External Affairs Minister (EAM) Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Islamabad, where she announced the resumption of dialogue between India and Pakistan, is amongst the most dramatic announcements made by the Narendra Modi government so far. While many will question the turnaround by the Modi government, the truth is that it is Pakistan that has actually changed much more, with the military’s footprint writ larger over its foreign policy in past years. The shift means not so much the exit of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his advisors, as it does the entry of General Raheel Sharif and his officers on to the centre stage of Pakistan’s external relations. The breakthrough in Islamabad must be seen through this prism if it is to be understood correctly.
The first part of this shift played out in August 2014, when a tense stand-off quite literally ‘occupied’ Islamabad. After weeks of demonstrations by tens of thousands in the heart of Islamabad, led by Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI)chief Imran Khan and religious leader Tahir-ul-Qadri, both believed to be backed by the military, Mr. Sharif prevailed, but not before a power-sharing arrangement was worked out between him and General Sharif. Mr. Modi’s decision to suddenly call off Foreign Secretary talks, in an effort to make Pakistan bend on the Hurriyat question, timed in the middle of the stand-off, only served to make Mr. Sharif look weaker in comparison to General Sharif, whose troops were already firing harder at Indian posts on the Line of Control. Later in the year, the Peshawar school massacre, that occurred just as Mr. Sharif was exploring peace talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, was another inflection point. From then on, General Sharif mapped out Pakistan’s future course on terror, ordering special military courts to adjudicate on terror cases. In the past year he has been seen cracking down on militancy in Karachi, waging a war on terrorism in North Waziristan which his predecessors shied away from, and openly tackling militants of several groups under the new National Action Plan policy (with the exception of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, of course), with a spate of executions approved by the military courts and provincial ones. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, the number of civilians and soldiers killed in terrorist attacks this year could be the lowest since 2006. As a result, General Sharif’s popularity is the highest of any military leader since General Pervez Musharraf in his early days.
Buoyed, General Sharif marched into the international sphere, and has over the year received special welcomes in Washington and London for his ability to “get things done”. Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani consults him often. Foreign dignitaries call on him at the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, something that may be considered odd in other countries. And with his visit to Moscow, he scored his biggest coup. Russia, which for decades has avoided strategic ties with Islamabad, is now in negotiations for helicopter deals, and gifted Pakistan a $2 billion gas pipeline this year. At the same time, both General Sharif and Prime Minister Sharif appear to have carved out their own spaces, and Mr. Sharif has been left a free hand on running the country and attracting investment for his now less-beleaguered economy — 2015, in contrast to 2014, has been a year of guarded, yet peaceful, harmony between the two Sharifs.Relations with India
Where does this leave relations with India? As EAM Ms. Swaraj remarked during her hour-long chat with Mr. Sharif, his sincerity for better ties with India has “never been in doubt”. From the moment he took office, he has made it clear that he wished to pick up the pieces from the Lahore Declaration days. In a sense, the government’s decision to return to a slightly modified version of the composite dialogue does just that. However, the most important part of the Islamabad statement lies not in the political dialogue but in the one on terror, handing over all talks related to terrorism to the National Security Advisers (NSA) Ajit Doval and Lt General Nasir Khan Janjua.
General Janjua was appointed NSA shortly after the debacle over the post-Ufa talks, replacing Sartaj Aziz. It is not insignificant that General Janjua’s former postings were as head of the elite National Defence University and as XIIth corps commander stationed in Balochistan, and that he was considered last year the front-runner for the post of Director General of the Inter-Services Intelligence because of his closeness to Gen. Sharif. In him, Mr. Doval, himself a former intelligence and ‘operations man’ once posted in Pakistan, may have found a formidable interlocutor who has an equally easy access with his principal. Recall also that the current round of engagement followed a visit by another former General and NSA of Pakistan, General Mahmud Durrani, who met Mr. Doval this February.
On the face of it, talks on terror between the two most hardline constituencies in India and Pakistan could easily go badly. Despite Mr. Modi’s U-turn on talks with Pakistan, and couching of the joint statement language on the 26/11 trial, no Indian government can be seen to move on from the Mumbai attacks without the semblance of action against Hafiz Saeed or Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi. Despite Mr. Sharif’s peace-talking, no Pakistani army chief can be seen as bending to India’s demands, with scars of their lost wars still driving many subliminally. Conversely, if these two constituencies do commit to a resolution of any of the issues that comprise the newly announced comprehensive dialogue, then it has the best chance of survival. Ironically, the hopes of those in India and Pakistan who most desire an end to hostilities, that have been dashed so many times in the past, now rest on those who have the least experience in making peace.