During my travels in Pakistan last week, I could hardly miss the stark difference between Indian and Pakistani reactions to the killing and mutilation of two Indian soldiers on the Line of Control (LoC) in J&K. Oblivious to Indian jingoism, the Pakistani press covered, minute-by-minute, the Anna Hazare-style reality show that was Canada-based cleric Tahir ul-Qadri’s challenge to that country's political establishment. This is a metaphor for a changing Indo-Pak dynamic. For decades, India looked inward while Islamabad tom-tommed the looming India threat. Today as Pakistan, while lurching toward a form of democracy, focuses mainly on its burgeoning internal challenges, India increasingly obsesses about the terrorist threat from across the border. This, even as the tide of Pakistan-fomented violence recedes and Indian police and intelligence officials shift focus to disaffection within the country.
But the fortuitous outcome of Pakistan’s single-minded focus on Tahir ul-Qadri’s so-called Long March was that New Delhi's tough response to brutality on the LoC went almost unnoticed in Pakistan, allowing Islamabad (which has little appetite for roiling the waters) to settle for a pro-forma response. This avoided an acid exchange of tit-for-tat statements that would have united Pakistan’s divided anti-India constituency.
But that was luck, not design. New Delhi, which views Pakistan in the context of an outdated and intellectually lazy narrative of implacable hostility, needs a clearer understanding of a rapidly changing Pakistani playfield. The most important transformation relates to Pakistan’s most powerful organisation, the army; and the evolving relationship between Pakistan’s five key institutions, viz. the army, the polity, the judiciary, civil society and the media.
While the India threat remains a convenient drum for the Pakistan Army to beat, especially when New Delhi issues hawkish statements, General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi is increasingly focused on the tribal areas of the north-western frontier, now called Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. As Pakistani generals admit, their ill-conceived juggling act — which involved fighting the radically anti-establishment Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (the “bad Taliban”), while backing the Afghanistan-focused Haqqani Network (the “good Taliban”) — has become unsustainable because of close linkages amongst jihadis. Tanzeems in the tribal area now coordinate closely with groups like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Lashkar-e-Toiba that are embedded within the Punjab heartland.
With the tribal areas already aflame, the generals worry that Taliban success in Afghanistan would inevitably blow back into Pakistan, first into the tribal areas and from there into the heartland.
Hasan Askari Rizvi, a perceptive observer of the Pakistan Army, explains, “The army fears that Afghan Taliban success would embolden the Pakistani Taliban. Through their links with extremist groups in Punjab, this would raise terrorism, radicalisation and extremism across Pakistan. Taliban success would also galvanise the Deobandi and Wahabi madrassas that do not today support the Taliban actively, like they did in the 1990s. The army believes that this would make the internal security situation in Pakistan unmanageable.”
This apprehension provides a crucial window for an Indo-Pakistan dialogue on Afghanistan. While both sides regard Afghanistan as a zero-sum game that has no winners, this gloomy outlook on a post-2014 Afghanistan could be brightened through a political initiative, preferably through back channels, to address both sides’ concerns. An agreement between New Delhi and Islamabad could backstop a mutually beneficial stabilisation of Afghanistan.
Top generals who have retired from the Pakistan army say it would be willing to support such a dialogue. Asked why GHQ did not signal its changed attitude, these officers retort that the Pakistan army’s changing attitude towards India will never be reflected through public pronouncements, so New Delhi should not hold its breath waiting for those. Instead, India should scrutinise Islamabad’s recent public positions, which are broadly cleared by Rawalpindi.
The Pakistan army’s current low-key posture does not mean that it has ceased to be the country’s most powerful institution. But while it continues to exercise political influence, its methods are getting subtler because of the rise of balancing forces. These include an activist judiciary and a media that has given voice to a previously disempowered civil society. These alternative power centres make it difficult for the army to envision single-handedly managing Pakistan.
Also deterring the Pakistani military from assuming more visible power is its understanding that the Pakistani economy is in trouble. GHQ possesses significant economic expertise, not only from managing its own considerable commercial empire but also because the generals study international thinking on Pakistan and interact regularly with foreign experts. Currently, the economic mess can be blamed on the politicians; but not if the army assumed power.
And so the generals watched as Tahir ul-Qadri held the government to ransom, occupying an Islamabad square with 50,000 followers (he had promised four million). The fiery chief of the Tehrik Minhaj-ul-Quran had hoped to paralyse the capital, forcing the army to move in. But this hope was belied and the polity joined hands, forcing him to climb down and sign an agreement that had been offered to him a week earlier. This was a triumph for democracy, even though the politicians who sealed the deal were hardly men of spotless reputation. In earlier times, many of them would have asked the Pakistan Army to intervene.
Interestingly, even as Pakistan’s military dims its public profile, New Delhi has taken to citing the Indian Army as the basis for its policy positions. In choosing not to sign a Siachen Agreement (wisely, but that is another debate!), New Delhi holds up the army’s objections as a fig leaf. In hardening its condemnation of Pakistan after initially soft-pedalling the recent LoC incident, the government took its cue from the army. A disempowered Indian military probably basks in this show of concern, but it would do well to remember that in the aspects that really matter — e.g., long-term strategic planning; equipment modernisation; and soldiers’ welfare — the military remains out in the cold.