Pakistan's army is in overdrive

  • Barkha Dutt
  • Updated: Oct 11, 2014 00:14 IST

In May 2013, hours after it became clear that Nawaz Sharif was set to be the next Prime Minister of Pakistan, he gave me an interview in which he boldly argued that civilian supremacy over Pakistan's army was mandated by the rule of law. He cited the "four walls of the constitution" to make his soon-to be-famous proclamation that the "Prime Minister is the nation's Boss, not the Army Chief." It was payback time for the ruthless ouster and years of exile forced upon Sharif by General Pervez Musharraf. In the same interview he announced that it was time to pick up the "broken threads of 1999" (the Kargil conflict) and with typical Punjabi bombast joked that "I will come to India, invited or not."

When he finally arrived in New Delhi exactly a year later - invited along with other South Asian heads of state for the swearing-in of the new government - he drew parallels between the clear electoral majorities won by him and Narendra Modi. "We both have strong mandates," he told me, "that can help turn the page in our relations." It was also the first visit by a major Pakistani leader where there was no public comment made on Kashmir and no scheduled or accidental meeting with the state's separatists either.

How much has changed since then. The current provocations from Islamabad at the border and Line of Control should be located in the larger context of Sharif losing the authority he gambled to assert control over Pakistan's military. The recent spectacle of street protests by Imran Khan and Canadian cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri were seen by Pakistanis themselves as spurred on by a shift in its army's strategy. In a country where the army has directly ruled for more than three decades - that's more than half of Pakistan's life as a nation - an overt coup was no longer necessary. It was easier and perhaps more effective for the military to emasculate the elected government by backing the mass mobilisation of people against Sharif and then stepping in to don the role of mediator. In any case any unconstitutional ouster of the prime minister would have invited disapproval from the United States, on which the military remained dependent for millions of dollars in aid. It was much better, the Pakistani security establishment decided, to enfeeble him and retain control from the shadowy backstage of politics.

Nawaz Sharif had enraged the Deep State in his country with his pursuit of treason charges against Musharraf, his attempts at peace with India and his decision to side with a major television channel (GEO) that the army wanted to close down after it accused Pakistan's powerful spy agency of ordering the shooting of one of its star anchors.

But he had to back down on every position he'd taken after it became clear that he would need the army just to survive. The army chief of Pakistan, it is believed, agreed to step in only on the condition that foreign policy and defence decisions - especially with India and Afghanistan - be left to him to steer. The advisor on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, revealed his army's anxiety over any peace process with India, when he said in an interview that his government had to assure the military that peace with India would not mean a rollback in its defence budget. So, it's not surprising that by the time a beleaguered prime minister was to address the United Nations in New York, he'd lapsed right back into tired old sloganeering over Kashmir, bringing up provocative references to a plebiscite that even Musharraf had let go of.

As Sharif has weakened domestically, the tensions at the border have spiralled. With the Pakistan army back in the invisible driver's seat, we should get ready for the border to remain a live-wire of tensions. There is also an obvious attempt to bait the new Modi government and lock it into a prolonged period of conflict-management, in a renewed effort to internationalise the Kashmir issue. A sharp decline in militancy in the Valley and a generally improved social environment (before the tragedy of the floods) had taken Kashmir off the radar of global commentary. In any case, India had succeeded in ensuring that no third-party had any business opining on the dispute with Pakistan. However redundant those attempts may have proved to be, the resurgence of the world's attention in India and the relatively successful foreign policy gambits of Prime Minister Modi have clearly caused more than some nervousness across the border. Mortar fire is not the only memory of the past playing out at the LoC; India should be ready for the excavation of several disruptive strategies that the 2003 ceasefire had buried.

For the Modi government, this is the delicate and tricky challenge. Operationally, it has drawn new red lines in the comeback to the conflagration, ruling out customary flag meetings and warning Pakistan of "unaffordable costs" till the guns from across fall silent. While the robustness and firmness of India's response have wide public backing, there is a chance that a Pakistani military that has shown clear revivalist tendencies is actually spoiling for a long fight. The ceasefire - brokered by a prolonged backchannel dialogue during the Vajpayee government - is the only CBM (confidence-building measure) that has been of consequence in the last 60 years of tensions between India and Pakistan. In the fire-for-fire response, tactically, India indisputably has the winning hand. Strategically, however, if the Pakistan army is making a desperate bid to resurrect the description of Jammu and Kashmir as a "nuclear flashpoint" destroying the ceasefire may be exactly what it seeks. For India then, our response must display not just determination, but also deftness.

(Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV)

(The views expressed by the author are personal)

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