Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Imran Khan in New Delhi in 2015
The dramatic falling out between Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Bajwa was marked by an odd role reversal. Often enough, as was the case when Nawaz Sharif was prime minister, differences have arisen over the political wing pursuing engagement with India and being no-balled by the GHQ in Rawalpindi. But the current strife in Pakistan saw Bajwa speak of dialogue with India while Khan played the Islamist card, echoing anti-US religious radicals in accusing Washington of toppling his government.
This is not the only contradiction to befuddle Pakistan watchers. Bitter rivals Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League (N), or PML-N, not only joined forces to oust Khan in Parliament, PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto accepted a proposal to install Shehbaz Sharif as prime minister. The two major parties have had moments of cooperation as when they had allied against the military dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf, but Bhutto supporting Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother for prime minister sets a new mark. It also raises several questions, including whether the pact has the discreet blessings of the army, the real establishment in Pakistan.
The chain of perplexing events does not stop at this. If the parliamentary ‘coup’ against Khan did not follow script in the National Assembly, with Deputy Speaker Qasim Suri tossing out the no-confidence motion on specious grounds that such a vote would be tantamount to treason in the light of allegations of a foreign conspiracy, neither did the prime minister’s bid to force an election and encash sympathy over his abrupt ouster by projecting himself as a true nationalist wedded to Islamic ideals, who fell foul of the powerful US by refusing to tow the line on Ukraine, with the Supreme Court stepping into the frame. In fact, the court on Thursday expectedly asked Khan to face a no-confidence vote, foiling his bid to force polls immediately. It remains to be seen if the alternate PPP-PML(N) government does assume office or whether there is a fresh constitutional challenge. In any event, stability is not the word that comes to mind in relation to Pakistan.
The Supreme Court’s ruling is awaited and it is to be seen if it will order the National Assembly to take up the no-confidence vote or see merit in President Arif Alvi speedily accepting Khan’s recommendation for a fresh election. The unconstitutionality of Suri’s decision and the lightening speed with which Alvi agreed to Khan’s bidding raise the possibility of a judicial intervention. But as with everything in Pakistan, the jury is still out whether the drama in the Assembly suited the military and the alacrity Alvi displayed is evidence of this. On the other hand, as with major decisions of the court, such as the treason trial of Musharraf, the influence of the army will be suspected whatever the ruling is, even though it has denied any role in the events.
India is watching the churn in Pakistan with interest but has no intention of commenting on the happenings or statements by the principal protagonists, including Bajwa who spoke in favour of talks with India to resolve outstanding issues like Jammu and Kashmir just a day before the scheduled vote in the National Assembly. Striking a conciliatory note, Bajwa spoke of the need to keep the flames of conflict “away from the region” even as the army formally distanced itself from the political slugfest which has drawn the US into the arena, with Khan waving a letter outlining objections to Pakistan’s alleged support to Russia on Ukraine. Khan even praised India for an “independent” foreign policy, if only to buttress his own claim to have stood up to America, a track he has been following for a while having demonstratively ruled out hosting US military bases in Pakistan in an interview in June last year.
Any experienced Pakistan observer would know that decisions on military cooperation with the US lie in the hands of the army, with the civilian government having no say in the matter. But for some time now, Khan’s remarks have indicated the turn in his politics. The view from New Delhi is that the statements and accusations being aired in Pakistan are its internal matter and do not warrant any reaction from India. Bajwa’s remarks about talks with India too are seen in the context of his seeking to assure the US that the ‘deep state’ remains sensitive to American interests and will not allow Khan or anyone to rock the boat. The general’s decision to openly oppose Khan on Ukraine by criticising Russian actions indicates that he feels the prime minister has crossed the line and wishes to signal to the US that the Pakistan army remains an ally that will not forget past associations. “The Pakistan army may well be aware of the limits of the benefits of Islamabad’s ‘all-weather’ partnership with China and not want a further souring of ties with the US. It might be a public signalling of this view,” says Amitabh Mathur, a former career intelligence officer familiar with Pakistan-Afghanistan issues.
Even as it plans a ‘hands-off’ approach, the developments are not unwelcome for India given that just a little over seven months ago, the fall of Kabul to the Taliban was heralded as a major success for Pakistan and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the intelligence wing of the army that ran operations in Afghanistan. The exit of the US and the seamless takeover of Afghanistan by its ally was a plan Pakistan had been working on almost since the expulsion of the previous Taliban regime following 9/11. Experienced Pakistan hands point out that the Taliban’s victory has not been the sort of unalloyed success it was expected to be even as it undoubtedly gave Pakistan access to a territory it feels provides “strategic depth” against India. The fall of the Ashraf Ghani government allowed Pakistan to counter India’s influence in Afghanistan built through billions of dollars of development aid. But on the other hand, no country has formally recognised the Taliban as Afghanistan’s government and even Pakistan drags its feet, saying that it would await a “regional consensus” on the matter. This is worse than the last time the extremist group was in charge of Afghanistan, when Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had extended recognition. Seeking to cut its losses in Afghanistan, the Biden administration virtually abandoned Afghanistan to the Taliban. This has had serious implications for countries like India as Afghanistan became, for all purposes, an Islamic emirate and a beacon to Muslim radical groups, the long-term effects of which remain a cause of worry. However, this also meant a rather striking diminution of Pakistan’s importance to a Washington already sore over a belated realisation about the country’s deceitful role in the War on Terror in Afghanistan. The disenchantment was so stark that Joe Biden failed to place a customary but much awaited call to Khan after becoming president and made it amply clear that it was not a priority. And, despite differences with India over the war in Ukraine, the US is committed to the Quad and the 2-plus-2 talks scheduled later this month show the vitality and convergence in India-US ties. The Ukraine crisis has seen a steady flow of foreign dignitaries visiting India looking to explore the common ground and further bilateral objectives while Pakistan remains in the shadows. Even in Afghanistan, the Taliban are likely to maintain an independent view of their interests though they require Pakistan as an ideological ally and a supply route. If all this was not discouraging enough from Pakistan’s viewpoint, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has further distracted global attention, tossing the ball far away from South Asia.
The US exit from Afghanistan also meant a striking diminution of Pakistan’s importance to a Washington already sore about its deceitful role in the war on terror
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Some commentators like former diplomat Dilip Sinha, whose postings included a stint in Pakistan and on the Pakistan-Afghanistan desk, feel that not only should India keep an arm’s length but that there is not much scope for bilateral engagement without concrete evidence of a change in Islamabad’s approach. “India has been consistent that Pakistan must address terrorism but it denies any role in any such activity. In such a scenario, there is little prospect of progress in any other area like trade either,” says Sinha. He points out that the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has placed Pakistan nearly permanently under the scanner for terror funding and this is no longer India’s case alone. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has paid scant attention to the Pakistani leader’s claim, made during an initial conversation, that he would be a reliable negotiator as a “Pathan’s word” is not lightly given. Meanwhile, the Modi government nullified the application of Article 370 to Jammu and Kashmir through a vote in Parliament in August 2019. It is now for Pakistan to accept that there is no legal ambiguity about Jammu and Kashmir being an inalienable part of India. The US exit from Afghanistan has reduced the efficacy of a lever Pakistan used in the past: scripting terrorist attacks in India that would draw global, and more particularly American, attention to the India-Pakistan relationship. A predictable pattern followed every significant terror strike. India would ‘break off’ any ongoing engagement (stuttering as it was in most cases), and after some initial sympathetic noises, the US and other Western nations would begin pressuring India to resume dialogue. This was a measure of Pakistan’s clout with the US given its utility as a critical bridge and a staging ground for operations in Afghanistan. “The US need or dependence on Pakistan has declined, it has no incentive to balance ties with India,” Sinha says.
There is another aspect to the altered equations and this lies in India forging a more robust and direct response to terror attacks. The surgical strikes on terror launch pads in Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir (PoK) in September 2016 and the aerial attack on the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) training camp at Balakot in February 2019 have increased the risks for Pakistan. Suddenly, staging terror attacks in India is not a low-cost, low-risk option as was the case earlier, with India making it evident that it will not hesitate to use military options.
Pakistan watchers feel the situation will be far from clear even after the Supreme Court verdict. The determination with which Khan had taken on Bajwa is intriguing commentators as the trigger for their estrangement is not clear, even though tensions came to a head when the prime minister took his time in approving the army chief’s choice of Lt General Nadeem Anjum as ISI’s director general. There is a view that, as compared to some of his predecessors, Bajwa is on less secure ground, with his own extension as army chief facing unexpectedly tough scrutiny from the Supreme Court. The episode and Bajwa’s dependence on the government to argue his case might well have undercut some of the clout that a chief of army staff enjoys even as there are murmurs of differences with core commanders. Khan himself, however, seems to have embarked on a perilous course as support within his own Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party is dwindling, not the least due to his abrasive ways and the strong-arm tactics of his ally and Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad, who is seen as an ‘enforcer’ of sorts. Other high-profile cabinet members like Information Minister Fawad Chaudhary and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi have a reputation for speaking out of turn and lack subtlety in dealing with complex political issues. Qureshi in particular is seen as a blunt instrument who often indulges in bluster which is no answer to Pakistan’s declining diplomatic heft. In such a situation, elections may seem the best of a pick of bad options for Khan.
The newly allied PPP and PML-N are also looking at forming a government as an interim measure before elections, possibly giving them time to consolidate and carry out important postings. Whether the alliance will prove durable enough to carry on into a national election remains to be seen. A shared desire to prise Khan from office apart, the two parties would not underestimate the populist Islamist line he has adopted even though discontent over inflation and price rise runs high.
The developments offer a breather for India which looked out of the picture after the Taliban assumed power in Afghanistan. The Taliban itself has a view of its manifest superiority with Pashtuns having controlled swathes of territories stretching down to Punjab and beyond until they were finally expelled from Lahore as well as the Kashmir Valley by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Pakistan’s inward turn at a time when new sources of global ferment have emerged is likely to keep it preoccupied for some time to come.