In conversation with the French scholar on bilateral ties with Pakistan and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor.
Civil-military relations in Pakistan have reached some stability in favour of the army, which may get shaken in the run-up to the next parliamentary election when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif tries to bring his Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML(N)) to power again, says Christophe Jaffrelot, a professor at King’s College London. Jaffrelot was in Delhi recently for the release of his new book, Pakistan at the Crossroads: Domestic Dynamics and External Pressures, when The Wire caught up with him.
Jaffrelot considers the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as a factor of stability for Pakistan, with neither the army nor the government ready to spark off any open confrontation that could rock the implementation of the mega investment project. This also means that there may not be any meaningful progress on the India-Pakistan talks front, with the army continuing to lead the foreign policy channel and the Sharif government not willing to risk a power struggle, asserts Jaffrelot.
He believes that despite all the possibility of talks with Pakistan being a non-starter, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the initiative under external pressure, including from business lobbies, and the need to assuage concerns after India expanded military ties with Afghanistan.
Where does the Panama Papers leak and subsequent political developments fit into the history of civil-military relations in Pakistan?
Any ammunition that will weaken the PML(N) will be helpful to the army. In fact, the army is trying to weaken Sharif since 2013 when he was elected.
Sharif started with many ambitions in 2013. He wanted to promote some rapprochement to India, as evident from the fact that he came to the swearing ceremony of Modi. He wanted to talk to the Pakistani Taliban. He wanted to have Musharraf facing the judges. The army was against these three options and Nawaz Sharif could not fulfil any of these objectives. Why? Because the army doesn’t want him to rule, they want him to only govern.
Nawaz Sharif was still trying to speak to the Taliban when the North Waziristan operation was initiated and there was no point of talking to the Taliban anymore. Instead of having Musharraf facing his judges, he has been obliged to let him go. And thirdly, while he still wants to speak to India, anytime he does, there is a kind of sabotage operation that takes place. Now it is very difficult for India to initiate new talks, because the risk of any form of retaliation is too high.
The military in Pakistan want a weak prime minister – they don’t want him to seize power and to govern. One, the army does not want to micro-manage the economy that is not in a good shape. Second, if there was no façade of democracy – and even more clearly if there was a coup -Pakistan would have to face sanctions and neither the US nor the IMF could give money to Islamabad.
In fact, today, the military have the best of two worlds. They are in charge of key domains – of course the nuclear programme, but also the foreign policy at large – and they don’t have to take the risk of micro-managing the country. In the past, when they had tried to assert themselves in such a way, the civilians had resisted and these tensions had resulted in some instability. In the late 1990s, for instance, the tussle between Nawaz Sharif and Parvez Musharraf had led to the 1999 coup. Today, Nawaz Sharif has been weakened again and and he’s not in a position to resist – he may not even try. In some way, Pakistan has reached a new form of equilibrium and stability. And that will probably last till the next election. But the next election will be a challenging moment because to win again, Sharif will have to assert himself. Voters will not support a weak politician. He’ll have to show some muscle and claim that he is the boss which may generate some instability again.
But does the Pakistani electorate really care if a prime minister demonstrates his strength by taking on the army?
The army is very popular today, but at the same time citizens will not vote for a weak candidate – who will be facing competitors like Imran Khan. Even within the PML(N), Nawaz Sharif will have to show that he is fully in-charge. The existing equilibrium may be undermined in the context of the election campaign and its aftermath. Especially, if Nawaz Sharif wins with a large mandate, then he may try to assert himself again.
So, the Pakistan army is conducting operations in south Punjab with an eye towards the next parliamentary elections?
You can certainly say that the Lahore blast gave them an opportunity to enter the domain of the Sharifs, Shahbaz and Nawaz – to undermine their influence over Punjab politics.
Do you think that the army can do that?
To some extent. The army has already started to fight some Sunni militant groups which have helped the PML(N) at the time of elections in the past.
You mean that those useful electoral alliances with sectarian groups will not be available to the PML(N) during the next parliamentary elections, as the army is selectively targeting them in Punjab?
It is too early to say. For the moment, the Punjab operation is not after anybody but criminals and not so much after the sectarian groups. But the army have targeted some leaders of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi who had in the past worked with the PML(N).
What will be most interesting to see is if the Punjab operation can give the rangers a real say in the state politics. The Punjab government is resisting this move and if the rangers are not given the upper hand and the Punjab police remains in charge, then this operation will not make a significant impact on Punjab politics, in contrast to what we see in Sindh. In Sindh, the corps commander has become a major alternative power centre to the chief minister – if not the power centre.
If the Punjab government continues to be less amenable to Pakistan army’s presence, how will this tussle play out?
It is very difficult to think of an open confrontation. It is in the interest of the army to corner the civilians only up to a point. A crisis would not be in the interest of army. Not only do they want stability because of the foreign funds they need, but also due to the Chinese who seem to be prepared to invest a lot in Pakistan – and who want stability too. The CPEC is a big thing in Pakistan. Everybody almost wants it to materialise. For that, Pakistan needs a good modus vivendi. What is not easy is to share the spoils of the CPEC, as the military and the civilians want to have their fingers in that pie.
The Pakistan army did suggest a more direct role in implementing the CPEC, which has so far not been accepted.
It seems that the Pakistan Army want the apex committee system that is functioning in each province and at the Centre be also applied for securing and governing the CPEC project. The military have already gained a lot – their enterprises have got many contracts. As you know, the Pakistan Army is in business. So, they have already benefitted a lot from the CPEC. The Chinese may want the military to be even more in charge as they may rely more on the army for security reasons. But, the government of Pakistan will resist this, so there will be tensions. But again from tensions to open crisis, there is a long way – especially when so much is at stake.
So the CPEC is a stabilising factor in Pakistan?
In a way. This is one of the themes of the book I have just edited: external pressures are so strong in Pakistan that they contribute to keep the country together and force domestic players to join hands to some extent. It has been true of the American dollars in the past. It is to some extent true of the Chinese projects today. And it was and still is somewhat true of the Saudis support.
Does that mean that there will be no more dharnas that threaten to topple the government – that may have had the army backing it?
If there is a dharna, it will be because the army wants to undermine the prime minister as in the ‘2014 Azaadi march’ that Imran Khan had “initiated”. Not necessarily because they want to remove him.
It seems that the Pakistani army has checkmated Sharif for now – will he just cruise along like this till the next elections?
This is the story of Pakistani politics for the last three years.
There had been a glimmer of hope that Sharif was returning to being ‘prime ministerial’ with good news on the economy and energy fronts.
Yes, and that’s also why he has a fair chance to be re-elected. The situation is not so great. There are still many problems – fiscal deficit, energy issues… But, he will be in a position to say the situation is better compared to five years ago.
Also the security scenario has improved a bit, apparently.
And that is attributed by society to the army. The rangers have some records to show as they have made Karachi more secure, for instance. The Lahore blast was a big blow, but by and large, the situation is much safer today than two years ago.
If the CPEC is the main factor for stability in Pakistan, then effectively China should be thanked for being Islamabad’s best friend.
It is too early to say, but that may well be the case. And you may even thank China for its role in Afghanistan one day… At least they are around the table when talks take place. The Chinese were not that interested in peace negotiations just two years ago, but now they are prepared to play a role and commit themselves.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s April 25 speech seems to have ended his policy of the past two years of reaching out to the Taliban for talks.
There’ll be ups and downs but the government of Kabul will probably have to negotiate with the Taliban – partly because of external pressures (including those coming from Pakistan and China). And Ashraf Ghani is not governing Afghanistan alone anyway. Interestingly, he was not the one who was supposed to come for the quadrilateral meeting of May 3 in Pakistan (that has been cancelled after the Kabul blast). Abdullah Abdullah was the one.
Was Ghani’s speech a kind of reflection of the domestic power struggle in the National Unity Government (NUG)?
It was probably part of it. Indeed, one of the problems of Afghanistan today is that power does not only – and may be not primarily – lay in the hands of Ashraf Ghani. Not only has he to share power with Abdullah Abdullah but Karzai has also remained very influential.
To nitpick here, Ghani is in charge of Afghanistan’s most visible projection of state power, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).
Except that the army is mostly Tajik and that may help Abdullah Abdullah to have a better equation with army people…
How effective has the Afghan army been in conducting anti-Taliban operations?
They don’t show any tremendous effectiveness! That is why American officers who are not supposed to be in combat role anymore, are again taking part in military operations. They did it in Kunduz, because the Afghan Army was not effective enough
Returning to Pakistan, if there is no change in Nawaz Sharif’s situation till the parliamentary elections, should the Indian government continue to talk to the Pakistan government, since it will not yield any visible progress?
I am not very optimistic on that front (India-Pakistan talks). The Pakistani army will probably always be suspicious of Nawaz Sharif when he talks to his Indian counterpart. At the same time, the Prime Minister of India cannot speak to anybody else but his opposite number. And if India takes the risk of a new attack that would be designed to undermine any peace process, this (Modi) government will be accountable, especially after Gurdaspur and Pathankot.
Why do you think Indian government reignited the peace process with the Paris chat between the two prime ministers and then the meeting of NSAs in Bangkok?
It is a real question. My hypothesis is three fold. The rest of the world expects India and Pakistan to talk to each other and it is therefore, in principle, important to show some goodwill, to show that India tries to engage with Pakistan.
Second, sections of the corporate sector in India are watching Pakistan where demand for energy, for instance, is huge.
And thirdly, we must not forget that the Lahore visit took place after the Kabul visit. And in Kabul, India handed over helicopters to Afghanistan. So, it made some sense for the prime minister of India on his way back to reassure his opposite member, to tell him that it is not because India is providing Afghanistan with helicopters that it wants to play a military role in Afghanistan. But these are only speculations.
So, you think it is plausible that Pathankot was a reaction to the hand-over of helicopters?
It could have been a factor.
Realistically, can India do anything at all to assuage the concerns of the Pakistan government, so that the talks are a bit more substantial?
(smiling) Not for the moment, I’m afraid. But this is not a reason for not talking and keeping channels of communication open.
If the 2018 election is pivotal for domestic power dynamics in Pakistan, can any forward movement be expected in India-Pakistan talks after the polls?
Well, not much if the upper hand remains on the Pakistani Army’s side. Paradoxically, India and Pakistan were never so close to a certain normalisation when there was a military ruler in Pakistan and a BJP prime minister. Parvez Musharraf and Atal Bihari Vajpayee were probably closer to any deal than any of their predecessors. Musharraf could engage India in a manner no prime minister of Pakistan could afford because when a Pakistani prime minster talks to India, he is immediately suspected of selling the country to India by the army. Similarly, a non-BJP prime minister will be accused by the Hindu nationalists to make too many concessions to Islamabad.
Probably, now the only way that an Indian PM can meet a Pakistani army chief is a courtesy call-on by the latter during an official visit to Islamabad.
Yes, but whether that can result in real deals remains to be seen.
So the only way to influence or push forward the India-Pakistan peace process lies with external factors?
It is another part of the solution, especially because of the role China may be playing in the region. One of the new questions to answer is how far is China interested in peace in south Asia.
And what did China’s technical hold on the listing of Jaish-e-Mohammed supremo Masood Azhar in UNSC committee demonstrate?
It precisely shows that China is not prepared to help India on that front.
China will always have Pakistan’s back, whatever the case maybe?
This is certainly one dimension of today’s equation. It shows that the kind of engagement of Xi that has taken place – including the visit to Ahmedabad – has not made a huge difference. And we also don’t know how much the $20 billion of investment China promised flowing in India will materialise. Now, there may be one more bone of contention (with India), Nepal. Those who feel alienated by India may try to turn to China.
But, hasn’t that always been true (about Nepal)?
Yes, Nepal has done that before.
So, China is a factor of stability for entire South Asia, more than US?
China is perhaps interested in economic development to such an extent that it may contribute to peace (in South Asia). A more peaceful region from Kashmir to Afghanistan would be in their interest if they want to trade more and have access to some mineral resources. The “One Belt One Road” scheme is not only intended to give China access to the Indian ocean in Gwadar, it has also ramifications in Central Asia and according to Pakistanis, to Russia.
By the way, Russia is playing an increasingly important role in Pakistan these days. The Russian shift in interest is discernible, possibly in response to the India-US rapprochement. And there are so few people ready to sell arms to Pakistan.
What happens if the CPEC is not implemented properly, delayed or doesn’t work out?
There are many ‘ifs’ supporting your suspicion. First of all, the Baloch guerilla can make some of the facets of this plan derail. Gwadar is one place Baloch nationalists want to “retain”. That is one big ‘If’. Then, you have the economic and financial situation. The Chinese keep saying it is a $46 billion investment. But in terms of FDIs, it is probably not more than $10-$11 billion. The rest are loans – and sometimes loans at very high rates. Can Pakistan afford in the long run to pay off all these loans?
So, it could be a re-run of what is happening in Sri Lanka, where the government had to return to China in order to get relief from debts accrued due to major Chinese infrastructure projects?
Yes, loans can be a solution to keep a country under one’s thumb. In the case of CPEC, while the whole project may not materialise, the roads may be built though, because, both the army and the Chinese have strong interest in connectivity – and business companies have a vested interest in the building of these roads on both sides. For the rest, it remains to be seen.
That means, South Asia’s future depends on Xi Jinping now.
To some extent, yes. Never before, since Mao Tse Tung, we have seen such a personality-centric China – and ‘One Belt One Road’ is clearly one of the priorities of the Chinese president.
Are there any concerns about Iran’s Chabahar port vis-à-vis Gwadar?
Whether Chabahar will materialise is a difficult question. Iran may be slow on it not to alienate China. And it remains to be seen how will it be connected to Afghanistan. How far will it help India to circumvent Pakistan and reach Afghanistan? There are many, many questions there too.
During his visit to Pakistan, President Rouhani had said that Chabahar and Gwadar should be linked.
Yes, that was interesting. I don’t think India will be too happy with that. Eventually, we may end up with having two Chinese ports…
So India doesn’t have many strategic options left in this part of the world?
No, but this is probably why the government is engaging the US more and multiplying strategic partnerships with countries which are equally worried about the Chinese strategy, Japan, Australia, Vietnam etc. Indirectly, the rise of China is giving India’s foreign policy a sense of direction.