In an uncharacteristic overture on April 14 this year, Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa laid the offer of peace talks with India.
“It is our sincere belief that the route to peaceful resolution of Pak-India disputes – including the core issue of Kashmir – runs through comprehensive and meaningful dialogue,” he said while addressing the passing out parade ceremony of Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) cadets in Kakul.
The general’s speech came as a bit of a surprise for political observers in Islamabad. Given the fact that it was full-fledged policy statement meant to offer peace talks to archrival India, it should have come from a civil government. But very few people were aware that General Bajwa was to embark on a visit to Moscow within two weeks. Even fewer knew that Pakistan was in talks with the Russian Federation for the purchase of state-of-the-art battle tanks, T-90, along with other modern Russian weapons.
General Bajwa’s predecessor had signed an agreement with the Russian Federation in October 2015 which allowed arms trade between the two countries and cooperation in weapon development. During his visit to Moscow, General Bajwa held talks with his Russian counterparts over political issues related to the purchase of Russian military hardware. Pakistan was facing problems in convincing the Russian military-industrial complex for the sale of military hardware, especially in the face on intense Indian lobbying in the power corridors of Moscow against Pakistan.
General Bajwa’s speech in Abbottabad was meant to convey to his Russian interlocutors – before he embarked on a visit to Moscow – that Pakistan was ready to reduce political and military tensions with India and would still be needing military hardware to deal with the difficult task of stabilising its western border in the face of religious extremism and militancy. It is no secret that Pakistani diplomats who regularly interact with Russian government officials were facing entreaties about normalising relations with India before relations between Pakistan and Russia could further improve.
General Bajwa’s speech, though, was not an example of a simple one-way message. It contained all the elements of Pakistani diplomatic jargon aimed at convincing the world and the domestic audience that the Pakistani state believes in peace, “while at the same time it remained adamantly committed to its claimed status of equality with India”. He talked about a peace dialogue “with sovereign equality, dignity and honour”, adding Kashmir as a pre-condition for a comprehensive dialogue process.
The chief’s statement on India did not come out of the blue. It was preceded by a large flurry of activity by senior army officials aimed at publicly projecting that the Pakistani army was not opposed to the idea of peace with India. Regular ceasefire violations along the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir followed a proposal from the military’s General Headquarters that Pakistani and Indian director generals of military operations should meet face to face in an effort to reduce tensions. Similarly, a senior army official posted in Balochistan, where India’s Research and Analysis Wing is accused of fomenting trouble, offered India to join the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor along with other regional countries.
When the tussle between the military and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif started gathering heat after the Supreme Court’s verdict against the latter in July 2017, one of the perceived reasons for the army’s top brass chasing the prime minister out of power was Sharif’s excessive inclination to normalise ties with India. In the words of a senior security analyst, General Bajwa’s statement on India was primarily aimed at clearing this perception. “This is a policy statement meant to clarify the army’s position that we have nothing against this policy option," says Brigadier (retd) Shaukar Qadir.
However, the perception that the army was opposed to talks with India was not without basis. During its last two years, Sharif’s relations with the army were on a continuous downward spiral. This was mainly because of two developments. First was the publication of a story in daily Dawn reporting on the Sharif brothers’ reprimand of military men. Nawaz was seen as trying to please his foreign friends both in New Delhi and Washington, and this was a constant source of friction between him and the military. The military later directly accused the government of trying to defame state institutions. Second was the visit of Indian steel magnate, Sajjan Jindal, to Pakistan. The families of Jindal and Sharif met each other at the hill resort of Murree. The army’s annoyance at this meeting was soon made known within the power corridors and in the media.
Nawaz Sharif has been advocating better relations between the two countries since 1993 and has talked about initiating trade on numerous occasions. The impression of the army scuttling peace efforts with India was reinforced during the political agitation against the Sharif government led by Imran Khan in August 2014. The agitation coincided with heightened tensions along the LoC, forcing Sharif to assume an aggressive posture against India.
In the past 10 years, some fluctuations in the army’s attitude towards India seem to be personality driven. But on closer inspection, military analysts say, the variation is because of the changing situation on our western border. During the time of General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the army told the government, led by Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), that talks with India were a necessity in order to avoid a major conflict on our border. “General Kayani was telling the PPP leadership that keep talking with India as the army does not want a major conflict … but don’t get too close with India," a senior Foreign Office official who is now retired once told me.
This was in complete contrast with the army’s policy during the tenure of General Raheel Sharif. The situation on the LoC remained tense and political analysts say the army employed its manipulative tools to keep Nawaz Sharif away from the idea of normalising ties with India. The two Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf-led agitations were also seen under that light.
So why did General Bajwa give a full-fledged policy statement expressing the army’s willingness to normalise relations with India? If Pakistan’s domestic political situation is any indication, the army chief is the most prominent centre of power and the army the only institution standing to present a policy statement to the world.
In policy debates within the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, the pro-military faction of the party is reportedly trying to convince Nawaz Sharif to not present the idea of normalised relations with India as a policy option. But Nawaz Sharif is said to have rejected the idea. The army’s recent effort of thawing ties with India – reinforced by Inter-Services Public Relations chief’s media talk on June 4 – could be an exercise to neutralise Nawaz Sharif’s election campaign.
The writer is a senior journalist writing on politics, security and foreign policy.