Pakistan sees a powerful and strong India to its east whom the Army will continue to view as an existential threat, a volatile Afghanistan and a complex Iran to the west, dominating China to its north
by Maj Gen Jagatbir Singh (Retd)
“A nation at peace and a region in harmony are thus essential prerequisites for attainment of national security in the true spirit. No national leaders of today can ignore these factors. I also firmly believe that no single nation in isolation, can perceive and further its quest for security, as every single issue and security dilemma faced by today’s world is intimately linked with global and regional dynamics.” A statement of fact which is what General Qamar Bajwa stated recently at the Islamabad Security Dialogue. The fault lines in fractured Pakistan are evident and widening and Pakistan has been indulging in a proxy war with its neighbours ,while at the same time the region is also a triad of three nuclear nations , hence neither is the ‘ nation at peace’ nor the’ region in harmony’.
He then hinted that Pakistan had been following a wrong path when he said that one of the pillars of their geo- economic vision for the future was “non-interference of any kind in the internal affairs of our neighbouring and regional countries”.
“Stable Indo-Pak relation is a key to unlock the untapped potential of South and Central Asia … This potential however, has forever remained hostage to disputes and issues between two nuclear neighbours. Kashmir dispute is obviously at the heart of this problem. It is important to understand that without the resolution of Kashmir dispute through peaceful means, process of sub-continental rapprochement will always remain susceptible to derailment due to politically motivated bellicosity. However, we feel that it is time to bury the past and move forward. But for resumption of peace process or meaningful dialogue, our neighbour will have to create conducive environment.”
As the Army remains firmly in control of the Pakistan’s security and foreign policy, the policies being articulated by General Bajwa need to be deliberated as they signal a shift in their thinking. What are the factors that have led to this statement which follows close on the heels of the ceasefire on the Line of Control? What should India do to respond? Or is the extension of an olive branch is merely a tactical move to buy time and get over its present crisis situation?
It is well known that Pakistan’s economy has suffered during the pandemic, they have a rising debt burden, been unable to return USD 1 bn to the UAE, and are therefore requesting the deposit to be converted into a loan, and it has a spiralling defence expenditure. It has no money to pay for new defence acquisitions from countries other than China and Turkey, further the US has recently blocked the sale of engines of the ATAK -12 helicopters Pakistan was buying from Turkey. China has given a loan of $ 5bn to purchase warships and submarines. CPEC loans plus interest will be $90bn and Pakistan is now caught in a Chinese debt trap. Gwadar which is a natural deep sea water project has hardly any merchant ships coming there. The project is being used to harbour PLA Navy submarines and ships, so there is minimal income.
Imports including food items are touching $ 45bn, whereas exports from Pakistan are only $22bn which is crippling its foreign exchange reserves which at $13bn is its highest in three years. The population is growing, resulting in lack of jobs for the youth. Pakistan is also a water scarce country as water availability per person is less than 1000 cu meters per person and steadily declining due climate change and lack of investments in water storage capacity.
Bangladesh on the other hand has a GDP of $318bn versus Pakistan of $284bn and its forex reserves are $45bn. Pakistan and Bangladesh are both Islamic countries with one rapidly growing with a vibrant democracy with its government’s focusing on its people and economic development while the other is rapidly declining. The fact that Bangladesh’s development indicators are better than Pakistan’s; is no small feat, given that pre-1971 East Pakistan trailed West Pakistan across the board.
The Pakistan Army is deployed in Baluchistan, FATA, and tribal areas. The Baluchistan Liberation Army is attacking Pakistani Army and Chinese contractors with impunity. The global perception of Pakistan as a country as the epicentre of global terrorism that supports jihadis/Islamist radical groups remains, and this hampers efforts to obtain economic assistance for growth of the economy. They have been on the UN FATF grey list for three years now, and that has deep economic ramifications. While Pakistan has not been placed on the FATF blacklist, there is sufficient evidence to keep it on the grey list. As the institution that in effect has dictated Pakistan’s foreign and domestic politics, the Army feels there is too much pressure on the country and that there is a need to alleviate that pressure.
The situation in Afghanistan is messy to say the least. The Taliban is not meeting its commitments to renounce terrorism and stop violent attacks. This can result in either a delay in the withdrawal of US troops or a pull out of the accord; which may lead to a renewed civil war which will be detrimental to the stability of the region.
Pakistan is aware of the conventional power differential between the two countries. It has an army which has never won a conventional conflict. Therefore Pakistan has focused on strategic nuclear weapons, which it cannot use and non-state actors at the other end of the spectrum, which have harmed its image in the eyes of the world and failed to achieve their goals either in Kashmir or Afghanistan. Furthermore, the monsters they created are now haunting them.
Kashmir is witnessing relative peace, the best environment in many decades which resulted in the successful conduct of the District Development Elections in end 2020. The population has reaped the benefits in spite of the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. The Indian Army has also retaliated to the Cease Fire Violations by effective and immediate punishment further Balakot demonstrated that India was willing to scale up the escalatory ladder. Pakistan is clearly overstretched not only along its Eastern Flank with India, but also in the West along its borders with Afghanistan and Iran. In addition to the internal security duties battling various insurgencies and terrorist organisations, they are also responsible for protecting Chinese interests and assets along the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
India on the other hand even though faced with an extended front of both Pakistan and China and resultant defence expenditures is a study in contrast. Its leadership, economy and military are strong and responsible. During the pandemic it has shouldered its responsibilities and stood up to the twin challenges of the health and economic devastation of the pandemic and the aggression on its Northern borders. It has provided vaccines to a number of countries and has shown its resolve while standing up to the Chinese aggression and expansionism by the professionalism of its forces and synergy between political, diplomatic and military pillars.
The first public indication of the changed stance was General Bajwa’s address to the graduates at the PAF on 02 February, where he stated “We stand firmly committed to the idea of mutual respect and peaceful co-existence. It is time to extend the hand of peace in all directions. Pakistan and India must also resolve the longstanding issue of Jammu and Kashmir in a dignified and peaceful manner”.
To expect no mention of Kashmir in a peace bid by Pakistan would be unrealistic but it seems it is serious after a long time. Kashmir remains the main obsession of its leaders; and therefore its people, and remains one issue on which most Pakistanis agree. However, Indian policies do not have to be dictated by Pakistani domestic compulsions. Our interests must guide our responses.
Admiral Arun Prakash had recently stated” we need to be pragmatic that neither conquest nor re-conquest of territory is possible in the 21st Century”. The majority of those on the other side have never been part of India as those born after independence are Pakistani by birth. Territory apart, what do you do with the millions of people on the other side. The experiences of conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria have clearly revealed that integration of the population post conflict is an extremely challenging task. We need to look at peace, stability and long term economic development, which is our priority.
Pakistan sees a powerful and strong India to its east whom the Army will continue to view as an existential threat, a volatile Afghanistan and a complex Iran to the west, dominating China to its north. US is no longer seen as an ally and conversely it’s cooperating with India and the embrace is getting tighter in the Quad. The choice seems binary either make peace or continue fighting India and become a military protectorate and economic colony of China.
Pakistan is in a tight spot and is therefore changing track to pursue peace with India which it needs. Dialogues and negotiations falter when either of the participants is too rigid or unwilling. India needs to move carefully, but move it must. Peaceful and friendly co-existence is a realistic end state. Parliament resolutions notwithstanding. When agreements are made, maps change, it has happened recently with Bangladesh with positive outcomes. We can distrust Pakistan and ensure we are not taken for a ride, but engage we must. It’s better to be in dialogue with adversaries, once certain conditions are met.
One of the first conditions of course would remain a stated policy that terror and talks cannot go together. Pakistan needs to stop cross border terrorism. The activities of the deep state, the ISI need to be curtailed and the veil of plausible deniability be lifted by it both in India and Afghanistan. Rhetoric by Pakistan needs to be translated to action on ground. There will be a series of steps that will need to be initiated prior to taking the steps forward and this would be the exchange of High Commissioners. However, his remarks cleverly threw the responsibility into the Indian court to create a conducive atmosphere whereas they need to eliminate cross border terrorism as a prelude to peace.
There needs to be a frame work that has to be worked out to take this process forward and discuss the core issues at the heart of the problem. There is no doubt that fundamental differences hardened over time exist and difficult decisions need to be taken but first we need to establish some degree of trust with each other.
While Pakistan will endeavour to maximize advantages and optimise their gains, India needs to be balanced. Peace in the neighbourhood is very important for development, prosperity and poverty alleviation. However, we must guard our national interests while we move forward while creating that peace. Talking even with adversary can have dividends. Rigidity will get neither side anywhere rationality needs to prevail. We have to give it a try after taking due precautions remembering our lessons from the Shimla Agreement and Lahore and Agra Summits. For anybody to forecast the future fraught with uncertainty is difficult. It’s a question of how both can steer the course, relative peace is better than No War No Peace for both nations.