“He’s a soldier, and for one to say a soldier lies, ’tis stabbing.”
– Shakespeare’s Othello
Pakistan’s hybrid regime, in which Prime Minister Imran Khan serves as the proverbial fig leaf for the army junta that actually rules the country, made quite a farcical somersault even by its own incompetent standards over opening up trade with India. A few days ago, the cabinet’s Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) had recommended allowing imports of sugar, cotton and cotton yarn from India.
But within hours the cabinet rejected the ECC’s proposal. The PM’s special advisor on national security – not to be confused with a National Security Advisor – Moeed Yusuf had to make a complete fool out of himself by saying that the PM, who also holds the commerce portfolio, had recommended the opening up of trade in that capacity, but he then rejected it as the head of the government and cabinet. The Pakistani puppet PM isn’t called U-turn Khan for nothing, but that contortionist explanation really takes the cake!
The long and short of it is that the Pakistan army’s Imran Khan project remains in a hole deeper than they had imagined. Despite the rupee gaining some ground against the greenback, Pakistan’s economy has been on the rocks, and is projected to remain so. With the new US administration keeping Pakistan in the diplomatic doghouse, the Saudi and other Gulf sheikhdoms acting all stingy, and the Chinese Shylock unwilling to loosen the purse strings without an assurance for its geopolitical pound of flesh, the Imran-Bajwa regime remains in economic dire straits.
The trade proposal was supposed to dovetail with Pakistan’s incumbent Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s conditional peace offer to India. General Bajwa had grabbed headlines a couple of weeks ago with his speech in Islamabad where he proclaimed a “desire to change the narrative of geo-political contestation into geo-economic integration.” Many observers saw General Bajwa’s speech as a harbinger of a thaw in Indo-Pak relations, while others deemed it as the blatant lie – not a pledge – that wasn’t even worth the paper, he was reading it from.
But both the optimists and realists tended to agree that proof of this policy pudding would be in its eating. And rightly so. While General Bajwa stated that “we feel that it is time to bury the past and move forward,” with Pakistan’s army the past is always the prologue. There is absolutely nothing new in what the general has said. In fact, this is a boilerplate move used by the Pakistani army chiefs since Field Marshal Ayub Khan. He wrote in his autobiography, ghostwritten by his advisor Altaf Gauhar:
“On 24 April 1959 I said that in the case of external aggression both India and Pakistan should come together to defend the sub-continent. The Indian leaders thought that I was suggesting some kind of a defense pact and their reaction was one of fright and distrust. A few days later in Quetta I clarified my proposal, explaining that it did not mean any special type of pact about which India need be so perturbed. What I had in mind was a general understanding of peace between the two countries. I emphasized that the prerequisite for such an understanding was the solution of big problems like Kashmir and canal waters. Once these were resolved, the armies of the two countries could disengage and move to their respective vulnerable frontiers. This would give us the substance of joint defense; that is, freedom from fear of each other and freedom to protect our respective frontiers.”
Ayub Khan repeated a similar pledge at the UN even after the 1965 war, which he had conceived, instigated and nearly lost. He told the UN General Assembly on December 13, 1965, that if India were to allow the referendum in Kashmir, he would agree to a settlement of all other issues through non-military means, including Pakistan accepting an arbitration, and should those conditions be fulfilled he would enter a no-war pact with India. This canard was to be repeated ad nauseum by several Pakistan army chiefs and dictators, for example, by the austere Islamist General Zia-ul-Haq offered a no-war pact to India in the fall of 1981.
General Pervez Musharraf, who just like Ayub Khan, maintained a personally secular outlook while siring all manner of jihadists, too proposed a no-war pact to India at the UN in 2000. He rehashed the Ayub formula with his “four-point Kashmir solution”, which did push the envelope quite a bit and is discussed in some detail in his autobiography. Interestingly, Musharraf has credited Altaf Gauhar’s son, Humayun for his “editing contributions” to the book. The mouthy Musharraf’s rather reticent successor, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani also peddled a similar spiel when he declared in April 2012:
“We in the army understand very well that there should be a very good balance between defense and development. You cannot be spending on defense alone and forgetting about development. Ultimately the security of a country is not only that you secure boundaries and borders but it is when people that live in the country feel happy, their needs are being met. Only in that case will a country be truly safe.”
General Kayani went to speak about how the high-altitude military standoff between India and Pakistan was impacting the environment and would hurt the Indus waters adversely, and called to resolve the Siachen glacier issue. His successor General Raheel Sharif had declared that Kashmir was the unfinished agenda of Partition, but he too called for peace with India after negotiations “on equal level”.
The bottom line is that General Bajwa’s peace proposal remains just a leaf from the Pakistan army’s standard playbook. So, should he be taken on his word? For that one has to look at what the army has done internally in Pakistan. Leon Trotsky had noted, “foreign policy is everywhere and always a continuation of domestic policy, for it is conducted by the same ruling class and pursues the same historic goals.” In Pakistan’s case, the army went from the praetorian guard to becoming the sole arbiter of what the country’s national interest is, and eventually morphed into a fully-fledged economic and ruling class.
The generals usually singing Kumbaya when their economic interests are in doldrums. The no-war pact offers from the three dictators had come within the first few years of their stints, when they were both uncertain of their future and the economic windfall that eventually came their way from the US and the west thanks to the Cold War and the War on Terror and buttressed their domestic position. In General Kayani’s case, the US gravy train had come to a halt, and for General Bajwa it doesn’t appear that it would start off anytime soon.
Each one of these half-a-dozen army chiefs who pledged peace to India trampled on the democratic forces in Pakistan whenever they pursued reconciliation with India. In fact, the army has systematically smeared civilian leaders like Benazir Bhutto who sought a rapprochement with India a security risk. When her widower, the former President Asif Ali Zardari offered a conditional no first use of nuclear weapons to India, General Kayani differed with him. The general remained mum publicly but had made life miserable for the civilian government through intrigue, including assorted political and judicial manoeuvres.
More recently, a three-time elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was publicly rebuked by an army spokesperson – a mere major general – over a matter which involved leaked reports that the PM and his team had warned the army that its continued support to jihadist proxies was leading to international isolation. Army’s troll regiments and political proxies later besmirched Sharif as a traitor for meeting PM Narendra Modi and discussing mutual as well as facilitating Afghan transit trade. He was eventually disqualified through a manipulated court verdict.
The problem is that the army cannot have its cake and eat it too. The jingoism that it has drummed up through its unbridled control over the conventional print and tele-media as well as several religious and political proxies, has created a toxic environment where talking peace seems like a cuss word. While General Bajwa’s proposal was dead on arrival as far as India goes, it did not much any traction within Pakistan either. The people were largely, and rightly, skeptical of his motives, and of course, the army’s. After all, army is the chief and chief the army, as far as Pakistan goes. And on social media, both were called out for their blatant hypocrisy, including by Nawaz Sharif himself. The common refrain remained that how come peace with India was foul when the civilians called for it, but has become fair when the general is pushing for it.
It is social and online media’s reach and ability to dismantle the army-controlled narrative that unnerves the junta to the extent that it consistently and perniciously hounds both professional journalists and common users. For example, last July, a senior Pakistani journalist Matiullah Jan was abducted and tortured by the army thugs for his YouTube channel content that challenges the army’s narrative. Most recently, a young history buff named Sarmad Sultan, was forcibly taken from his home in Attock. Sultan’s crime was that he uses Twitter to post historical references that put the junta’s current moves in perspective.
Within hours, Pakistani Twitter was ablaze with calls for bringing him back safely. The Amnesty International, South Asia, opposition leader Maryam Nawaz Sharif and scores of others joined the call for his release. After two days, Sultan returned home safely and later posted a video clip questioning the role of “state institutions” – a euphemism for the army and its intelligence agencies – in his ordeal. These are not isolated occurrences, and more ominously, targeted harassment and enforced disappearances are systematic and sanctioned at the highest levels of the army. The Pakistan army has many flaws, but a lack of discipline is not one of them.
In fact, the brass is well aware of which journalists and columnists were censured at the army’s behest and which blogger disappeared when. The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and the United Nations special rapporteurs have consistently documented the premeditated harassment of journalists and human rights defenders in Pakistan and called for an end to impunity. On the other hand, the Imran-Bajwa regime has connived to make the official National Commission for Human Rights dysfunctional. Combine this with the near-complete censorship over covering the army’s actions in Balochistan and the former tribal districts of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provinces, as well as that of the Afghan Taliban thriving alongside the Durand Line, and one gets a sense of the repression unleashed at home by the junta that is pledging peace across the eastern frontier.
General Zia-ul-Haq’s modus operandi against the Soviets in Afghanistan was to keep the jihadist pot simmering but not to let it boil over. The army’s India calculus is not much different. General Bajwa’s attempt to dial the heat down cannot be seen and understood in isolation. While the India and Afghanistan pots are important, in order to contextualise the general’s gimmick, attention must be paid to the domestic pot that is on the front burner.
General Bajwa claimed that his geo-economic vision is for “moving towards a lasting and enduring peace within and outside”. But by hounding the political opponents, media men and women, and common social media users, he has nothing to show for that peace within. Without a meaningful change at home, General Bajwa’s peace proposal remains meaningless, nay, a blatant lie.
Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets @mazdaki.