Gen. Raheel Sharif is changing Pakistan forever.
From under-trial Pervez Musharraf’s hospitalization at the Armed Forces Institute of Cardiology on Jan. 2 to the attempt on news anchor Hamid Mir’s life on April 19 to the launch of Operation Zarb-e-Azb in mid-June to the attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School on Dec. 16, the year past has been a period of extraordinary adjustments within Pakistan’s much disturbed civil-military equation.
The year began badly enough with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif putting off his handpicked new Army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, by pursuing the high-treason trial against former Army chief and president Musharraf. The prime minister also showed “excessive enthusiasm” for closer relations with India, attending the investiture of Narendra Modi as India’s prime minister even as the Indian Army was killing civilians with mortar fire across the Line of Control in Kashmir.
In June, barely a week after the Karachi Airport attack, General Sharif did something no one could expect: he changed the security paradigm under which the Army had so far compelled Pakistan to live. Instead of supporting the government’s “peace” talks with the Pakistani Taliban, he decided to attack the safe havens of the Pakistani Taliban and their local and foreign affiliates. Operation Zarb-e-Azb took the war to North Waziristan, where elements “friendly” to Pakistan trained with those not so friendly to it.
Since the country’s foreign and domestic security policies are run by the Army, the Foreign Office, firmly tethered to GHQ, had a hard time detaching its thinking from General Sharif’s predecessor, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani. North Waziristan marked a clear departure: it deviated from the received wisdom that any assault on the Taliban in the north would trigger a backlash in the south, where cities were already vulnerable to suicide-bombings and targeted assassinations. It also shook the kaleidoscope of regional and global politics out of pattern: the operation pleased Afghanistan and India, who feared cross-border proxy attacks, and the Western alliance led by the United States, always asking Pakistan to “do more,” in other words, eliminate the Pakistani Taliban and their Afghan counterparts attacking U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
Ad Hoc Adjustments
There is little doubt that the June change was not properly digested by the Pakistani insiders set in their thinking that the Army was soft on the Taliban, and tough on the U.S. for “encouraging India to do mischief inside Pakistan.” General Kayani had been hounding American diplomats on roads and hunting Blackwater and CIA agents snooping on organizations the world had declared terrorists. One big miscalculation based on this belated grasp of paradigm shift was the “regime change through agitation” activated by two parties counting on the Army chief to be the arbiter who would ask Prime Minister Sharif to pack up. The antigovernment protests by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek kicked off in August and besieged Islamabad, but failed to get General Sharif to bite.
Can one say that the civil-military equation saved Nawaz Sharif from being toppled? Given that the Khan-Qadri duo and their campaign planners failed to incline General Sharif to act against a prime minister he didn’t quite get along with, one has to assume that the defense paradigm shift was too radical and too restricted to a group of officers close to the new Army chief to be properly understood. In hindsight, one can understand why General Sharif plumped for Prime Minister Sharif staying in power and avoided supporting Khan, whose stance was “blamelessly” pro-Taliban and anti-America as it was absorbed from the Army in the first place. General Sharif wanted to reverse the policy and, for once, “do more.”
Prime Minister Sharif wholeheartedly backed the policy reset on the western border. But a part of the Foreign Office led by Sartaj Aziz, the prime minister’s advisor, had to do a double take in November to overcome their laggard grasp of what was happening. Even after the resumption of U.S. drone strikes on Haqqani network targets in mid-October, most commentators in Washington simply refused to believe Zarb-e-Azb would get anywhere while the displacement of nearly 2 million civilians from North Waziristan made it too brittle to last.
By November, the world had woken up to Operation Zarb-e-Azb, conducted by nearly 30,000 troops who had killed almost 1,200 terrorists. U.S. drones struck in lockstep, even as Islamabad condemned them as a violation of its “sovereignty.” Other factors also came into the reckoning, such as “The Xinjiangistan Connection,” noted in July by Foreign Policy, which said “the security needs of China probably proved more important than the U.S. Congress in Islamabad’s calculations.” This being a reference to the ETIM (East Turkestan Islamic Movement) terrorists from China’s western province training in North Waziristan.
There was a quick revision of stance in Washington. General Sharif’s tough statements about how he would spare no one doing terrorism inside Pakistan—whether “friendly” or “unfriendly”—were allowed to sink in despite resistance developed to Pakistan’s “doublespeak” under General Kayani. The change in Washington was probably just as sudden as in the Foreign Office in Islamabad.
In October, the Pentagon’s report to the U.S. Congress, “Progress toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan,” had indicted Pakistan as an agent of proxy wars: “Afghan- and Indian-focused militants continue to operate from Pakistani territory to the detriment of Afghan and regional stability. Pakistan uses these proxy forces to hedge against the loss of influence in Afghanistan and to counter India’s superior military. These relationships run counter to Pakistan’s public commitment to support Afghan-led reconciliation. Such groups continue to act as the primary irritant in Afghan-Pakistan bilateral relations.”
Before General Sharif took off for Washington in November on an unexpectedly successful and long visit, he received the new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, at GHQ on Nov. 14. Ghani, who in 1986 had done fieldwork on Pakistani madrassahs on a Fulbright grant, was unusually effusive after his interactions in Rawalpindi and Islamabad: “We will not permit the past to destroy the future,” he said. “We have overcome obstacles of 13 years in three days … The relationship between the two countries will be a replication of the equation between France and Germany.”
Around the same time, surprising everyone, prime ministerial advisor Aziz told the BBC on Nov. 17 that Pakistan would not act against terrorists not targeting Pakistan. “Why should America’s enemies unnecessarily become our enemies,” he said. “When the United States attacked Afghanistan, all those who were trained and armed were pushed toward us. Some of them were dangerous for us and some are not. Why must we make enemies out of them all?” This contradicted the earlier, repeatedly asserted pledge that Pakistan would not allow its soil to be used for cross-border terrorism. The Foreign Office scurried to clarify that Aziz was talking of the past and had been taken out of context, a rescue effort that made even less sense. Was this some kind of response to the Pentagon report on Pakistan’s use of proxies?
Defogging the Myths
Prime Minister Sharif cooperated with another challenging foreign-policy initiative that Washington would take notice of. On Nov. 20, Defense Minister Khawaja Asif and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Shoygu, signed a defense cooperation agreement in Islamabad aimed at “promoting international security; intensification of counterterrorism and arms control activities; strengthening collaboration in various military fields, including education, medicine, history, topography, hydrography and culture; and sharing experiences in peacekeeping operations.”
General Sharif landed in Washington amid reports that Robin Raphel, a presumably friendly-to-Pakistan U.S. diplomat, was under FBI investigation for suspected espionage—for Pakistan. What followed must have surprised many who had said their last goodbye to U.S.-Pakistan ties during the long tenure of General Kayani when relations nosedived, dragging the luckless Pakistan Peoples Party-led government of Asif Ali Zardari down to near collapse in 2011 after the discovery and killing of Osama bin Laden, Memogate, and Salala.
In the U.S., much enthusiasm was shown for General Sharif, the first Army chief of Pakistan to visit since 2010. He had become important after his visit to Kabul, where he had given his gruff word that he would stop cross-border incursions of the Taliban “no matter who did it.” He was followed by the new ISI chief, Lt. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar, whose fresh approach to terrorism in Pakistan must have reassured both the much-harassed Kabul government and a Pentagon worried about post-drawdown Afghanistan. To cap the week of reconciliation, President Barack Obama rang Prime Minister Sharif to take the latter into confidence about his visit to New Delhi to attend India’s Republic Day celebrations in January as chief guest.
The Americans gave General Sharif red carpet treatment. The military’s Inter-Services Public Relations wing announced that “the U.S. Legion of Merit Medal was conferred on the Chief of the Army Staff, Gen. Raheel Sharif, currently on an official visit to the U.S., for his brave leadership, sagacity, vision, efforts for peace and stability in the region.” He and his delegation were also “given a full guard of honor at the U.S. Defense headquarters. He met Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert O. Work, and Commander of the Marine Corps, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford.” He also met officials of the CIA, Secretary of State John Kerry, and was received at a number of forums where he clearly reiterated his position on the extirpation of all categories of terrorists in Pakistan to audiences formerly convinced that Pakistan was using terrorists as proxies and allowing safe havens to terrorist outfits doing cross-border mischief.
Joining Jihadist Hands
Hardly had General Sharif returned home when contrary signs began to manifest themselves. His visit had strengthened the elected government facing agitational challenge on the one hand, and being forced into coexistence with “legalized” jihadists on the other. In late November, Hafiz Saeed, the powerful leader of Jamat-ud-Dawah with a $10-million U.S. bounty on his head, called for jihad against India to “safeguard the right of Kashmiris to self-determination.” He hurled his usual threats at India before announcing that his organization would hold a “public meeting” at Lahore’s Minar-e-Pakistan on Dec. 4. Saeed made the statement as a big four-day rally of the Jamaat-e-Islami concluded at the same arena amid loud challenges to U.S. hegemony and such international organizations as the IMF. Saeed’s rally, which forced PTI’s Khan to reschedule his Lahore “shutdown,” drew almost 400,000 people.
More confusion ensued on Nov. 25. Defense Minister Asif held a press conference in Islamabad and expressed what he specifically called his “personal opinion” about “unreliable America” in a unipolar world. He said U.S. “policy has been disastrous for the region,” and counted the militant Islamic State organization as a creation of the U.S. as a sequel of this policy. He targeted the U.S. Department of Defense statement about Pakistan fielding proxy warriors and said, “This shows that despite our sacrifices the Americans still do not trust us completely. That is sad, but it should be clear that Pakistan’s national objectives are paramount for us.” A respected Urdu columnist extrapolated from his statement the next day, saying that I.S. was “created by America and Israel” to undermine and destroy the Muslim states of the region. Even as Asif spoke, however, a U.S. drone reportedly nearly killed Pakistan’s Enemy No. 1, Mullah Fazlullah, chief of the Pakistani Taliban, at some location close to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Whatever the confused repercussions from it, the change of tack on terrorism by General Sharif marked a departure from the thinking of his predecessor, General Kayani, who publicly admitted to backing the interventionist “strategic depth” doctrine in Afghanistan and explained his assessment of India as based not on its declared intent but its state of military preparedness. Kayani had also asserted at one stage that attacking terrorists in their safe havens in the tribal areas would be counterproductive because of the blowback expected in the shape of bombings from Peshawar to Karachi. At one point Imran Khan declared that his own pro-Taliban stance owed to Kayani’s blowback theory. But the retired Army chief countered this declaration by saying that Khan had “got me wrong.”
Whatever the perception, Zarb-e-Azb has inflicted significant damage on terrorists in the North Waziristan and Khyber agencies without the much-hyped downstream blowback. In fact, terror attacks were cut by half, and the Taliban franchise in the Punjab led by Asmat Muawiya had been forced to renounce “jihad” in Pakistan while the South Waziristan franchise suffered a split, led by Khalid Sajna, from Fazlullah.
Meanwhile, in India for backchannel diplomacy, Khurshid Kasuri, Pakistan’s foreign minister under Musharraf, told an audience in New Delhi on Nov. 21: “If there is a paradigm shift in India-Pakistan relations, and we become normal, friendly neighbors, I foresee no difficulty for us to accept India having as much access to Afghanistan as it wants.”
Archives of Antipathy
Civil-military relations should run smoothly in all circumstances because the fixed thinking of the Pakistan Army meshes with the formally expressed details of Pakistani nationalism: the Two Nation theory and the Pakistan Movement, the resolution of the Kashmir dispute with India in favor of Pakistan, etc. Less formally, however, it carries irreducibly India-centric content: India never accepted the existence of Pakistan and wants to destroy the Two Nation doctrine that undergirds Pakistan; it has unfairly annexed Kashmir and caused Pakistan to break up in 1971; and now, together with the U.S., wants to challenge Pakistan on its western border.
But problems arise when elected governments have to adjust to the changing global political trends affecting Pakistan’s economy. The lure of pragmatism is seen by the military as undermining the fixed idea of the state of Pakistan empowered by the pledge of war through the Quranic injunction of jihad. So far, no government forced to deal realistically rather than ideologically with neighboring India has been spared the wrath of GHQ. On occasion, when an Army chief wearing two caps has been forced to act realistically vis-à-vis India, he has been attacked from within the military by extremist elements perceiving him as a renegade.
As an effective carrier of nationalism, Urdu remains impervious to the demands of realism in foreign policy urged by traders and captains of industry who support Prime Minister Sharif’s rudely-halted program of “normalization” with India. English-language journalism, which carries daily analyses of the market (as opposed to its Urdu counterpart, which has yet to invent proper vocabulary to comment on the economy) and backs IMF- and WTO-ordered initiatives, has come under attack by a campaign of curtailing the “English-medium” stream of education in the country.
The military worldview expressed in such official publications as Hilal and the Pakistan Army Green Book is more darkly Hobbesian. Most laymen dismiss this as “normal” because the Army is supposed to think of fighting wars, not parlaying for peace.
The 2010 Pakistan Army Green Book has an officer discussing “information aggression” as part of India-backed psychological warfare. This campaign, he writes, “disorientates people by attacking Pakistan’s cultural identity and the founding principles of Pakistan, i.e., the Two Nation theory” in order to “weaken Pakistan’s internal cohesion” and to create a “lack of trust amongst the people” in the way Pakistan is governed and to create conflict between the “people and Armed Forces and brand [the] Armed Forces as rogue and warmongering.” To achieve results through this information assault, “India’s intelligence agencies have invested widely in print and television media to wage psychological war against Pakistan.”
Similarly, Hilal in 2012 carried an essay titled “Living an Indian-Influenced Life,” saying that “even though Pakistan was liberated from British slavery and Hindu-influenced living” Pakistanis have been unable to “win freedom from Indian cultural domination after 64 years.” It claims that Gandhi said India “has no need to occupy Pakistan; it can occupy it culturally.” It goes on to discuss how “Indian movies and television serials … familiarize Pakistanis with the ways and words of Indian prayers” and how Pakistanis find “themselves spontaneously uttering these same forbidden tunes.”
In The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan, Aqil Shah quotes from the editorial of the Pakistan Army Green Book from 2000: “Gone are the days when the sole role of an Army was limited either to invade or beat back the invaders … Geopolitical and geostrategic regional compulsions of South Asia have made the revision and redefinition of Pakistan Army’s role a necessity.”
Switch or Sink
Pakistan has reached a point in its life where it has to innovate and modify its worldview and frontload its foreign policy with trade and economic preferences to survive. It has become a weak state—it stands somewhere at the top of the “failed state” index—because of the spread of terrorism and a sharp decline in its economic indicators. Urbanization amid a shrinking economy has tended to exacerbate public extremism, absorbed from the process of “Talibanization.” Its foreign policy must reinterpret its aggressive nationalism that tends to isolate it internationally. This isolation includes disagreement with China over the issue of Pakistan’s dealing unpragmatically with India.
Its elected governments have tried to deal with India by separating the Kashmir issue from “normalization” through free trade under the aegis of the World Trade Organization. Unfortunately, both the PMLN and the PPP have suffered disagreements with the military leadership while finalizing trade and visa deals with India. Since Pakistan’s nationalism remains India-centric, it is difficult to conduct a realistic foreign policy without offending against the articles of textbook indoctrination, especially as the political opposition “sides with the people” and challenges the elected government on the act of “getting cozy with enemy India” while “Kashmir burns.” It is another matter that, after overthrowing the “pro-India” government in Islamabad, Musharraf, too, followed the path of normalization with India. This has in the past created the most ironic situation of states preferring to talk to a military ruler as a more trustworthy Pakistani negotiator.
There are many ways an elected government will seek harmony with an Army not used to “institutional subordination” under the Constitution. It constantly “reinterprets” the national-security policy according to the changing leadership in GHQ. When General Kayani was in the driving seat, the mantra was that the “war against terror is not our war.” Under General Sharif it is different—to the relief and amusement of the outside world. As to the old security decisions taken by the military leadership, denial is the best ploy. The defense minister’s assertion—“America’s policy has been disastrous for the region”—absolves Pakistan of the responsibility of becoming a willing ally in America’s “Afghan war” against Russia followed by another “Afghan war” against Al Qaeda. A reinforced nationalism also routinely inclines the Pakistani police to interpret indigenous terrorism radiating from North Waziristan as acts of men “funded and trained” by India.
However, for the first time in many years, the Army under General Sharif has overturned the extremely isolationist and harmful policy of “seeking peace” with the Taliban and other Al Qaeda-linked terrorists in its safe havens, and has instead challenged them. Nawaz Sharif’s government has fallen in line behind him to reap the advantage of this bold policy. But the India policy is still ambivalent as Islamabad shuns too overt an advance to free trade that automatically leads to the offer of a transit route to Indian exports to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Prime Minister Sharif has conditionally mentioned transit trade in his address at the recent SAARC conference in Kathmandu while India’s Prime Minister Modi heated up the Kashmir border. A civil-military consensus in Pakistan on a new India policy, backed overwhelmingly by an international community scared of nuclear holocaust in South Asia, is the need of the hour.
From our Jan. 10, 2015, issue.