Unstable Pakistan is a risk for South Asia
The prevailing domestic scenario in Islamabad could incentivise reigniting hostilities with India just before the 2024 general elections
The collective schadenfreude around Islamabad’s domestic turmoil and increasing strife with the Taliban is so compelling that it is easy to overlook the political risks of an unstable Pakistan for the region. From the Taliban’s recent shelling at the Chaman border that led to civilian casualties, to Pakistani foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s personal attack on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, shortly after General Asim Munir’s appointment as army chief, offers clues on the direction India’s troubled western neighbour is headed in.
Now that India has re-established itself in Kabul, the ceasefire at the Line of Control (LoC) holds, for now, and New Delhi is not under pressure to engage Islamabad on Kashmir, there’s a need to reassess the nature of Pakistan’s defeat in Kabul and the quality of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban’s rise. The most potent blowback of the Islamic Republic’s collapse is being felt by the very institution that aided the collapse. The Pakistani army is split like never before. Internal politicking is not new to the institution, but the intensity and transparency of hostility between Imran Khan-ally Faiz Hameed and Qamar Bajwa-ally Munir, is novel.
Combine this with Islamic populism and sectarianism across the Durand Line, and it brings into sharp relief the true nature of the problem ie, the Taliban is shaping the politics of these countries, and not just the security landscape. That Munir is unlikely to reignite tensions with India given heightened tensions with Afghanistan and reinvigorated Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) and Baloch insurgencies is an argument that may not hold ground with elections round the corner. With the economy in doldrums and many people, including in the army, rooting for Imran Khan — who is politically capitalising from the Taliban-led cross-border attacks and the TTP offensives that embarrass Munir — the Shehbaz Sharif-led alliance is realising that they need to outbid Khan at his own populism.
Zardari’s comment on Modi, resuscitating a similar remark by Khan and something that the Indian leadership won’t forget or forgive, is a sign that Islamabad cannot resist the Islamic populism that recrafted Kaptaan as “Taliban Khan”. Such monikers, used for Imran Khan derogatorily or in jest, often reflect deeper societal shifts. It could be the first sign that Bajwa’s strategy of reducing temperatures with India — or rebuilding ties with Washington to focus on Khan’s populist challenge to the army in (silent) collaboration with the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban — is unravelling. For all talk of a cornered Khan, the fact is that the former cricketer is playing on a structurally enduring populist wicket, and retains an electoral upper hand.
Such a cul-de-sac wherein Munir and his allies view co-opting Khan’s rhetoric as the only (even if ineffective) way to mend intra-army splits and stand a chance at the elections, opens a wide margin of error on the “India question”. If the LoC ceasefire was an asset for a politically embattled Bajwa, it might well become a liability for an equally embattled Munir. Such a scenario means that all competing sides could have an incentive to reignite hostilities with India just before the 2024 Indian elections, almost guaranteeing a 2019-type escalation. This could occur regardless of other factors pulling the other way — including Islamabad’s intent to balance relations with China and the US, the latter’s pressure on Pakistan to fix its India policy, Munir’s seemingly likely decision to launch an operation similar to Zarb-e-Azb (the controversial 2014 anti-terror operation by the Pakistani military) in the western sector, and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s lack of political need to criticise Pakistan for electoral gain.
What makes this foreseeable trend in Pakistan truly dangerous is its timing. India needs the LoC ceasefire given the enormity and urgency of its boundary clashes with China. If the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is undertaking Tawang-type incursions nearly two or three times per month, it only appears to be a matter of time before the Indian and Chinese forces drop their iron-rods and monkey-fists for rifles, artillery, and airpower. Plus, it’ll only get more difficult for the Indian government to contain information flows about such occurrences in the Himalayas, even if well-timed video-leaks of Indian soldiers bravely repelling PLA advances keep the public morale high.
This is not to sound the old alarm of a two-front conflict.
But it is worth keeping in mind that the political rationale that enabled Bajwa to put his corps commanders in line and not exploit India’s vulnerabilities during and after the 2020 Galwan clash, and even arbiter a ceasefire in February 2021, is abating. Despite being a Bajwa-appointee and Khan’s nemesis, Munir is unlikely to take his decisions based on the logic of his former mentor. If Pakistan opts for kinetic adventurism with India, it’ll not be a diversionary tactic to possibly unite Islamists across the Durand to fight the “Hindu” adversary. Instead, it’ll be a return to the long-known feature of Pakistani politics that revolves around India.
There’s been focus on Munir’s reputation as Hafiz-e-Quran (who’s learnt the Quran by heart), and his hawkishness towards India. Though important, neither of these aspects will shape his decisions. Every Pakistani army chief needs piety, and hawkishness on India is an institutionalised fact. It is the military appeal of a short, sharp escalation with a somewhat-stretched India and the ability of such action (if delivered effectively and its messaging managed properly) to recapture Islamic populist ground from Khan just before the next Pakistan elections, that makes Munir dangerous.
Avinash Paliwal teaches at SOAS University of London and is the author of My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017)
The views expressed are personal