Raheel, not Nawaz, Sharif Holds the Key to the India-Pakistan Peace Mystery

The idea of improving relations with India does occur to the Pakistani army but it is not sure about the terms of engagement.

The news of Masood Azhar’s possible detention in Pakistan left me with the same feeling I had when reading a story in my childhood about Sheikh Chilli, a man who built castles in the air. What if he hadn’t shaken his head so violently that the basket of eggs didn’t come crashing down, as did his dreams?

Even as I sat down for an interview soon after, Pakistan’s federal minister for privatisation claimed the news of the Jaish-e-Mohammed chief’s detention was not verified. He had come from a meeting with other ministers in which none vouched for the news of the arrest. In fact, the minister stated that the Ministry of Interior had advised him to be non-committal. The statement from the office of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif spoke of action against the JeM but was guarded about any specifics. So why did someone in authority leak the news of Azhar’s detention to the Pakistani media?

All quiet in Bahawalpur

By the end of the evening of January 15, it was clear that the story needed to be approached with great caution. Sources from Bahawalpur, where the JeM is stationed, talked about the authorities taking 13 JeM members into custody from various cities in Punjab. However, what is more interesting is the report of Masood Azhar and his brother Mufti Rauf being picked up from Islamabad. Didn’t the government say for years that Azhar did not live anywhere in Punjab but had disappeared somewhere in the tribal areas?

Despite the news, his men in Bahawalpur seemed calm and contained. Though news came of the JeM’s offices being shut down,  one wondered what they were talking about since the JeM has no office. It is not a political party which would require an office. Its entire business is conducted from the madrassa Usman-o-Ali in Bahawalpur and another huge madrassa being built on the main highway outside the city. Closing down these seminaries would draw attention and create excitement that was not observable. It certainly makes one wonder if the news was a trial balloon to see India’s reaction–  just like some believe the Pathankot attack was meant to test New Delhi’s red lines.

Jaish madrasa bahawalpur

File photo of the madrassa Usman-o-Ali in Bahawalpur

The JeM folks were of the view that all of this will wash away in another ten days. Throughout the evening when news was spread about the Pakistan government taking action, there was nothing happening in Bahawalpur. The only thing which has happened thus far is that JeM’s website and magazine are no longer available online, which is very different from what happened with LeT/JuD.

The difference in civil-military perspectives on handling India-centric militancy is clear. It seems that while Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is keen to have peace and like a timid chicken sticks his neck out every now and then, the military would like to remain more cautious. It isn’t that Raheel Sharif’s army is not interested in talks but that it is not keen to have a conversation between civilians or to allow personal camaraderie to develop between the two prime ministers. Although Pakistan military’s involvement in Pathankot is not proven, whoever planned the show was aware of GHQ Rawalpindi’s unhappiness with how the December 25 Modi visit played out in Pakistan – the two leaders seemed to be building personal ties without the army being centre-stage.

Pathankot certainly did not happen from nowhere but it seems to have followed a predictable pattern: an attack not big enough to provoke a huge response like targeting militant headquarters across the border but which generates enough hue and cry to postpone a conversation.

Despite that, Islamabad keeps talking about the threat of India’s ‘cold start’ military strategy. It appears that the generals are quite conscious of the fact that Delhi may not be close to activating such a plan if it needed to. Its not about weapons but changes in doctrines and force structures that could manage a swift and sharp response. Also, post-Pathankot, the comparative caution in the Indian reaction was palpable. This was construed as Delhi having too much at stake this time or that politically Narendra Modi had committed himself to the peace process to a degree that he could not allow the same kind of reaction as the BJP displayed under Congress rule. Then there are those who are outrightly skeptical about the incident and argue that the Indian government’s restraint is because it does not have sufficient evidence regarding JeM’s involvement.

From the perspective of an average Pakistani, this is all a bit like being on a seesaw. There is the public, which would like to have improved relations but has not turned into a critical mass or developed enough political clout to become noticeable to the military. On the other hand, there is the political and ideological right-wing represented by both the military and religious lobby that remains super-cautious and disinterested in building links. But the problem any analyst is likely to face during these times is confusion regarding the military’s stance.

Where the army stands

Was Pakistan’s army chief on board during Modi’s impromptu visit to Lahore? Most likely, yes. It is almost unimaginable that he was not in the decision-making loop. But this is also where one ought to draw a line. After the Ufa debacle, Nawaz Sharif would certainly not have wanted to appear to be alone in wanting to talk. However, this does not mean that the army chief approves of the larger game plan of improving ties with India, especially an enemy who, according to the post-Raheel Shareef popular narrative, is responsible for most acts of violence in Pakistan. The brutal death of 140 children at the Army Public School in Peshawar is etched in memory of the entire country and so is the narrative that the killers were sponsored by Indian intelligence.

Since the beginning of Zarb-e-Azb operation, the focus has shifted from internal insecurity as the primary threat back to India as the main security issue. To recollect, the former army chief, General (retd) Ashfaq Pervez Kayani gave several speeches before the end of his extended tenure emphasising the primacy of the internal. Given Kayani’s unpopularity in getting an extension from the PPP government and the alleged corruption of his brothers, his departure and Raheel Sharif’s appointment as the chief was welcomed by bulk of the army. General Sharif is viewed as conservative and professional, a chief who brought the organisation back on track – including on the issue of threat assessment. The armed forces also have reservations as far as India’s presence in Afghanistan is concerned. Therefore, it can be concluded that like any professionally structured military, Pakistan’s has not diverged from its emphasis on India.

However, its not that the military is entirely closed to the idea of developing ties with India. There are other considerations as well, such as American influence or less dramatic pressure from China to improve ties with New Delhi. The officer cadre in particular has good working relations with the Pentagon. Beijing, on the other hand, would like India-Pakistan bilateral relations to become manageable. Pakistan, in any case, has been rapidly moving into China’s sphere of influence which means that its military and economic dependency in likely to grow. Strategically, this translates into China extending its protective umbrella to Islamabad. Initially, one had expected that Nawaz Sharif would be punished with a coup for his overzealous overtures to India. The fact that he wasn’t may not necessarily be an indicator of the enhanced strength or capability of the political government but also a willingness of the armed forces to let it continue. Apparently, while talking to people in a private gathering, General Raheel Sharif spoke about the army giving the government space to breathe.

From an India-Pakistan perspective, this means that the generals are not keen to rush into a linkage that would then be tantamount to neutralising the military’s influence in power politics or threatening Pakistan’s ideological and political relevance. The act of holding on to selected non-state actors creates that bubble in which the establishment feels secure, especially when it is unsure about the consequences of Hindutva-dominated politics in India.

Seen in this context, the entire post-Pathankot handling of the Jaish looks like a bit of a test case. Something did happen for some part of the government to have taken Masood Azhar into custody. Its not that there is any plan to hand him over to India or urgently curtail the organization’s power. In fact, during my visit to my hometown in Bahawalpur on January 16, I did not see any signs of a clampdown on the organisation or its headquarters. In any case, it may not be doable since the headquarter is basically a madrassa with an attached mosque which cannot be closed until there is an immediate provocation. However, can Delhi just give-up on confidence building? Peace is a long term plan which will probably come about with small and incremental steps.

Note: This article originally published here.