Will Heart of Asia Bring About Change of Heart?

Rawalpindi will soon have a new Army Chief, but this may not change bilateral relations with India. The Heart of Asia conference next month can provide an opportunity to Pakistan to demonstrate that it is not isolated

by Ashok K Mehta

( November 24, 2016, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) Two historic events are in the making in Pakistan. First, next week, and second, next year. After 20 years, the orderly retirement of the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) and an elected Government completing a full-term a second time. These developments were confirmed last week at a chance meeting at Dubai with a group of Pakistanis, among them, two retired Generals.

The interaction turned out to be illuminating given the continuing three-month long high-voltage pyrotechnics along the Line of Control (LoC). Incidentally, the surgical strikes were dismissed as a bad joke. That was not a good start to the conversation though they were quick to realise that living in denial in perpetuity was not a good idea.

Not only does Dubai have the second-largest expatriate Pakistani community and workers after India, but it is also a haven for exiled and failed Pakistani leaders. Troubled by a bad back and no longer by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, former President, Gen Pervez Musharraf is re-envisioning his new role in Pakistan, still harbouring political ambitions.

In a high-rise condominium he was enjoying an evening of the 1950s Indian film songs with three-and-a-half stiff ones. The next day, former President Asif Ali  Zardari ex-London had called in Dubai, a conclave of his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) after his son Bilawal Bhutto had done his bit in pledging ‘leke rahenge Kashmir’ in Mirpur, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).

Pakistan in the month of November is in the thrall of two domestic issues: The Panama Papers and the battle of succession for the new COAS whose name has to be announced before November 29. Gen Raheel Sharif’s Dining Out is planned in the GHQ Mess in Rawalpindi for next Monday without an announced  successor.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s off-shore assets case is likely to be decided on November 30, a day after the good General’s retirement. He is expected to squeak through thanks to a Qatari Prince and his late father, Miyan Mohammad Sharif. In Sharif’s first term, Pakistan was said to be ruled by four A’s: America, Allah, Army and Abbajan (Miyan Mohammad).

The biggest event of the month, year and the decade was whether Gen Raheel Sharif was on his way out or if he would dig in. Not many COASs have ridden into the sunset at the appointed hour, at least not for the last two decades since Gen Jehangir Karamat was eased out prematurely by Nawaz Sharif in his second term in 1998 for advocating the formation of a National Security Council.

The six names in the waiting list to become COAS are all from the same batch with the front-runners being Lt Gens Iqbal Ramday and Javed Bajwa. Within the powerful Corps Commander’s club, unanimity has come about over the Chief exiting on time and diminished appetite for an Army takeover. Still civil-military relations are at their usual tense best especially under Sharif who has twice invited military intervention in 1993 and 1999.

More information was made available on the Dawn story broken by Cyril Almeida over which Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid was forced to resign. It is believed that Foreign Secretary Aijaz Chaudhary told the Army to either rein in or act against the terrorist groups operating against India as this was giving Pakistan a bad name. Director General Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Rizwan Akhtar, in the presence of Gen Raheel Sharif is supposed to have told him: “What is the difference between you and India? They’re also saying the same thing”. At this civil-military meeting, there was rare agreement that Pakistan (military and non-state actors) will not initiate a fresh attack on India.

Curiously this story was not leaked, but the other was. If true, it would suggest that the retribution forecast after the surgical strikes may not, after all, come before November 29 as widely expected.

The dip in India-Pakistan relations is at its worst since 2010. New Delhi’s threat to re-write the Indus Water Treaty, withdraw Most Favoured Nation treatment and support the oppressed in Balochistan, PoK, including Gilgit-Baltistan and orchestrating the cancellation of Saarc, have rattled Pakistan. There is now bigger traction in Pakistan about allegations of India training Baloch insurgents in Dehradun and Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) linkages with TTP in Afghanistan.

The apprehension of the Indian Naval officer on charges of espionage have added fuel to fire. Further, Pakistanis are convinced that New Delhi will sabotage the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). They see Pakistan’s economic redemption from this great Chinese act of endowment as not palatable to India. Pakistanis are also concerned about the evolving US-India-Afghanistan partnership in Pakistan’s backyard. But the big worry is the Trump factor: How it will affect South Asia and particularly all the nasty things Trump has said about Pakistan, Islamabad-sponsored terrorism and its nuclear arsenal.

As before, New Delhi has to balance its engagement with the democratic forces and the elected civilian Government with below-the-radar contact with the military leadership and its power-centres which are not institutionalised. This leads to the ground reality of dual power centres — an establishment Pakistan and a democratic Pakistan. For India, there is the perennial conflict between the choice to strengthen democratic forces versus dealing with the ruling military establishment. Any change in this will happen only when the people of Pakistan make it happen.

The structured dialogue process severed in January 2013 after the beheading of an Indian soldier on the LoC has come close to resuming a few times but was aborted by spoilers and is unlikely to be resurrected till after state elections in India by mid-2017.

Rawalpindi will soon have a new COAS but that won’t change the dynamics of the bilateral relationship. While he will hold the key to a breakthrough, the Heart of Asia Istanbul meeting at Amritsar on December 3 and 4 could open a window of opportunity to at least lowering the temperature on the LoC after both sides have delivered to each other a befitting response.

Pakistan’s de facto Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz will not miss the opportunity to attend the Amritsar conference which will be inaugurated jointly by Prime Minister Modi and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani.

This is one opportunity for Pakistan to demonstrate that it has not been isolated and is in fact attending a multilateral meeting — in India! Afghanistan is far too important for Pakistan to allow India to steal the lead. Even Gen Sharif’s expected retaliation for the surgical strikes was given a go by.  Yesterday’s Machil killings of Indian soldiers are part of tit-for-tat LoC dynamics.

Ashok_K_Mehta(The writer is a retired Lt General of the Indian Army. He writes extensively on defence matters and anchors Defence Watch on Doordarshan)


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