On Thursday morning, Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported that at an unprecedented and “orchestrated” meeting, the government told the military-intelligence establishment that the country was facing international isolation and needed to crack down on Lashkar, Jaish and the Haqqani network.
As a result, the director general of the all-powerful ISI is travelling to all provinces to ensure that there is no “interference” to block actions by law enforcements agencies against militant groups. The Pathankot and Mumbai trials will be expedited.
The report also suggests the meeting -- and conversations where the foreign secretary pointed to diplomatic isolation of Pakistan and Punjab chief minister and the Prime Minister’s brother, Shahbaz Sharif, accused the agencies of interfering in legal processes -- was planned by Nawaz Sharif to push policy adjustments.
The news report created a stir and generated diverse reactions on social media and among policy wonks.
Three ways to read the story:
What you read is what you get
The first reading would be to accept the story the way it is. This, then, marks the beginning of a fundamental shift in the Pakistani polity. The meeting happened, the conversations happened, and there was a consensus between political leaders, the foreign office and the ISI that militants had to be acted against.
This would mean that the political establishment now has the courage to do some straight talking with the army and the ISI -- a message that wouldn’t be music to their ears and compromise their assets.
The balance of power, or the lack of it, has, so far, not permitted such a conversation. It would also mean that the ISI is willing to listen and abide by the government’s instructions and act against militant groups.
This indicates a rethink of instruments it has used so far. And, it would mean that India’s mix of diplomatic offensive and coercive instruments has worked in reshaping internal equations in Pakistan and the costs of supporting terror are suddenly too high for them to bear.
This, of course, is just one -- and from an Indian point of view, the most optimistic and hopeful -- reading of the story.
Playing to the gallery
The second way to read the Dawn report is to see it as a replay of what is already known -- a fundamental divide in the Pakistani polity between the civilian government and the military establishment.
What happened in the meeting was not new. It was just a formal expression of the divide, where civilians may have got some more confidence to express their views.
The bureaucracy pointed to the hazards of continued use of terror; the Punjab CM pointed to the ISI’s obstructionist role. And while the military establishment played along, it is only going through the motions to send a message internationally.
For long, India has known this fault line and has believed that the democratic government represents a moderate constituency but there are limits to its power.
Manmohan Singh believed that one could strengthen this constituency by engaging with it. His successor Narendra Modi, too, began with the same assumption but has now concluded that New Delhi cannot wait forever and has to inflict costs on Pakistan -- if the civilian government benefits from it, so be it and if the military consolidates further then the true character of the regime would be exposed and India will deal with that too.
In the same vein, the report also suggests that India’s recent moves have partly emboldened the civilian government. This could give Nawaz Sharif more say in deciding the fate of army chief Raheel Sharif and also in picking his successor. It has also deliberately leaked the story to send a message of its intent to the international audience. But the prospect of any real change is too distant.
So, there is possibly some recalibration but no fundamental shift.
More of the same
The third way to read the story is that the “good cop, bad cop” routine is at play.
This means that while the meeting happened, and there is pressure on Pakistan internationally, it has decided to deal with it by resorting to sending signals.
The international community has always given the benefit of doubt to an elected government. So play to that strength. Signal that the democratically elected government is willing to crack down and that all instruments of the state are on board.
Pick a journalist known for his integrity and his own conviction that support to terror should end to get the story out. Take it easy for a while and get militant assets to cool off till international attention shifts. And then reignite and revive the covert war against India.
This is cynical but not entirely implausible reading. The Pakistani establishment’s investment in its “deep assets” is old and valuable. It is a tool of warfare which no one would give up.
While Pakistan is embarrassed, it is definitely not staring, yet, at the prospect of the international community ostracising it. A giveaway line in the story is that the ISI DG indicated that they should do nothing that would seem like giving into Indian pressure, which indicates that Rawalpindi still does not think it needs to get rid of terror groups for its own good.
Whether there is a fundamental shift, a tentative recalibration without any major change or it just theatre will be known in the coming weeks. The real test is in action.