Even as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif swore in Lieutenant-General Khwaja Ziauddin as Pakistan’s new army chief on October 12, 1999, the proceedings suddenly stalled: there was no brass star to pin to his shoulder, in addition to the three already there. It proved an ill omen. General Pervez Musharraf, the man Sharif had just sacked, flew back from Sri Lanka, and sent the Prime Minister to prison. Brigadier Javed Malik, who had gallantly torn a star off his own uniform so the ceremony could go ahead, never got it back.
Now, as Indian policymakers struggle to contain the fallout from the terrorist strike in Pathankot, that story is key to understanding what is happening. Even though Pakistan has promised to act against the Jaish-e-Muhammad — which it banned 14 years ago, as India threatened to go to war — there’s no sign of that happening.
The Prime Minister’s promises to crack down notwithstanding, the Jaish’s sprawling seminary in Bahawalpur in up and running. So, too, are its headquarters in the city, and training camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
“German history reached its turning point but failed to turn,” the historian AJP Taylor famously said of the revolutions of 1848-49. There’s been no nation that’s been more often proclaimed to be at a turning point — but has stayed firmly stuck in the rut. The question is: why?
Indian analysts have applauded Sharif’s declaration of “Pakistan’s commitment to eliminate terrorism from our soil and the expressed national resolve not to allow our territory to be used for acts of terrorism anywhere”. It’s important to note, though, that this promise had been made several times, without results. In the midst of the 2001-02 near-war between India and Pakistan, General Musharraf said much the same thing on national television. Inside months, though, the organisations he banned were up and running again.
Pakistan’s generals, interestingly, had voiced the same commitment just a year ago. In February, the Corps Commanders’ Conference — the collective decision-making organ of the generals — vowed to crack down on terrorism “without any discrimination”.
That, clearly, didn’t happen: both the Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish, for example, staged attacks against India. Instead, at the next Corps Commanders’ Conference in May, the generals lashed out against India, taking “serious notice of RAW’s involvement in whipping up terrorism in Pakistan”.
Put simply, this message sought to legitimise Pakistan’s use of low-grade warfare against India, casting it as defence against Indian aggression.
In November, just as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sharif were preparing to meet in Paris, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, Gen Raheel Sharif, flew uninvited to the United States with a simple message. The army was, Gen Sharif said, prepared for talks on peace with India — but not normalisation. To accept the status quo on Kashmir, Gen Sharif said, would be surrender. That, he was not willing to accept.
Little has changed since then, no matter what the atmospherics — and for Prime Minister Sharif, that’s a real problem.
IT wasn’t too long ago that Prime Minister Sharif thought the generals were preparing to stick the knife in his back, and with good reason. In August, protests spearheaded by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party and the maverick cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri, gathered momentum. Even as the army-backed protesters tried to storm the Prime Minister’s house, the army met to discuss how to contain the crisis. Five of 11 Corps Commanders wanted the Prime Minister thrown out; Gen Sharif, though, overruled the hawks.
The Prime Minister knows, though, that the General’s munificence isn’t limitless — and intruding into the army’s core domains, like foreign policy and strategic decisionmaking, would invite serious consequences.
For the Prime Minister, history provides an accurate guide to what might happen if he angers the generals. Elected in 1990, Sharif pushed forward slain military ruler Gen Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamisation policies. In 1993, the President appointed Gen Wahid Kakar army chief, superseding Lieutenants-General Rehm-Dil Bhatti, Mohammad Ashraf, Farrakh Khan and Arif Bangash. The Prime Minister pushed for control over military appointments, and was forced out of office.
In 1998, Sharif sacked the soft-spoken Gen Jehangir Karamat for demanding the creation of a National Security Council to adjudicate on civil-military relations. He hand-picked Gen Musharraf — now superseding Lt Gen Ali Kuli Khan and Lt Gen Khalid Nawaz Khan — only for this to end in catastrophe, after the Kargil war.
The fallout from Pathankot hews to a well-trod path: promises, followed by disappointment. In 2008, President Asif Ali Zardari declared: “India has never been a threat to Pakistan”, and called the Islamist insurgents in Kashmir “terrorists”. Ajmal Kasab and nine other Lashkar terrorists were at about that time making their preparations for 26/11— and little could be done to punish their leadership.
Prime Minister Sharif took office in 2013 promising to “make sure that Pakistani soil is not used for any such [terrorist] designs against India”. He vowed action against the 26/11 attackers.
Pakistan’s civic life — a form of military rule, with some democratic features — allows Prime Ministers no greater power. The defence analyst Ayesha Siddiqa notes that democracy “does not mean the army is ready to surrender its control over security and foreign policies. Afghanistan (by extension Iran as well), India, the US and China are critical to the GHQ’s [General Headquarters’] interests. These are non-negotiable areas”.
Two benchmarks must be met for India to expect a genuine transfiguration in its relationship with Pakistan. First, there must be evidence of action against the Pakistan army’s jihadist proxies — proxies it has long nurtured both to bolster its ideological legitimacy as the praetorian guard of Islam, and as an instrument of pressure against India. Second, the state must drop its opposition to trade normalisation, and goods transit to Afghanistan.
For that to happen, fundamental transformations to Pakistani society will need to occur — key among them, the rise of a genuinely-empowered middle class and entrepreneurial élite, whose rise the army’s preeminence has so far throttled. Indian policy can seek, through engagement, to incrementally push ahead these changes, and deepen the divide between the generals and civil society leadership. To expect dramatic change, though, is to invite disappointment.
In geopolitics, as in life, there’s this good rule of thumb: if it looks too good to be true, it probably isn’t true. That holds good for Pakistan’s promise of action against the Jaish this time, too.