By Praveen Swami
April 12, 2016
Last week, in remarks unlikely to endear him to political leaders on either side of the border, Islamabad’s envoy to New Delhi, Abdul Basit, announced that the “peace process with India has been suspended”.
The truth behind Basit’s comments is depressing: Pakistan’s army has staged what can only be described as a foreign policy coup, rejecting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s efforts to seek normalisation with India. Sharif’s promise to act against the Jaish-e-Muhammad after it staged the attack on the IAF base in Pathankot appears to have been the decisive moment of rupture.
Ever since 2014, Sharif’s foreign policy has been drawning sustained fire from Pakistan’s all-powerful army, who have cast India as an existential threat. The generals’ polemical weapons have included Kashmir, purported Indian backing for terrorism in Pakistan and, most recently, the bizarre case of alleged Indian intelligence operative Kulbhushan Jadhav — a former naval officer whose rambling confession was played on Pakistani television, but against whom no criminal charges have yet been filed.
The underlying message is simple: though the army will countenance accommodation with India in order to avoid crises that are not in its interest, it is unwilling to move forward on actual normalisation.
In part, this decision is pragmatic. Faced with threats from anti-state jihadists, the Pakistan army sees anti-India jihadists as necessary sources of legitimacy and support. The generals believe Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is just as unwilling to risk war as its predecessors, fearful of undoing its wider strategic goal of high growth. Thus, anti-India jihadist operations, like those in Gurdaspur or Pathankot, can be permitted at little or no risk to Pakistan’s military.
For Indian policymakers, though, there is a larger challenge. The army, as C Christine Fair has argued, is an epistemic community, whose decision-making is shaped by inherited knowledge. For the Pakistan army, normalisation with India is indeed an existential threat — because the battle against the bigger neighbour is a core part of its founding myth that casts it as the defender of an Islamic Pakistan against a predatory, Hindu India.
The roots of this thinking lie in the late 1940s, when Pakistan army officers fought alongside tribal irregulars in an effort to seize Kashmir. Brigadier Akbar Khan, who led the campaign, believed the war for Kashmir had been betrayed by an effete political leadership.
Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan found himself ceding a growing share of power to General Ayub Khan. In 1953, during anti-Ahmadiyya riots in Punjab, the army established itself as the principal source of state authority. It cast itself as a modernising institution, but did not resist the Islamist tide. Pakistan’s first Constitution, passed in 1956, declared Pakistan an Islamic republic — a notion unknown to classical theology — and mandated no laws repugnant to the Koran and Hadith be passed.
Gen Khan’s military coup was widely hailed in the West, and many saw him as a moderniser determined to rein in both the rowdy mullahs and the communists. Samuel Huntington saw the general’s idea of Basic Democracy — a project to radically limit democracy — as a “prerequisite of political stability in a modernising country”. He cast Ayub as “a Solon or Lycurgus or Great Legislator on the Platonic or Rousseauian model”.
For all his secular-modernising claims, Ayub’s conception of Pakistan had a specific Islamist impulse. In an article for Foreign Policy, he approvingly quoted the rightwing ideologue and poet Muhammad Iqbal’s observation that “the State, from the Islamic standpoint is an endeavour to transform these [religious] ideals into space-time forces, an aspiration to realize them in a definite human organisation.
“It is this sort of human organisation,” Ayub said, “that Pakistan aspires to become”.
Pakistani secularism, such as it was, disintegrated in 1973 — the Constitution brought into force that year decreed that “sovereignty over the entire Universe belongs to Almighty Allah alone”. The state was, among other things, enjoined to promote “observance of the Islamic moral standards”. The army did not resist — and in 1977, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq set about entrenching these tendencies.
Zia commended to his officers Brigadier S K Malik’s The Quranic Conception of War, noting its contribution to the “understanding that we jointly seek as citizens of an Islamic state”. “The term jihad,” Malik wrote, “so often confused with military strategy is, in fact, the near-equivalent of total or grand strategy or policy in-execution”. Thus, jihad “aims at attaining the overall mission assigned to the Islamic state”.
Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto chose not to roll back the religious legislation; in 1998, her successor, Nawaz Sharif, even considered legislation that would have declared him the ‘Amir ul-Momineen’, or Commander of the Faithful — a title used by the medieval Caliphs, and the Taliban commander Mullah Muhammad Omar.
In the army, Zia’s ideas shaped official discourse all the way to General Raheel Sharif, on whose watch jihadists have been attacked not for what they are, but as agents of India.
For India, the truth is that there are no good options. The last major gains in the India-Pakistan relationship were won through war, not dialogue. The LoC ceasefire, and the post-2003 reduction of violence in Kashmir, came about as a consequence of the war of 1999 and the near-war of 2001-2002 — a crisis that India could barely afford, but which almost broke Pakistan. These are not templates, however, for securing India’s ends: the potential risks are simply too high.
In New Delhi, strategists argue that the only alternative is talking. Engagement, the argument goes, ensures that the complex elements of Pakistan’s polity — Islamists hostile to the state, politicians seeking to undermine military primacy, a fledgling industrial bourgeoisie seeking regional economic opportunity — do not ally against an existential threat from India. Then, they argue, it makes sense for India to not subvert its own overarching strategic aim of high growth to be derailed by war.
But it is for these precise reasons that Pakistan’s generals are certain to ensure that any process of India-Pakistan normalisation goes nowhere — and to ratchet up the pain when it serves their interests, secure in their belief that India will not retaliate.