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17 August 2010, Gateway House

Peace and the Pakistan military

A stable army in Pakistan, whether back in the barracks or in the presidential palace, means peace with India.

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The failure of India-Pakistan talks following External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna’s visit to Islamabad in July has given rise to considerable pessimism in India. The ill-timed remarks by Home Secretary G. K. Pillai about the involvement of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai, certainly vitiated the atmosphere on the eve of the talks. But the general perception in India is that the Pakistan Army simply does not want to play ball and that talks are a waste of time. In this view, despite the semblance of democracy introduced by the 2008 elections, Pakistan is still run by the military, which needs India as the country’s bête noire in order to justify its dominance of the country.

In reality, the current stand-off is quite a change from previous years, when peace talks actually made some progress. The Composite Dialogue launched in 2004, which came close to a breakthrough deal in 2007, was acceptable to the Pakistan Army. General Kayani, perceived as the man behind Pakistan’s current recalcitrance, was then head of the ISI under General Pervez Musharraf and succeeded the latter as army chief in November 2007 when Musharraf was forced to resign the position.

At the time, the army was on board Musharraf’s peace process. But Musharraf’s political fortunes went into terminal decline and, with them, the peace process all but collapsed.

To understand the army’s renewed hostility toward India under Kayani and to gauge the prospects for peace, we need to look more closely at Pakistan’s domestic politics. Domestic stability means that talks with India are on; domestic instability turns off that spigot and heralds a renewed aggression.

Until 2006-07, the army was firmly entrenched in power with Musharraf at the helm. The major political parties, Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan’s People’s Party (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) were effectively relegated to the margins. Extremism, though rife, was not yet out of control.

Under the circumstances, Musharraf sought a deal because recurrent crises had cast a darkening shadow on the nuclearized India-Pakistan relationship. Besides, India was emerging as a major power with a growing engagement with the United States. Not only was the army amenable to the dialogue, but there was no discernible opposition to major concessions made by Musharraf – notably the dropping of Pakistan’s demand for a plebiscite and his willingness to accept a “soft” Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir.

By 2007, Musharraf’s position became weak. The prolonged siege and storming of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad, which resulted in large-scale casualties, revealed the vacuity of strategic policy making in Pakistan. Musharraf’s declaration of an emergency in November and the swelling democratic resistance that built up around Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhury forced Musharraf to quit as army chief in November 2007 and to call elections in February 2008. With Musharraf’s fall, the army’s position became uncertain even as it struggled to tackle a growing tide of extremism stretching from the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan’s strongholds along the Afghan border to the Punjab plains.

A pattern became clear: as the Pakistani military came under pressure, tensions with India almost immediately began to grow. Incidents of firing along the line of control gathered frequency, the influx of Pakistan-based terrorists into India grew rapidly, and Pakistani complaints about India’s strategic presence in Afghanistan suddenly amplified. The bomb attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul in 2009, which killed 58 people, was orchestrated by the ISI, as reported in the US media long before the Wikileaks revelations. The army was instrumental in restraining Islamabad’s cooperation with India on the Mumbai terrorist attacks, as evidenced by the sudden withdrawal of the Pakistan governments offer to send the ISI chief to India.

All of this can only be explained by the Pakistan Army’s interest in defending its institutional interests, which were threatened by domestic political developments. Having lost power and prestige in the domestic political realm, the army fell back on its “India option” and raised the security threat from the east to try and bolster its faltering position.

What can be done to return to dialogue?

Very little, for now. At present, the uncertainties dogging the army continue. Pakistan’s political system is in a state of flux. Power is distributed among three poles: a weak executive (further weakened by the tensions between President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani); an independent and activist Supreme Court under Chaudhury bent on uncovering the enormous corruption of both the military and the politicians; and the army, which has yet to deal decisively with its turbulent western border. Until the system reaches an equilibrium that is acceptable to the generals, they are unlikely to tolerate a deal with India.

A sustained peace with India can only be maintained under two conditions:

First, if the army accepts a real rather than a superficial return to the barracks and true civilian control sets in, the prospects of a democratizing Pakistan coming to terms with India will be brightened. Even this will take time, for a weak centre will find it hard to make major concessions on Kashmir.

Alternatively, if the current uncertainty is resolved and the army regains its former dominance, the generals will have less incentive to wave the anti-India banner and more interest in striking a deal to make the most of a dispute (in Kashmir) they cannot win. Here again, it is hard to predict if and when this will happen, for the Pakistani military’s short-sighted involvement in Afghan affairs may well produce fresh complications that undermine its position. As things stand today, it is impossible to say which course Pakistani politics will take.

It would be wise, in the meantime, not to expect too much from dialogue.

Rajesh Basrur is a Senior Fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

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