General Raheel Sharif with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (APP photo)
The two Sharifs and India-Pakistan relations; 5 December 2013
A number of events have occurred recently that have a bearing on India-Pakistan relations. First, Pakistan has appointed a new chief of the Pakistan Army, with General Raheel Sharif replacing General Ashfaq Kiyani. Concurrently, General Rashid Mehmood has become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, replacing General Khalid Shamim Wynne. While Mehmood’s position is superior in a titular sense, Sharif’s is the more influential as the Pakistan Army is still Pakistan’s most powerful and capable force ensuring national unity. Some people are speculating that General Sharif may not be a political threat to his namesake, Pakistan’s prime minister, Mr Nawaz Sharif, to whom the general is not related, although they apparently share a similar Kashmiri-Punjabi ethnicity. Given the Pakistan Army’s history of imposing its will on Pakistan, this remains to be seen.
Similarly, it remains to be seen how the new army chief will deal with the strategic, tactical and political issues that confront him. These include suppressing anti-Pakistan terrorism; enabling anti-Indian activities and terrorism, particularly in disputed Jammu and Kashmir; countering India’s military superiority; managing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal; and, ensuring that Pakistan’s foreign policy meets the military’s approval. This latter matter not only relates to India, but also to Afghanistan, where Pakistan’s interests are important. General Sharif’s predecessor appeared to act reasonably on these issues, particularly by allowing elected politicians to govern Pakistan, and in relation to India. Arguably, this was because Pakistan confronted serious internal issues that the Pakistan Army needed to assist with. These included the parlous economy, major terrorist threats posed by sectarian and Taliban-type elements and an uprising in Baluchistan. Tactically, Kiyani’s non-Indian-focused approach was sound. Despite some Pakistanis’ beliefs, India long ago accepted Pakistan’s existence, nor does it want its neighbour to fail, chiefly because India will have to ‘pick up the pieces’. Additionally, the United States’ presence in Afghanistan and its fair-to-good relations with Pakistan, plus its good relations with India, made the US a stabilising force in India-Pakistan relations.
This situation is changing. Next year, the US will reduce its forces significantly—perhaps even totally, if Washington and Kabul can’t agree a deal—in Afghanistan. Post-ISAF, Afghanistan will be highly unstable for some time. Next year, India is likely to have a new government, and almost certainly a new prime minister, with the possibility of a more belligerent foreign policy. Now, Iran has a new president with a milder foreign policy agenda and an improving relationship with the US that disturbs Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, with which Pakistan has a close relationship. Next year, US interest in Pakistan may quickly wane post-Afghanistan. These various circumstances may provoke an uncertain Pakistan, possibly feeling isolated, to raise its profile, and importance, in other ways, including by confronting India.
Perhaps the only thing that can be said with much certainty is that General Sharif’s loyalty will lie predominantly with the Pakistan Army. He is from a military family; he apparently has no great interest in politics; he may not be as politically adept as some of his predecessors. He will have to learn to be political, however, as senior generals will not want politicians lessening the army’s power or influence. This includes in relation to India-Pakistan relations, with there is not yet any indication that the Pakistan Army or its new commander (or the Indian Army, for that matter) wants these to improve.
Certainly, Nawaz Sharif would like the India-Pakistan relationship to progress, and for all outstanding issues to be resolved. Recently, he said that ‘If India takes one step forward, we will take two’. While seemingly a generous offer, it still ostensibly requires India to act first. This is disingenuous as Sharif, a businessman, could, if he was really interested in meaningfully advancing India-Pakistan relations, grant India the ‘Most Favoured Nation’ (MFN) status that would enable direct bilateral trade to grow, perhaps even flourish. Despite some Pakistanis’ fears, MFN does not grant India any special treatment or favours. Rather, it merely normalises India-Pakistan trade relations to reflect how other bilateral trade occurs. India granted Pakistan MFN status in 2006. Pakistan is seriously stalling on this issue.
Mr Sharif’s desire for improved India-Pakistan relations may be fulfilled if the recent opinion of Pakistan’s retiring high commissioner in India is any indication. Salman Bashir sees ‘light at the end of the [India-Pakistan] tunnel’ and is ‘personally optimistic that [relations] will be on the upward trajectory in the coming months’. This is contrary to many people’s perception that the Congress-led government is suffering from pre-election inertia. Equally, the India-Pakistan relationship confronts serious challenges: there are some longstanding, difficult and controversial issues to resolve; there is no urgent or compelling momentum to fix these; the relationship can sour quickly. Recently, Nawaz Sharif stated in Muzaffarabad that ‘Kashmir is a flashpoint and can trigger a fourth war between the two nuclear powers at anytime’. In response, Manmohan Singh said that he saw no prospect of Pakistan winning a war against India in his lifetime. Suddenly, India-Pakistan talk went from improving relations to fighting a war.
Interestingly, India is about to challenge Pakistan significantly in relation to their relations. New Delhi is to allow its National Investigation Agency (NIA), which has a counter-terrorism focus, to send a judicial request to Islamabad for Pakistan to arrest Syed Mohammed Yusuf Shah, alias ‘Syed Salahuddin’. Salahuddin is the leader of the anti-Indian Hizbul Mujahideen that operates in Indian Kashmir. He has been living in exile in Pakistan since 1989. The NIA alleges that he illegally sent money from Pakistan through NGOs to Hizbul Mujahideen operatives in Indian Kashmir. Like General Sharif’s stand on various issues, it remains to be seen how Islamabad will respond to this serious Indian challenge to Pakistan’s bona fides about wanting to improve relations. Islamabad will find itself ‘between a rock and a hard place’.
5 December 2013