The Pakistan Army is a powerful player whose signals Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would do well to acknowledge

In all dispensations in Pakistan, crucial foreign policy and all security-related decisions are taken by the Pakistan Army. This has once again been revealed in the leaked Abbottabad Commission Report generally but particularly in the testimony of Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmad Mukhtar. Mr. Mukhtar said that the Defence Minister was “not kept in the loop all the time” and files normally only went to the Defence Secretary. He admitted “that it would take some time for the Rules of Business to be implemented in letter and spirit.” Defence Secretaries are retired army generals.

In order to convey that the Army is on board a particular policy, Pakistani diplomats customarily use the formulation that “all institutions” have been consulted and are in agreement. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Special Envoy, Mr. Shahryar Khan, took recourse to similar words in Delhi last month. Mr. Khan emphasised that Pakistan wanted to move ahead positively to develop harmonious ties with India and especially mentioned trade. He also said that Pakistan was conscious of India’s concerns on terrorism.

Notwithstanding Mr. Khan’s message, it would be prudent to proceed cautiously for the equation between Mr. Sharif and the Army is uncertain and will take time to settle. India needs to give space to Pakistani institutions to arrive at an understanding among themselves instead of rushing to embrace the political class.

Internal dynamics

The interplay of institutions has to be an indigenous Pakistani process. The political class has to establish control over the Army itself. While the country’s civil society could help it in this endeavour, outsiders cannot. It will be a difficult and contentious process as the Army is bruised and low in self-esteem. Military operations against the Tehreek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan (TTP) and other groups in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and in Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa have taken a heavy toll and been far from successful.

It is particularly demoralising for the soldiery that it is locked in brutal and bloody combat with fellow nationals who are largely of the same ethnic stock. What is more galling is that the militant groups are perceived by many in the Army to be fighting for a righteous cause: to throw out the Americans from the region and in defence of Islam. It is on account of these reasons that the Army has steadfastly refused to conduct operations in North Waziristan.

General Pervez Musharraf’s bizarre conduct has added to the woes of the Army leadership. He returned to Pakistan despite the clear advice of the Army top brass, his own family and, most importantly, the Saudi leadership.

The Army wants him to leave Pakistan but he has set conditions which are almost impossible to meet. The cases against him and his continued detention, although in the comfort of his own house, have caused substantial anger in the Army.

There is no indication or reason for the Army to seek to stage a coup at this juncture. It has its hands full in not only tackling the TTP but also in handling the situation in Afghanistan as the country will go through political, security and economic transitions in 2014. The Army is also aware of Pakistan’s precarious economic situation.

The question really is how much leeway the Army will allow Mr. Sharif with regard to India which is its permanent obsession and main defence issue. Here again, the Abbottabad Commission Report is instructive. It notes, “In reality the defence policy of Pakistan is considered the responsibility of the military and not the civilian government even if the civilian government goes through the motions of providing inputs into a policy-making process from which it is essentially excluded.” This has an obvious bearing on India which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his experienced advisers have ignored since Mr. Sharif won the election.

Dr. Singh wants to move quickly to resume dialogue with Pakistan. His advisers would do well to study the course of India-Pakistan relations between February 1997 and October 1999. Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was no less committed to improve relations with Pakistan than Dr. Singh.

Mr. Sharif had then seemed in control of the Army but it sabotaged the bilateral normalisation process. Dr. Singh would do well to go by the direct signals being given by the Army instead of only taking heed of Mr. Sharif’s warm sentiments. And the Army is sending India signal after signal. The aborted attack on the Jalalabad Consulate and the LoC ambush in which five jawans were killed are clear warnings from the Pakistan Army to India.

The government’s initial sorry handling of the LoC ambush displayed a great anxiety to contain the fallout of the LoC on plans under way to resume the dialogue with Pakistan and on Dr. Singh’s meeting with Mr. Sharif next month. The change in stand under pressure both from the Opposition and from within the Congress should indicate to Dr. Singh that wishful thinking can never be the basis of India’s Pakistan policy howsoever forward looking a leader may want to be.

(Vivek Katju is a former Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan and Myanmar.)

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