The Pakistani lobby of security hawks seems intent on making their Indian counterparts realise that any peace initiative with Islamabad is a poor idea.
This is not just because of the dominant sense in New Delhi, which considers Pakistan as irrelevant, but also due to an internal divide in Islamabad that stops any forward movement. Pakistan’s dire economic conditions have not changed things either. The traditional security lobby doesn’t mind the suffering of ordinary Pakistanis for whom even vegetables have become unaffordable.
Two senior Pakistani journalists—Hamid Mir and Nasim Zehra took former army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa (retd) to the cleaners. However, the timing of the debate seems more like an effort to scuttle foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s visit to India to attend the SCO meeting in Goa in early May, or to stop further interaction between Shehbaz Sharif government and Delhi. It is said that Sharif could also visit Delhi but it probably won’t happen. Meanwhile, the idea is to enhance the foreign minister’s burden.
The televised conversation sounded like a blitzkrieg against Bajwa, accusing him of “selling Kashmir to India”. Bajwa, in a briefing to journalists in April 2021, had cited Pakistan’s financial pressure to argue why the army needed to look past Kashmir and find other means of engaging with Delhi. It’s a mystery why Mir and Zehra remained silent then even as journalist Fahd Hussain reported on it in detail. It was not as if Mir was afraid of the echelons then because just a month later, in May 2021, he joined the protest against an attack on journalist Asad Ali Toor and threatened the army with making “things public, things from inside your homes”
Mir’s controversial speech led to him being fired by Geo News although he resumed hosting the channel’s Capital Talk show in March 2022. Yes, Mir escaped an assassination attempt in 2014 but right now, he may not be worried considering the current army chief, General Asim Munir, is still struggling to find his feet in his organisational universe and is being incessantly attacked from many directions.
Mir and Zehra may just have been venting against Bajwa, who had recently called Mir a “liar”. But in the process, they seem to have joined the bandwagon of the hawks in the larger security community that pushed Bajwa back on his initiative to broker peace with India. We now understand through sources that the Foreign Office and other segments of the establishment were not onboard with the army chief in 2021. Then-foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi was part of the group that prevented Imran Khan from reversing his decision to import from India during the Covid crisis.
Now that the Foreign Office echelon is on one page regarding Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari’s visit to Goa, Qureshi, former ambassador Abdul Basit, Mir, Zehra and others want to make the trip difficult. Not only are they questioning the decision to attend the SCO summit, Qureshi wants the foreign minister to raise the Kashmir issue and even try to meet Hurriyat leaders. It does not matter to Qureshi and others that the Goa SCO meeting is a multilateral event where bilateral discussions aren’t allowed. At this stage, they want to muddy the waters sufficiently for conversation on the sidelines or make the visit politically expensive for the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) coalition. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), in particular, wants the tag of corruption and traitor to stick on their political rivals.
Is this the time to talk?
The fact is that Kashmir is an emotional issue and cannot be resolved without some stability in the government even though several leaders throughout Pakistan’s history have tried. The other issue is Israel. Any regime or team of rulers lacking confidence will continue to fall prey to the hawks in taking the big leap to resolve the issue. We know from history that even the confident ones like Musharraf can also trip if they don’t watch their back. The timing is just not right for the current coalition government to take any initiative or to be seen as having lost to India. In any case, the about-to-visit delegation is being loaded with a team of reporters, some of whom will be waiting for the young foreign minister to fall so that they could turn it into a tamasha, just like Mir and Zehra have done.
But what Mir’s Kashmir allegations against Bajwa has done is that it has shown how the Pakistan Army now lacks a strong centre. Like Pervez Musharraf, Bajwa thought he could carry the echelons with him in changing direction on relations with India. Despite not losing to India in the Balakot debacle, during which Pakistan captured an IAF pilot and struck back in response to claims of an accurate surgical strike, Bajwa realised that conflict could not be the direction of bilateral relations. I remember a conversation from 2021 with someone who had deep links to the establishment. The person informed me how there was a broad agreement among the army echelons regarding the new formula of peace with India – ‘Delhi will keep their Kashmir and we ours’ was the thinking. Of course, Bajwa made the classic mistake of not educating the officer cadre or developing a consensus. For instance, sources claim that then-foreign secretary Sohail Mehmood wasn’t onboard, which in itself is an indicator that not everything was right in the GHQ regarding Bajwa’s idea of moving forward.
It’s not just because the Kashmir issue pulls at Pakistan’s conscience, but the fact that the troubles of the economy have not really hit those at the top for the India-hawks to do a rethink. As Mir and Zehra fulminated against Bajwa on a particular issue, I wondered if they thought that rekindling the jihadi network was possible at all or that there was any possibility of the army fighting at the borders at a time when economic conditions are really so pressing. Some of the other journalists that were there at the Bajwa-journalists meeting in 2021 that I spoke with deny that the general said anything about no fuel for the trucks, as Mir and Zehra claim, but he did talk about the general unaffordability of conflict. Historically, India-Pakistan wars were short also because of fuel and other capacity to fight long wars. Given Islamabad’s economic conditions, there will be a greater challenge. The peace at the LoC and in general provides a window for top political and military commanders to introduce a critical change.
A well-placed economist friend from Pakistan said it could take 12-15 years for the existing lobbies — with well-entrenched interests that do not allow them to invest in R&D and shift from import substitution to export oriented-manufacturing — to get replaced. As such, Pakistan’s economy isn’t going to turn around anytime soon. The military-strategic lobby that Hamid Mir represents may change their thinking only if economic hardship hit them home. The answer does not even lie in Pakistan drifting entirely in the Chinese camp as that would perhaps require far bigger changes to the elite lifestyle that current lobbies may not want.
Meanwhile, one can only wish Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari a successful and uneventful trip. I hope both sides realise that this is not the time to make a splash. No one expects huge success but let this meeting not go wrong at the altar of egos, and a failure either. In the next couple of years, it will benefit both India and Pakistan to think about starting real conversations between the climate change people, the agriculturists, the businesspersons and traders, and the youth. While the security sector is important, it’s the other dialogues that will matter more.
Source : The Print