Why Modi should consider engaging Pak army to buy peace

All three wings of Pakistani armed forces now own and manage huge businesses, and India should engage them to buy peace

KV Ramesh | October 17, 2014


Pakistan army chief Gen Raheel Sharif (right)

A major change has taken place in the Pakistani army establishment. Five major generals have been promoted, and the ISI has a new chief. The promotions consequent to impending retirement of four corps commanders and ISI chief Zaheerul Islam gave the army chief, Gen Raheel Sharif, an opportunity to place his close associates in key positions, strengthening his own position. The new three-star generals are: Rizwan Akhtar as head of Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency and new corps commanders; Hilal Hussain heading 1 Corps, Mangla, one of the two strike corps facing the Indian army across the border; Hidayat Ur Rehman as corps commander, Peshawar; Naveed Mukhtar as corps commander, Karachi; Ghayur Mahmood as corps commander, Gujranwala; and Nazir Butt as inspector general, communication and information technology.

The changes in the Pakistani army leadership and its recent thinking pose both a challenge and opportunity for strategy planners in New Delhi. India continues to remain the Pakistani army’s raison d’etre and the focus of its two formidable strike corps is eastward. But in the recent past, the GHQ seems to have appreciated, if not understood, that Pakistan is facing an existential threat from the various strands of religious fundamentalism it spawned. Gen Sharif’s men are right now engaged in Zarb-e-Azb, the operation to eliminate the TTP (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan) in North Waziristan, which has posed a dire challenge to the Pakistani state.

The country is faced with economic bankruptcy, political instability, and global distrust. The Pakistani army’s past deeds in painting the rest of the world as the country’s enemy is finally catching up with it. Pakistan’s relations with three of its four neighbours – Afghanistan, Iran and India – range from deficit of trust to outright hostility. Its donor, the US, is the favourite whipping boy for all ills afflicting it. Pakistanis by and large cling to the belief that their country’s only friend is China, whose rulers are not known to indulge in maudlin sentiments.

The changes come at a time when Gen Sharif appears to have won a battle of wits against the political establishment, represented by prime minister Nawaz Sharif, and strengthened the position of the army vis-à-vis the government, which is barely crawling out of a hole it had dug for itself. After winning the elections with a comfortable majority last summer, the Nawaz Sharif government had needlessly antagonised the army, which had ceded major ground to the democratic forces, having been weakened by the US raid on Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden and the so-called Memogate, which was widely seen by the army as muscle-flexing against the government then headed by the PPP.

Nawaz Sharif’s refusal to approve the army’s proposal for an operation against the Taliban, provocative statements against the army by his ministers, and the prime minister’s obstinacy in pursuing the treason case against Pervez Musharraf, who had ousted him in 1998, enraged the army.

The men in khaki have ruled Pakistan for roughly half its existence as an independent nation, taking over power thrice – in 1958, 1978 and 1998, or every 20 years to be precise. In between, the democratic or semi-democratic governments that were elected were controlled or stymied by the army, which arrogated to itself a huge share of the budget, estimated variously at between 5 percent and 25 percent. The GHQ dictated the pillars of foreign policy.

Pakistan’s relations with the US, India, China and West Asia, including the appointment of ambassadors and their mandate were, by all accounts, dictated by the Pakistan army brass. Till this year, details of the defence budget were not debated by the national assembly, Pakistan’s parliament. Even now, it must be the only country in the world where the prime minister calls on the army chief, provoking the sadly cynical comment that Pakistan is an army with a country. The democratically elected governments, chafing under the army yoke, have tried to throw off the leash, only to be ousted.

The previous PPP government even made a proposal to make the ISI accountable to the elected government. But it had to backtrack when the army hit back, accusing the Pakistan ambassador of sending a memo to the US administration expressing fears of an army coup and seeking sanctions in such an eventuality. The episode is now known as Memogate. Faced with a coup, the Zardari government sued for peace and completed the five-year term, the first to do so in Pakistan’s history, and facilitated a peaceful, democratic handover of power to the PML(N), again a first for the country.

In fact, troubles for Zardari in 2008 and for Nawaz in 2013, their first years in power, began because of their eagerness to seek a peaceable relationship with India. Soon after taking over as president after the PPP win in 2008, Zardari, in reply to a call from the anchor at the HT Leadership Summit, indicated that he was willing to shelve Kashmir for a time in order to improve relations with India. Zardari’s initiative enraged the army. Gen Kayani, who headed the army at that time, saw the move as an unacceptable intrusion into an area – relations with India – where the army was the sole arbiter.

The wily Zardari somehow coped with Kayani and the army and managed to last his five years. Nawaz Sharif, not as astute as the PPP chief, repeated Zardari’s faux pas in making a public pronouncement after his party won the election in May 2013, on a roadmap for peace with India. But, a bad move. The army, which looked on him benignly till then, took umbrage. His insistence in prosecuting Musharraf, who, in an equally pig-headed decision, returned to Pakistan from his exile abroad to contest elections which his party lost ignominiously, and the breathtaking audacity of Sharif’s ministers in taking potshots at the army did not help. The PML(N) insistence on talks with the Pakistani Taliban which was challenging the might of the Pakistani state, further aggravated the rift.

With the Pakistani political establishment thus weakened, where do the India-Pakistan relations head? The suspension of talks between the two sides in the wake of the cancellation of talks between the two foreign secretaries may be a temporary lull, but the time may have come for New Delhi to rethink its approach to the Pakistani question.

The time has come to recognise that it is the army that decides in Pakistan. And it has both the vote and veto on relations with India. However desirable may it be to support democratic forces in our neighbourhood, reality demands that in negotiations one deals with the principal. It may be time New Delhi establishes contacts with the Pakistani army. This can be done through ex-military men on both sides, many of who know each other through Track II meetings. At an appropriate time, the Indian army chief could invite his Pakistani counterpart for a ceremonial event, like the IMA passing-out parade.

Many in the MEA would be horrified at the idea of dealing with an army than the elected government, but this is nothing new. India has been dealing with the army junta of Myanmar for decades, even though it supports the democratic movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Viewing the Pakistani army through a monochromatic lens could be disingenuous. It is true that the Pakistani army sees India as a threat to itself and Pakistan. However, the possibility of sections of that army desiring a less-conflictual relationship with India, while retaining its supremacy as the most important and powerful institution in Pakistan, cannot be ruled out, given the sensible views expressed by many of the retired Pakistani generals and mid-ranking officers on the clountry’s relationship with its neighbours, chiefly India. It is this constituency that India, through its army, needs to reach out to. The new head of the Pakistani army, Gen Raheel Sharif, is not known to carry baggage of the past, and is reputed to be a man of his own. He has made it clear through his words and deeds that he views terrorism as the main threat to his country, a reality that dawned on Gen Kayani too in the latter part of his helmsmanship of the army. Significantly, the denial of extension to the outgoing ISI chief, Lt Gen Zaheerul Islam, a known anti-India hawk, may be a straw in the wind.

India must also look at the other and significant side of the Pakistani army, its massive business interests. The three wings of the Pakistani armed forces today own and manage huge business, including real estate and housing conglomerates, cement factories and even bakeries. It is money that is of ultimate interest in the modern, globalised world. Even the fundamentalist generals of the land of the pure cannot be immune to that lure. And India has enough economic clout to offer them juicy business opportunities in joint ventures with their kin, or their front companies.

With the flow of easy money from the US drying up in the aftermath of the American drawdown in Afghanistan at the end of next year, the generals at Aab Para would welcome a fresh cash cow. If lucrative business deals with Indian companies could bring peace dividend, which general in his sane mind would go to war? Is this the strategy that our policy planners should be exploring.

Ramesh is a veteran journalist.

The story appeared in magazine Volume 05, Issue 18, October 16-31, 2014 issue

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