By Brig Anil Gupta
While Nawaz Sharif is in a mess in neighbouring Pakistan, the Pakistan Army is having the last laugh. But the tremors are being felt in the border belt of Jammu where innocent civilians who have no stake at all in the ongoing turmoil in the neighbourhood are paying a heavy price for the same.
Loss of precious lives, cattle, damage to property, constant fear psychosis and the fear of unknown has forced them to leave their hearths and move to make shift camps. The youth are the worst sufferers because of the closure of educational institutions and their inability to complete the syllabus. The net result is poor percentage in the final exams and thereafter failure to get jobs or even lose the opportunity for recruitment in the Army because the minimum percentage laid down for residents of these districts is higher than from the rest of the state. They become the victim of circumstances beyond their control and the graph of unemployment moves northwards, leading to frustration and resentment. But who cares?
The Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has no time for them; he prefers to stay in the cooler climes of the Kashmir Valley and issue occasional statements. He prefers to play politics at their cost by indulging in the blame game. On the contrary, the visiting president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) preferred to cancel his pre-scheduled programme to visit the affected families to get a first-hand account. I only hope that the visit of BJP chief Amit Shah would prove beneficial for the hapless victims of a game being played elsewhere in the neighbouring country.
In Pakistan it is Nawaz Sharif versus Army Chief Raheel Sharif. It’s a turf war. The fragile democracy in Pakistan is once again on the chopping block. It has been reported in the media that a temporary truce has been reached between the two Sharifs with the Army reiterating its demand of “space” for itself. In my view the army has not only regained the “lost space” but succeeded in garnering more territory. When Nawaz Sharif returned to power with two-thirds majority he would have thought that this time he would have the final say in the governance of Pakistan and would control all instruments of power, including the military. But in his heart of hearts he was wary of the army because of his bad experience with Pervez Musharraf in the past.
He carefully chose the successor of Gen Kayani by superseding a few senior generals. He preferred Gen Raheel Sharif who as Lahore Corps Commander had developed very cordial relations with his brother Shahbaz Sharif. He thought Raheel Sharif will play ball with him. But to his utter disappointment he soon realised that Raheel Sharif’s loyalty was more towards the army and less towards him. Like his predecessors Raheel was unwilling to compromise when it hurt the army’s interests.
But Nawaz was in a hurry to put his stamp of authority and wanted to enhance the clout of his civilian government by tilting the balance towards the civil government in the delicately balanced civil-military relations. He wanted to have the levers of power with him and did not desire that the civil supremacy remain confined to domestic political affairs only. Apart from improving the nation’s failing economy, he was also keen to shape the nation’s foreign and security policy as well which heretofore was in the sole domain of the military. He wanted to have a new Afghan policy, rapprochement with India and negotiated settlement with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
The trial of Pervez Musharraf, ex-army chief, dictator-cum-president and bete noire of Nawaz Sharif added further salt to the injury. It not only irked the military but rattled it, hurting its pride. The military was in no mood to concede even an inch of its turf to the civilians. The army had been on the back foot ever since the daring American raid in the heart of Pakistan to eliminate Osama Bin Laden in May 2011. Questions were being raised about their professional capabilities coupled with the loss of credibility among the general public.
This was too difficult for the army to digest and it was looking for an opportunity to redeem itself. But on the other hand Nawaz Sharif was trying to marginalise the army. It decided to retaliate and seize the lost space. The Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) was directed to step up its activities in Afghanistan to further the Pakistan Army’s interests. Raheel Sharif’s hard-hitting speech at Ghazi Base, while addressing troops of an elite commando unit, in which he thundered that the army would go to any length to preserve its honour sent a message to the civilian government that it has had enough of humiliation and would not tolerate any more.
A dare-devil attack on Karachi Airport by the TTP was reason enough for the army to move into North Waziristan and launch an operation to eliminate the TTP and the foreign jihadists. The operation was launched in the holy month of Ramzan rendering about five lakh tribals homeless and forcing them to move to camps. This was done without the government’s approval and it had to concede to the army’s diktat. The army was thus able to have its way in the domains it treated as its exclusive prerogative. Nawaz Sharif and his government were partially cut to size by the military led by Raheel Sharif.
This was not enough. Nawaz Sharif continued in his quest to have improved relations with India. Contrary to the army’s advice he decided to attend the swearing–in ceremony of new Indian premier Narendra Modi. In a meeting with our prime minister he expressed a desire to have peace with India and sought India’s help for poverty alleviation. He was willing to resolve all issues bilaterally in accordance with the Shimla Accord, push the “K” issue to the background, buy power from India and grant India Most Favoured Nation status. The military was least amused; annoyed at the open defiance of their advice to Nawaz Sharif it tried to prevail upon him to change his mind. But Nawaz Sharif was convinced that trade with India was the panacea for reviving the ailing economy of his country and for poverty alleviation. For the army it was the sounding of death knell for the raison d’etre of its very existence.
The knock-out blow came in the form of the announcement to have foreign secretary level talks in Islamabad on Aug 25. Realizing that Nawaz Sharif was in no mood to listen to it as far as rapprochement with India was concerned, it decided to create trouble for the civilian government. It fell back on its trusted allies in the form of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and Canada-based cleric Tahir-ul Qadri.
The turmoil created by the duo shook Nawaz Sharif who knew that it was being done at the behest of the army. He also feared an army coup if things went extremely out of control. But the army was clear in its mind; it did not want to rule the country directly but through remote control. For that it needed to cut to size the growing interference of the civilian government in defining the nation’s India policy. Imran and Qadri played their script perfectly forcing Nawaz Sharif to agree to “sharing space” with the army.
The army also tried simultaneously to compel India to pull back from the peace process. It tried different ways to provoke India. The Pakistan Army had tasted success in the past and was confident of a positive result this time as well. In the past, it created Kargil in 1999 when Nawaz Sharif and Atal Bihari Vajpayee agreed to tread on the path of peace, and launched the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks when then president Asif Ali Zardari extended an olive branch. It was unwilling to take any risk and carry out any such high profile act because of the change of government in New Delhi. Uncertain of how the new Indian government would respond, the army began with increased attempts at infiltration of the Line of Control (LOC) and graduated to terrorist acts in the Kashmir Valley targeting the police and other security forces but failed to provoke the authorities in New Delhi. It then resorted to repeated cease fire violations on the LoC and gradually shifted southwards to the International Border (IB).
Surprised by the Indian response and its refusal to backtrack from the peace process, it upped the ante by targeting Border Security Force (BSF) posts followed by targeting innocent civilians. Repeated firing on the border prevented the locals from visiting their fields and sowing the paddy crop, their main source of livelihood. The shelling in the villages shattered the peace and tranquillity and created pressure on the government to react. Modi had come to power only a few months back on the plank of giving a befitting reply to any misadventure by the hostile neighbour. He was thus under tremendous pressure to walk the talk and act firmly.
The much-needed excuse was provided by the invitation of the Pakistani ambassador to Kashmiri separatists for a talk. India promptly called off the secretary level talks. It was a win-win situation for the Pakistan army and it had the last laugh. It once again succeeded in scuttling the peace process with India and proved to the world as to who actually is in the driver’s seat in Pakistan. Nawaz Sharif has been completely cut to size and made to eat humble pie and face humiliation not only from the powerful army but also from puny political rivals. The army has not only regained its predominance, it has been emboldened or if I may put it “gone totally out of civilian control”. It is trying to assert its authority by continuously targeting the civilians with a view to test Modi’s resolve and assess his possible response to any misadventure by the ISI or the army to destabilise India in the future. The innocent border residents on our side continue to suffer.
With the doors of negotiations shut for the time being what should be the Indian response? A two-pronged strategy is recommended. At the tactical level India should also retaliate with heavier calibre weapons of both direct and indirect fire. In the areas along the LoC, where we dominate, their movement must be made cost prohibitive. At the strategic level we should not forget that we control water flow into Pakistan. All trade with Pakistan including the trade via Gulf must be stopped.
Moral and financial support must be provided to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan who have been the victims of Pakistani atrocities since independence. The threat from Afghanistan must be kept alive. It should be ensured that the Pakistani Army troops engaged in fighting insurgencies within the country remain committed to the same. The pot must remain boiling. The ambiguity surrounding India’s “No first use policy” on nuclear weapons must be clarified to state “no first use till threatened”. Pakistan must realise the price it would have to pay if it crosses the red line.
(Brig (Retd) Anil Gupta is a political commentator, security and strategic analyst. He can be contacted at [email protected])