When Pakistan’s most important decision-maker embarked on a grand strategic reset, he knew he would not have an easy road ahead – but what has transpired in the last few weeks in Occupied Kashmir indicates just how treacherous and difficult the strategic terrain is for any Pakistani seeking to change the arc of history.
The lazy and ahistoric analysis of Pakistan’s many geopolitical challenges, and one that has enamoured many an observer of the region, both foreign and domestic, is that Pakistan has sought to enjoy influence that is not matched by its actual capacity. Failing to bridge the gap between the two with economic or military might, Pakistan has relied on non-traditional instruments of influence to continue to seek some abstract notion of regional relevance and power that Pakistan supposedly does not deserve. Thus, goes this same lazy analysis, Pakistan sponsored militancy in Kashmir and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The reason this is lazy and ahistoric is because it makes Pakistan the centre of the universe – and renders all other actors, essentially of zero or negligible agency. As much as so many of us may like to believe – Pakistan is in fact, not at all the centre of the universe. Pakistan never controlled the Soviet Union, or the United States. And no man or nation has ever controlled an Afghan. What Pakistan did was open its doors, over four decades, to as many as seven million Afghans who were dislocated by the disruption that the Soviet Union, the nujahideen, the US, the Taliban, and Nato/Isaf have wreaked on Afghanistan. Best of all, whenever the US asked, Pakistan stepped up. For the last two decades it tried to support the Bush, then the Obama and now the Trump administration in their quest to figure out why the US was in Afghanistan and how it could get out.
Pakistan made some questionable judgements all through this, of this there can be no doubt. Backing the Taliban, in pursuit of a stable Afghanistan back in 1994, can be questioned. It certainly seems like a terrible call. But as critics, we should be able to offer alternative histories in which Pakistan could have secured its legitimate national interest on its north-west frontier: peace and stability.
Despite the poor call on the Taliban in the 1990s – or perhaps precisely because of it – Pakistani diplomats, soldiers, spies and journalists knew in October 2001, what American (and Western) diplomats, soldiers, spies and journalists are resisting even today. The very perpetrators of atrocities in Afghanistan that enabled the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s (people like Rashid Dostum, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar), would have to ultimately sit down with each other, and with the Taliban. A grand compact that affords a share of the spoils to a wide enough spectrum of actors in Kabul is the only guarantor of limiting the threat of the global opium and terror trade that seems to thrive in Afghanistan – whether Uncle Sam is looking or not.
The lazy analysis blames all of this on Pakistan. But what has Pakistan (or the US for that matter) gained in these last eighteen years? Clearly, not much. So who did gain from it? The September 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan were a God-send to the Indian strategic community.
After decades of hiding behind the Soviet Union (whilst brutalizing Occupied Kashmir) India used the US mission in Afghanistan as the vehicle through which it would eventually hitch its fortunes to the US. In effect, 9/11 helped India transition from its aimless flailing about of the late 1990s, to a respected client state for the grand US strategic ambitions in the Indian Ocean and Asian continent at large. In the US mission in Afghanistan, Auntie India found its candlelight moment with Uncle Sam – the ideal strategic juxtaposition: “Look! The Pakistanis do to us in Kashmir, what they do to you in Kandahar”.
Just like in Afghanistan, Pakistan has made some questionable judgments on the Eastern front too. Take the trajectory of JKLF leader Yasin Malik. Malik eschewed militancy a quarter century ago. Through most of this period, Pakistan chose to back the anti-Yasin Maliks of Kashmir. This predilection for Kashmiriat draped in extreme religious narratives enabled and fuelled India’s strategic juxtaposition (the 26/11 Mumbai attacks sealed the deal).
By 2008, the very groups that had given the Indians nightmares in the Valley in the mid-1990s had become a noose around Pakistan’s neck. UNSC Resolution 1267, which is the chokehold being applied to Pakistan at every FATF meeting over the last two years, is a direct correlate of the questionable judgments made by Pakistan over the last several decades. All these years that Yasin Malik has been detained, and tortured by the Indian occupiers of Kashmir, he has exposed Mother India as only a moral leader can. But in doing so, Malik has exposed Pakistan’s own short sightedness and lack of imagination too.
Part of the thinking behind General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s attempt to fashion a grand strategic reset has been a growing clarity among Pakistani strategists of the unsustainability of the status quo. With a little help from China (and friendly Middle-Eastern countries), this clarity has been building gradually.
Pakistan has been stuck between the vice of a dysfunctional and warring Afghanistan, and a Kashmir in which suffering has not abated, for a full four decades now. Neither the meddling of the 1990s, nor the concessions of the 2000s, nor the middling efforts to achieve breakthroughs throughout have worked. Meanwhile, the overall economic imbalance in South Asia has grown to staggering levels, with mere ministries within the Indian Union now capable of outspending the entire Islamic Republic of Pakistan – a republic that needs an IMF bailout at the beginning of every new government, going back to the post-Kargil coup of 1999.
The collapse of trust between the military and former PM Nawaz Sharif (without litigating blame for it) may have delayed the process, but efforts for a grand strategic reset have been in motion since before the 2018 elections. The required civil-military partnership for such a reset was delivered through the 2018 election itself. Two additional ingredients were crucial. The first was a modicum of fairness in how the US speaks of, and to, Pakistan. This was delivered last month during the visibly different Pak-US atmospherics in which the Trump-Khan meeting took place. The second was a degree of integrity and reciprocity from New Delhi.
From the dramatic cooling off of the Line of Control in the run up to last year’s election, to the delay in hanging convicted terrorist Kulbushan Jadhav, to the speed with which the Kartarpur Corridor has taken shape, to the restraint demonstrated after India’s Balakot attack, to the return of Wing Commander Abhinandan – there has been a sustained purpose to Pakistan’s behaviour. Its most obvious intent seems to have been the establishment of mutual trust.
Sadly, India’s bloodthirsty media and its wag-the-dog Hindutva politics uses moments like Pulwama as TRP bonanzas, at the altar of which, anything can be sacrificed – including Indian lives. Yet the Indian discourse ignores the array of sustained evidence that reflects the intended grand strategic Pakistani reset.
Backchannel engagements with India were supposed to have covered this risk. At a time when Pakistan was enabling a dignified and clean transition of the US mission in Afghanistan, India may have been expected to help cool down the Line of Control and dial down any rhetoric that would cause fissures between the countries to grow.
What has India done instead? The opposite. It has sprayed gasoline all across the Kashmir Valley, and is now playing with a lighter, threatening to set fire to the entire region. In essence, it is explicitly signalling its continued insistence on pure and unadulterated hegemony.
Pakistan is not Bangladesh – no matter how conciliatory and full of restraint General Bajwa, Prime Minister Khan and the rest of the country’s leaders may be. If India tries to settle the Kashmir issue through further bloodletting of innocent Kashmiris, and through constitutional hide-and-seek, a grand strategic reset will become extremely difficult. India’s great double cross of a peaceful and conciliatory Pakistan will be tragic. But it may also be India’s ultimate prize in all this anyway. Perhaps Indian strategists believe that perpetual conflict is the only way India can sustain its occupation of Kashmir. Shame on them.
The writer is an analyst and commentator.
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