Over to the real Sharif

In Pakistan, the old equation of ‘Army, America and Allah’ is said to have been replaced by ‘China, COAS and Cashmere’. The Uri aftermath reflects the new power alignment

On Wednesday, as my phone crackled almost endlessly with people asking for my assessment of what was likely to happen between India and Pakistan, I was reminded of a conversation I had in 1994 with Hizbul Mujahideen’s Syed Salahuddin. He was then of the view that India and Pakistan must have a war. When probed further about such an evil wish his response was that a war would weaken both countries but it would facilitate his HuM to fight a weak India. Salahuddin was probably an earlier version of Dr Strangelove. There are newer versions out there who happily talk about a nuclear war scenario in which the presence of nuclear deterrence weakens New Delhi’s resolve to launch a surprise attack on Pakistan. It is the understanding amongst the security community in Islamabad that New Delhi has far more to lose in risking an attack even on suspected terror camps inside Pakistan.

Despite such confidence, the military did not leave things to fate and increased the threat level. Apparently, a section of the Peshawar-Islamabad motorway was blocked to practice landing fighter aircraft and troops from Corps I, II and XXXI were ordered to move to the borders. The objective: To stall a possible Indian retaliatory attack targeting territories inside Pakistan. The Pakistan Army takes India’s Cold Start doctrine very seriously and believes that its counterpart may try to strike territories inside Pakistan in response to some terrorist attack. Thus, instead of waiting for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to send a message, it was the army chief, General Raheel Sharif, who promptly announced that: “The armed forces of Pakistan are fully prepared to respond to the entire spectrum of direct and indirect threats.” However, none of this excitement was visible in Islamabad or other cities in Punjab such as Lahore and Muridke that have major centres for the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT)/Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD) network. Similarly, there wasn’t a sense of panic in Bahawalpur, a city that has the headquarters for Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM). It was days after the Pathankot attack that a couple of JeM sites were shut down and people relocated elsewhere. Striking the right target would require precise intelligence and the capability to safely carry out a hit-and-run operation. But as Pakistan’s military establishment believes, “Pakistan is not Afghanistan and India is not the US”. It is expected that despite heating up the rhetoric, PM Modi would not use a military option. Despite using fashionable decision-making tools like war gaming, neither side has correctly calculated how the escalation spiral will work and what would be the best place to put the lid back on, once the Pandora’s Box is opened.

This is a battle which will have to be fought diplomatically and internationally. Both sides will try to convince the world that they are actually the victim and not the aggressor. Within days after the Uri attack, the conversation amongst some in the diplomatic circle in Islamabad was that Pakistan indeed did not have a reason to carry out an attack especially a few days before the UNGA session. Why would Nawaz Sharif lose a wonderful opportunity to draw international attention towards India’s gross human rights violations in Kashmir by facilitating such an attack? Although Delhi would have to make an effort to come up with the right evidence to convince the world, some of the more rational minds in Pakistan were indeed worried. Three senior retired ambassadors, for instance, were quick to write an analysis pleading with the government to de-link itself from the various terror groups that continue to operate inside the country. If Pakistan’s intent is to raise the Kashmir issue at international forums and fight the battle diplomatically, it stands little chance as major power centres are not convinced that Pakistan is nothing but a hapless victim of terror. Recently, an EU delegation asked Raheel Sharif about why, in his view, the world was not entirely convinced of Rawalpindi’s efforts. Notwithstanding the fact that the question left him humming and hawing, he believes that the country can survive in such a diplomatic battle by seeking out newer alignments and non-Western allies. China is now the Pakistan army and its security elite’s revived romance, which they believe, would conveniently fill the gap of an ever-weakening love affair with Washington. To put it in the words of a popular tweeter: The old equation of the army, America and Allah determining life in Pakistan is now replaced with a new one — China, COAS and Cashmere.

There is also little likelihood of a pressure build-up domestically. As life goes on as normal there is little awareness of what may happen in case of escalation of tension. The media on both sides of the border seems to be telling its own story and reporting imagined gains made internationally. While in India it may seem that Pakistan is about to be condemned internationally as a terrorist state and face sanctions, Pakistan’s rhetoric is regarding how successfully the state is drawing the attention of the international community towards Indian atrocities in Kashmir. Such deliberate reporting and analysis has far-reaching effects as it retards the formation of any strong lobbies inside the country that would advocate peace instead of war. Perhaps, the only increasingly ineffective lobby remains the present civilian government that was never part of aiding or abetting terrorism and remains innocent of doing so. The problem is that the prime minister is too weak to control other institutions of the state that consider the escalation of tension to a point where it raises worries of a limited war escalating to a nuclear war as manna from heaven. This means drawing international attention towards the Kashmir issue and making the international community realise that South Asia may be a more peaceful place once the issue is resolved. While the Pakistani state is in violation of human rights in Balochistan, the understanding is that India’s pleading the case will not matter, as all states violate human rights. However, Kashmir is also a bilateral dispute and conflict around it has a better chance of catching the world’s eye. The generals are not likely to deviate from this standpoint even for the sake of the economy. Islamabad is a comfortably aid-dependent capital. Economic growth is part of the political government’s longer-term wish list, but in the short term, it only hopes to win the 2018 elections. Such an equation means that it is happy to remain aid-dependent and is insulated from the fear of major setback to the economy. The real Sharif, as General Raheel Sharif is referred to by some in Pakistan, is not likely to be deterred by the argument regarding economic pressure or an impending meltdown.

Sadly, in both India and Pakistan, war and peace are used to make political gains. The reality is that it is a losing battle for both. Perhaps there is a need for Pakistani generals and Indian politicians to think carefully about an out of the box approach to resolving the unresolvable.

Note: This article originally published here.