It goes without saying that when it comes to India, the government of Pakistan rigidly thinks what the country’s chief of army staff (COAS) thinks. The degree of such stranglehold has depended on whether the COAS has directly administered the state under martial law or pulled the levers on the basis of powers historically enjoyed by him. While at present it is ostensibly the latter, General Raheel Sharif, the incumbent COAS, is fast becoming as authoritarian as an actual dictator.
It is no secret he considers governance of civilian administrations to be an issue, compares corruption in Pakistan to economic terrorism and labels law enforcement bodies as ineffective. These, he believes, grant him space beyond his remit.
The general’s omnipotence has increased as a result of his success in arresting the tide against armed Islamists in Pakistan. The war against such extremists is far from over; but the militants have, of late, apparently suffered setbacks.
Of course, even if everything hereafter goes swimmingly for the army, it would consume at least another five years to eradicate the menace. Nevertheless, mainstream Pakistanis sense a transformation from hopeless to hopeful circumstances.
The second feather in Sharif’s cap has been Pakistan’s slight headway with the new Afghan administration of President Ashraf Ghani after years of resistance from the Hamid Karzai-led dispensation.
In his 20 months as COAS, he has visited Kabul no less than five times to meet the leadership there. Furthermore, within 48 hours of his appointment last year, General Rizwan Akhtar, the chief of Pakistan and the army’s espionage wing, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), also called on Ghani.
Indeed, Ghani was persuaded to visit the Pakistani army’s general headquarters in Rawalpindi during a trip to Pakistan and the head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) — Afghanistan’s intelligence agency reputed to be close to India’s Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) — was accorded unprecedented access by being received at and given a tour of the ISI’s nerve centre.
Sharif has also dangled a carrot of the planned China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) benefitting Afghanistan. The efforts, though, have elicited mixed results. Sharif’s push to train officers of Afghanistan’s security forces in Pakistan, so as to achieve parity with India, has so far been rebuffed; while a draft memorandum of understanding (MOU) submitted by the ISI to the NDS to establish greater co-operation between the two organisations is yet to extract a response.
Ghani has clearly proved to be more diplomatic with Islamabad than Karzai. Yet, he and his chief executive officer Abdullah Abdullah could not have been impressed by Sharif insinuating he holds the key to declaring Kabul a war-free zone, not to mention him categorising Karzai and the NDS among detractors and spoilers in the path of better relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In fact, Sharif has complained to US Secretary of State John Kerry about R&AW allegedly ruining the process for Pakistan in Afghanistan. And threatened to provide proof of an NDS-R&AW nexus thwarting his ambitions.
But the general knows, considerable repair work is still required to erase Afghanistan’s bitter memory of Pakistan sponsoring the Taliban to oust the Mujahideen government in 1996 — not to mention the ISI’s continuing liaison with anti-Kabul forces — for reconciliation between the two to take place.
As for India, policy makers in New Delhi may rest assured his mind-set is identical to hardliners among his predecessors. He is entrenched in rusty positions of Kashmir being an unfinished agenda of partition and the conflict with India being a war of survival for Pakistan; and has been pursuing the age-old Pakistani tactics of unnerving the West by raising a spectre of non-state actors causing a miscalculation with nuclear weapons.
According to an American estimate, Pakistan’s army has an active manpower of 550,000. Sharif is said to claim 182,000 of these are deployed on the Afghanistan border and 150,000 in Kashmir. If that is correct, his troops’ preoccupation with the Taliban exposes a soft underbelly. So, as long as this examination is not overcome, he is unlikely to excessively heat up the eastern front.
Besides, the general has reason to be worried that the momentum gained by his men could be upset by the growing influence of the Islamic State, who are reportedly offering foot soldiers double the money to fight for it as compared to remuneration hitherto provided by al-Qaeda.
It is an unenviable situation for the Pakistani army to be bogged down on the western front instead of concentrating its resources on India. Therefore, while it may later return to its design of treating Afghanistan as an extension of Pakistan, it is unlikely to pick a confrontation with Kabul in the immediate future by propping up the Afghan Taliban.
Pakistan realised a long time ago it cannot keep pace with India conventionally. So, it radically altered its strategy to deterrence with a rapid India-centric nuclear weaponisation programme.
But as long as the soft underbelly exists, Sharif’s strategy would be to disconcert the West by talk of a nuclear miscalculation and goad them into pressuring India to resume a composite dialogue. In fact, in the medium term Sharif could even be anxious to lower the temperature with confidence-building measures (CBMs).
So, if a western broker suggests CBMs to India, the response should be: Tell the general to endorse the Indo-Pak Free Trade Agreement, which was signed in 2012, but is yet to be implemented.
It is difficult for India to trust a Pakistani COAS after his army’s repeated provocations and violations since 1948, but western powers could ask: If Sharif can be so overtly proactive with Afghanistan, why can he not end the pretence and play the same role with India? This might just make agreements more binding.
(Ashis Ray is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal)