| by Ashok K Mehta

Officially, Pakistan supports the idea of non-interference in Afghanistan. But it has also made clear that it is unable to cooperate with Kabul till its concerns are met, such as downsizing the Indian presence there

( January 22, 2014 , New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) Don’t try it: Getting to Islamabad 900km from New Delhi by air via Dubai, as it takes a tortuous 16 hours, leave alone the immigration hassles and check-in at the thrice-bombed JW Marriott hotel. JWM has now a foolproof security procedure, second only to Hotel Serena Kabul. Islamabad and Rawalpindi are called twin cities, but you need a separate visa for the latter and if you are lucky, one sans police reporting.

Returning last week to Pakistan after 1996 was a useful experience. In 1996, former Chief of Army Staff, General VN Sharma, led a delegation of Rimcollians (graduates of the Rashtriya Indian Military College in Dehradun), at the invitation of Interior Minister Nasirullah Khan Babar, whose numerous claims to fame include fathering the Taliban and possessing a replica of the Fasting Buddha. Pakistani newspapers described the Rimcollian arrival as ‘land invasion of Pakistan, led by former Indian Army Chief’. This time around, The News (January 14) carried this headline: Indian Army chief admits killing 10 Pakistani soldiers...” , invoking the 19th century French proverb that the more the world changes, the more it stays the same.

That nothing has changed at the basic level in Pakistan was confirmed during and after the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung facilitated Track II launch of the Regional Declaration on Afghanistan. The declaration is a well-reasoned and sober document urging Pakistan to remove the root causes of trust deficit between Afghanistan and Pakistan (read: removing sanctuaries for Afghan Taliban and helping push the peace and reconciliation processes).

There were several lessons emerging from the discussion. Lesson Number One: The divergent but dominant Rawalpindi-Punjabi versus Peshawar-Pashtun mindset. Lesson Number Two: Most Pakistanis continue to live in denial. Afghans and other interlocutors were told that non-state actors, created and nurtured by the military establishment, have gone ballistic and are no longer under state control. The message: Pakistan may be unwilling and unable to cooperate with Afghanistan unless some of its concerns are met — these include downsizing Indian presence, accommodating the Afghan Taliban in Government and the border question involving the Durand Line. Reining in the Haqqanis and Mullah Omar’s Shura involves a grand bargain.
In his address at the launch National Security Advier Sartaj Aziz — a Pashtun who wanted to be the President of Pakistan and has authored Between Dreams and Realities: Some Milestones in Pakistan’s History — emphasised that Afghanistan was the most important issue for the Foreign Office and agreed that ‘non-interference’, which is a key recommendation of the declaration, is valuable provided it becomes regional policy and is implemented by all.

Where he was off the mark was in advocating better border management for non interference to be effective. Moral and material support by Islamabad for the ‘good Taliban’ has to end, if peace and security are to prevail in Afghanistan. Unless Pakistan’s Punjabi mindset is able to distinguish between its dreams and realities, the country will live in denial and reap the backlash.

These aspects were highlighted in subsequent discussions on Capital and Dunya News television channels. Most pointed was the assault on India over its nefarious activities in Afghanistan and Balochistan. Former Army chief General VK Singh’s revelations on the covert intelligence unit came in as a handy stick to beat India with. Army chief General Bikram Singh’s Army Day warning to the Pakistani military establishment on the Line of Control has bruised public opinion. Pakistan has its own retired battalion of fuming and frothing Generals and Air Marshals, some of who continue to insist that the attack on Parliament in 2001 and in Mumbai in 2008 were masterminded and staged by India while Pakistan was blamed for it. This make-believe is what ordinary Pakistanis are fed.

This leads to the question whether India and Pakistan can ever be friends and maintain normal relations. The Pakistani General, a former Director-General at the ISI, rejected the possibility. I urged, “We must not give up hope. After all, zindagi ummid pe kayam hai (life is premised on hope)”. General Pervez Musharraf had in 1999 before his coup, told Rotarians in Karachi that even if Kashmir was resolved, India-Pakistan relations would not become normal.

This is not impossible. First, Pakistan has to give up its quest for parity with India. It has done everything conceivable by hook or by crook, in matching up to India’s superior conventional military strength. It became a strategic ally of China which gifted it a ready-to-test nuclear device, missiles and military hardware to take the relationship to new levels — ‘higher than Karakoram, deeper than oceans, stronger than steel, more precious than eyes and sweeter than honey’. The Chinese are building the new strategic economic corridor between Kashgar and Gwadar, investing $20 billion. This is indeed the defining alliance of the 21st century. At the same time, Islamabad has ceaselessly waged a proxy war to redress the conventional military balance and press India over Kashmir to keep it alive.

Second, for Pakistan to become a normal state, the Army, which calls the strategic shots, has to be under civilian control. Here the Pakistani military says that it is no different from the Indian Army which enjoys a clear veto over Siachen and Kashmir and cites Gen Bikram Singh’s belligerence over LoC as evidence of this. In Islamabad, most political and strategic thinkers are saying there is a change of heart vis-à-vis India. Terrorism and civil strife, not India, are existential threats. Soon India could get Most Favoured Nation status — sabse pasandeeda mulk. Former Pakistani Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani is being blamed for ratcheting up tensions along the LoC last year. He is also being blamed for letting down Gen Musharraf who most Pakistanis feel, will get safe passage. The Army, including the retired community, not standing up for a former President and Army chief is indicative of the loss of its clout in civil-military relations. For a change, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been wise in selecting the low key fellow on Kashmir, General Raheel Sharif as the new Chief Of Army Staff.

One thing is for sure: The days of military coups are over. The Army’s power to influence decisions has diminished considerably. By the same token, the civilian Government’s capacity to govern — deal with security issues — has not improved. The first test of the emerging new power balance will be Pakistan’s policy on Afghanistan. Will Pakistan be content with an inclusive and stable Government (instead of one which also equates ‘friendly’ with ‘strategic depth’) in Kabul? Will it cooperate in reining in the Afghan Taliban and encourage it to join the peace and electoral processes ? Pakistan requires a change of heart with Afghanistan to turn Kabul’s dreams into realities.