balance of power strategy that seems to be at play in determining relations between India and Pakistan.

The military’s narrative cannot be totally discarded as having no traction. There is somewhere a deep-set discomfort if not insecurity amongst common Pakistanis that India has not accepted Pakistan’s reality. Almost seventy years after 1947 there is still a lack of closure on Partition. Sadly, there is no formula to allay such fears.

Referring to the military’s thinking, it is not that the organisation is totally incapable of thinking about peace. The global and regional realities are constantly shifting. There is also Islamabad’s partnership with Beijing that would like relations to improve between the two South Asian neighbours to attain a certain level of stability in the region. The Rawalpindi GHQ is not totally oblivious to these changes. Nevertheless, it remains shy of the idea of peace to the degree that it wouldn’t want civilians, which it mistrusts itself, to handle the initiative or the idea. Both trade and peace with India can happen but it has to be done carefully and it has to go through the Army rather than the Prime Minister’s office.

Apparently, there are several occasions on which the Army tried to reach out to its counterpart. In 2007, the then Inter-Services Intelligence chief, Lt. General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, tried to convey a message regarding his interest to talk directly to the Indian government or vice-versa. The loss of life of over 100 Pakistani soldiers at Gayari in 2012 was another instance when an effort was made. The then Army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, even proposed withdrawing troops from the highest battleground in the world. The gesture was not reciprocated.

The media on both sides of the border tends to not only get belligerent but fan belligerence, especially during a crisis. It almost feels that both states are on the doorsteps of a conflict, perhaps even a nuclear encounter. Maybe peace cannot be brought about through pre-set formulas. Much as India prides itself on its democratic values, it may have to find a way to initiate a parallel conversation — one with the civilian government and another with the armed forces. Unless the GHQ is brought on board (but in the shadow of a political government), things might not move.

 

 

 

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