Shifting priorities of the Pakistan Army: A chance for peace
While Pakistan recalibrates the relationship between the civilian elected government and the army, there are signs that the latter now has a more nuanced and tactical stand on relations with India
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the second foreign leader (after Turkish President Erdogan) to congratulate Shehbaz Sharif on his elevation as Pakistan’s Prime Minister. He sought good relations, free of terror, with Pakistan. While reciprocating the gesture, Sharif said that resolution of the Kashmir issue was necessary for peace in the region.
The Modi-Shehbaz interaction owes itself to Pakistan’s chief of army staff, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa’s continuous efforts to have peace with India. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan too was keen on good ties with India.
Two senior serving Pakistani Generals told me on the sidelines of the Islamabad Security Dialogue on April 2, where I was invited, that Pakistan was assured of Modi’s visit by the Indian backchannel interlocutor in 2019. This was the reason Wing Commander Varthaman Abhinandan (captured by Pakistan during Operation Swift Retort following IAF’s air strikes on Balakot in February 2019) was released without delay.
However, the change of constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019 took Pakistan by total surprise and shock. A livid Imran Khan publicly came down heavily on Modi and downgraded bilateral ties.
Gen. Bajwa, however, was counselled by China’s general secretary Xi Jinping to exercise patience. Xi told Gen. Bajwa that it took China 98 years to reclaim Hong Kong from Britain and 103 years to get Macau from Portugal. This did not stop China from development and upliftment of its people.
This issue was discussed in Rawalpindi, with Gen. Bajwa concluding that the Pakistan army should concentrate on Pakistan’s National Security Policy (NSP) with Pakistan’s prosperity in the vanguard and seek peace with India for two reasons: one, to develop trade and commerce with India which would help accomplish the NSP; and two, to modernise the Pakistan military to meet the challenges of the changed character of war. This explains the ceasefire between India and Pakistan since February 2021.
Speaking at the ISD, Gen. Bajwa said that as the result of a major study done by the Pakistan military, it was decided to reduce the present strength of the Pakistan army, currently at 5,38,000, substantially over five years. The accrued savings would be used for modernisation of Pakistan military, especially firepower and cyber. While Pakistan army has a cyber division under a two-star officer, similar organisations would be raised by the air force and navy, and one in the civil domain which would be likely targets in hybrid warfare.
What about Pakistan’s core concern: Kashmir? The senior of the two Generals told me that the Pakistan army was willing for bilateral talks on Kashmir resolution under the Musharraf four-point formula. The minimal, however, would be some semblance of talks to commence which would help improve overall ties. Imran Khan did not agree with his army chief ’s roadmap for peace with India. The Musharraf formula, in brief, had four steps: first, both India and Pakistan identify regions that need resolution.
Second, demilitarise the identified regions which will help bring down the level of violence. Third, introduce self-governance or self-rule in the identified region/s.
And the last, have a joint management mechanism with membership consisting of Indians, Pakistanis and Kashmiris overseeing self-governance and dealing with subjects common to all identified regions that are beyond the scope of self-governance.
I told my interlocutor that heavy lifting on the Kashmir issue is now being done by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). With the PLA in Ladakh, India military faces the threat of one front reinforced war (with PLA’s support to Pakistan military) in Kashmir. The General acknowledged my point but did not react.
By not agreeing with Rawalpindi on a crucial foreign policy matter concerning India, Imran Khan, who supposedly came to power with the army’s help, had broken the cardinal rule that Pakistan’s defence and foreign policy be shaped by the Pakistan army. As Brig. Feroz Hassan Khan wrote in his book ‘Eating Grass’, after the 1998 nuclear tests, the then army chief, Gen. Jehangir Karamat had said that nuclearized Pakistan’s foreign policy would now be guided by the army.
Gen. Bajwa and Imran Khan differed on Pakistan’s US and Russia policy too. Gen. Bajwa favours good relations with both the US and China, while Imran Khan sought ties with China and its strategic partner: Russia. Khan rejected US warnings to not visit Russia and alleged that the US wanted a regime change in Pakistan.
Pakistan has had bitter experience in its ties with the US, yet given the state of the Pakistan economy, relations with the US continue to be necessary and vital. Pakistan army is keen to get off the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and wants military equipment from several FATF members like the US, Germany and France. On the other hand, Khan had alleged that the US wanted Pakistan’s military bases for Afghanistan which he had refused.
Global geopolitics suggests a different line of action for Pakistan. There is little gainsaying that the contest for global supremacy will happen in the Asia Pacific region between US and China. Unlike the Cold War, this will mostly be peaceful and alignments of nations with one group or another will not be akin to the erstwhile iron curtain.
This is because China’s grouping, which is fully backed by Russia, will be predicated on geo-economics and prosperity with Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as its manifestation.
The US’ grouping is more discernible since it is based on building military capabilities with allies and strategic partners like India in the region. Notwithstanding the de-coupling of global supply chains, splintering of the internet into US-led and Chinaled technologies, many nations, big and small will attempt to be on both sides for trade and commercial gains.
Pakistan, like Russia, will not be amongst them but for different reasons. With China-Pakistan Economic Corridor designated as the flagship of the BRI, Pakistan has opportunity to both punch higher than its geopolitical weight and fulfil the promises made in its NSP. Having signed the second phase of CPEC which is about e-commerce in special economic zones, and information technology which is about artificial intelligence and data, Pakistan, despite its poor economy, has an opportunity to become the first nation in South Asia to usher in the third and fourth industrial revolutions at the same time.
Morever, Pakistan military would need to assist the PLA at choke points like the Strait of Hormuz and Bab al-Mandab. This requires good interoperability between Pakistan military and the PLA. Moreover, like Russia, Pakistan would be expected to concentrate on Shanghai Cooperation Organisation which also has Central Asian republics as its members.
With time, as relations between US and China deteriorate with the US imposing more denial regimes on Beijing, Pakistan would find it difficult to stand on two stools. Thus, for the hybrid regime experiment to succeed in Pakistan, the civilian government and the Generals need to put their heads together as equal partners. While Pakistan army is right on seeking good ties with India, Khan’s overtures to Russia would have also helped Pakistan in the long run.
(The writer is editor FORCE magazine. His next book, ‘The Last War’, will be out in August)
(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)
(Views are personal)