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Imagining a neighbour’s turbulence

Given the strained civil-military ties in Pakistan, Prime Minister Modi needs to develop a more centred policy before heading out for Islamabad later this year for the SAARC summit. Scenario-building could be a start.

The following op-ed appeared on December 31, 2016 under the title ‘Political uncertainty in Pakistan’.

Looking back, it is clear that 2016 will be remembered as a year marked by political turbulence in Pakistan; these processes of change are still churning and will further unfold in 2017. In hindsight, the catalysing event for the changes was the suicide attack in Lahore in March on Easter Sunday in the park Gulshan-e-Iqbal which claimed more than 70 lives. It strained the rather fragile civil-military balance that had been established after the >Azadi March in 2014 led by Imran Khan (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) and Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri (Pakistan Awami Tehreek). Allegations of widespread corruption against the Sharif brothers and behind-the-scenes political manoeuvrings led to their eventual exit. A technocratic government was sworn as an interim measure and Chief of the Army Staff General Raheel Sharif’s term was extended by a year in November. The National Security Council (NSC) assumed greater responsibilities for governance. Elections are likely to be held in 2017 once law and order is restored though no time frame has been set.

Since >Operation Zarb-e-Azb was launched in June 2014 in North Waziristan against elements of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), more than 3,500 militants are reported to have been killed but terrorist attacks have not ceased. Strikes against military installations have come down though there was an audacious attempt to hijack a Pakistani naval vessel from the base at Karachi in 2014 and a terrorist >attack at the Peshawar airbase in 2015 claimed 29 casualties. However, the majority of the strikes have been against minorities and soft targets — Shia mosques and buses carrying Shia pilgrims, churches, and educational institutions.

Operation Zarb-e-Azb also led to a fragmentation of the TTP, contributing to an increase in sectarian violence. In 2013, after Hakimullah Mehsud was killed and Mullah Fazlullah from Swat took charge of the TTP, some of the Mehsuds turned resentful and opposed the idea of any talks between the TTP and the army. This is when Omar Khalid Khorasani split, claimed allegiance to the Islamic State, and set up the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar which claimed responsibility for the Easter Sunday attack.

A fragile civil-military balance had been established in 2014, according to which Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was to focus on economic development, leaving counterterrorism operations to the army except in Punjab where Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif had insisted that he would prefer to work through the police and involve the Pakistan Rangers and the army only if necessary.

Tilting the balance

The >attack at the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014 which claimed more than 140 lives, mostly schoolchildren, shocked Pakistan. A National Action Plan against terrorism was launched after detailed discussions between the army, government agencies, and Parliament. Military courts were established to dispense speedy justice because an intimidated judiciary often refrained from taking up such cases. Apex Committees were set up to monitor progress at the provincial level. Notionally under the Chief Ministers, these Apex Committees were actually dominated by the Corps commanders.

The Apex Committees tilted the civil-military balance in favour of the military in all the provinces except Punjab. In Sindh, it enabled the army to go after the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) in a big way. Punjab was the Sharif stronghold and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) or PML(N) had its own links with the Punjab-based jihadist groups. The tacit understanding was that as long as these groups did not mount attacks in Punjab, the local police would refrain from a large-scale crackdown.

The army had its hands full with Karachi, Quetta and FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) but the Easter Sunday attack in Lahore earlier this year became the game changer. Within twenty-four hours, the Pakistan Rangers and the army had taken over counterterrorism operations in Punjab and General Sharif made an announcement to this effect. This provoked Prime Minister Sharif to cancel his visit to Washington for the Nuclear Security Summit. Days later, there was an unpublicised meeting between Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali and General Sharif in Rawalpindi but divergences continued to grow.

Earlier, Prime Minister Sharif had agreed to revive the NSC thus conceding a major demand of the army. Chaired by the President and consisting of the Prime Minister, Senate Chairman, the four Chief Ministers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee and the three service chiefs, the NSC was first introduced by General Yahya Khan in 1969 as a means of formally inducting the army into the highest policymaking structures in the country. During civilian rule, it has been periodically replaced by the Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DCC), serviced by the Prime Minister’s Office, but the NSC keeps getting resurrected when the army asserts itself.

The regional geopolitics

The regional situation also contributed to the deterioration in civil-military ties. The army was increasingly uncomfortable with PM Sharif’s efforts to improve relations with India. Restricting Adviser Sartaj Aziz’s remit to the Foreign Ministry and bringing in recently retired Lt Gen. Naseer Khan Janjua as the National Security Adviser was an early signal in this regard. The army was unhappy with the cooperation in the investigations into the Pathankot terror attack which it felt was driven by Prime Minister Sharif’s ambition to host Prime Minister Modi at the SAARC summit. The army was suspicious that in the run-up to the summit, Prime Minister Sharif would even be tempted to seek some kind of forward movement on bilateral trade and regional connectivity which would earn him support with the business community.

Such a move was unhelpful with the army’s plans for the Afghanistan endgame. With President Obama on his way out from the White House, President Ashraf Ghani had lost his U.S. backing and was now expected to be more receptive to making peace with the Mullah Mansour/Haqqani factions of the Afghan Taliban. Connectivity could be considered, once the endgame was over.

Discussions with Iran on reconciliation in Afghanistan had faltered. President Hassan Rouhani’s visit in early 2016 was marred by the disclosures about alleged Indian intelligence operative Kulbhushan Yadav. This led Pakistan to tilt more towards Saudi Arabia in its growing rivalry with Iran. The army then began to invest in building up personal ties with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud who had visited in early 2016. In recent months, a few retired officers have been sent to advise him in the war against Yemen which has helped.

Time up for PM Sharif

By the time news about the Sharif family’s foreign assets and widespread corruption started surfacing in what is now known as “ >Panama Leaks ”, Prime Minister Sharif’s relations with the army had reached an all-time low. Public protests were growing with Imran Khan once again fanning the flames with the call for another Azadi March. Faced with mounting protests, with fresh disclosures about the family’s offshore holdings coming in, the Prime Minister could not hold out and resigned in August. Mr. Khan was ‘persuaded’ by the army to accept a technocratic government so that fresh elections could be called in 2017. Dr. Shaukat Qureshi, an eminent economist with experience both with the World Bank and Wall Street, was tapped and sworn in as Prime Minister. Supporting him is a small team of former civil servants and professionals, some of whom have taken leave of absence from their careers for a year to put the country back on the path to stability and growth.

Given these developments, it was hardly surprising when it was announced in early November that General Sharif’s term was being extended by a year till November 30, 2017 to ensure the effective conclusion of counter-terrorist operations, especially in Punjab. Presently, with both the Pakistan Peoples Party and the PML(N) in disarray and the MQM nearly wiped out, chances of Mr. Khan emerging as the Prime Minister look brighter than before provided elections are held next year.

(Dr. Shaukat Qureshi is a fiction; a combination of Moeen Qureshi (ex-World Bank) and Shaukat Aziz (ex-Citibank), who served as caretaker Prime Minister and Prime Minister respectively.)

Back to the present

Scenario building was introduced in the business world nearly half a century ago and has slowly been accepted by some countries for their strategic planning exercises. Scenarios are not intended to predict the future. Rather, scenario analysis is intended to help think about the future and prepare better against the uncertainties. The scenario drawn out here has relevance because Prime Minister Modi’s foreign policy initiatives with regard to Pakistan have so far seemed to oscillate between ‘jhappi’ (embrace) and ‘katti’ (estrangement); however, he would need to develop a more centred policy before he travels to Pakistan later this year for the SAARC summit.

Rakesh Sood is a former diplomat who was engaged with India-Pakistan talks during 1990-1999.

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 9:34:49 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/imagining-a-neighbours-turbulence/article8447591.ece

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