Peace beyond reach?
In a recent interview, Pakistan’s PM said the country has learnt its lesson and wants peace with India. But, warns Ayesha Siddiqa consensus will remain elusive unless the process is put in place
A recent article by Air Vice Marshal Shahzad Chaudhry (ret’d) in Tribune will certainly grab attention. One could not have expected a former Pakistani military officer– an Inter-Services Public Relations favourite, no less– to so candidly admit the India-Pakistan socio-economic disparity and argue that the bigger neighbour is now a regional power and global actor. Furthermore, Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif recently said in an interview with Dubai-based Al Arabiya that the country has learnt its lesson and wants to make peace with India.
Since the 1990s, the mood in Pakistan has changed. India is important, but it’s not a major object of hate among the general public. Traders, merchants and the business sector in Punjab and Karachi have little appetite for conflict or putting Kashmir as a priority. Similar views can be found among the youth. I recently spoke to students in Peshawar who said that fighting India was no longer important to them. Referring to Chaudhry’s article, I asked a friend if I could have got away with such a piece. They said: ‘No, not you, but the retired air marshal’s article could be a sign of things changing.’ The question remains whether or not the change is accepted beyond the article and can create an environment where new thinking will be implemented uninterrupted and others could express the same and get printed without being labelled as traitors.
Not too long ago, two other prominent Pakistani journalists, Javed Chaudhry and Hamid Mir, claimed in their respective articles on former army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa that he came close to solving the India-Pakistan peace mystery. Reportedly, the two countries were ready to freeze the Kashmir issue for about 20 years and start bilateral trade had it not been for former Prime Minister Imran Khan. It was a reminder of General Pervez Musharraf taking his army to the brink of peace but being unable to achieve it. As was the case with former Indian prime ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, who were unable to crack peace with Pakistan. But what this indicates is the inability of the topmost players, both civil and military, in Pakistan to build a consensus among key stakeholders to clinch peace decisively.
Then to now, no consensus
Starting from the 1999 Lahore Declaration, both countries have had three other such historical moments when peace looked like a possibility: between 2004 and 2007, 2010 and2015, 2020 and 2021. Former PM Nawaz Sharif failed twice to get the army behind him, and Gen. Musharraf and Gen. Bajwa seem to have met a similar fate. Although former foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri claims in his memoir that Gen. Musharraf managed to get generals to agree to his four-point formula, he may have been misunderstood. I remember a conversation with former ambassador Riaz Khokhar in the days after Musharraf’s departure. He had been invited to address an event at the General Headquarters (GHQ) by Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani, who later became the army chief. Khokhar revealed to me just how many of the three-star generals sitting in the audience told him that they did not agree entirely with Musharraf.
Gen. Bajwa would have us believe – if we were to go by Hamid Mir’s article in The Times of India – that when he made his famous speech at the Islamabad Security Conference in April 2022, Pakistan was ready for peace. I remember some civil society members, who were in touch with the establishment, telling me in early 2021 about the echelons being ready for India and Pakistan to hold on to their respective Kashmir regions and move away from conflict. But then what explains members of Imran Khan’s cabinet – Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Shireen Mazari, and others known for links with the ‘Deep State’ – opposing the former PM’s order to import critical food items from India? These people certainly did not go rogue, nor did Imran Khan become independent of the GHQ.
What happened then probably indicates a divide within the establishment, which is not necessarily the Bajwa-Faiz Hameed chasm. In fact, the army and ISI chiefs were together negotiating covertly with India’s National Security Advisor in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), assisted in the process by British and French diplomats and/or intelligence people. There could have been two kinds of divides in the establishment at that time. One, between Bajwa and Faiz that may have got deeper. Two, a more critical chasm within the intelligence agencies involving several actors, apart from the two topmost generals telling Khan that the political cost of a peace deal would be very high.
Why consensus has been elusive
From Pakistan’s perspective, the critical problem is in its decision-making and the inability of even strong players to build consensus – should there be peace, and what is the extent of a possible deal? Key players often imagine regional peace without working out the details or including other stakeholders, especially those with an alternative view. Pakistan often throws the alternative under the bus or brushes it under the carpet but does not have a dialogue.
Sources in the Kashmir government claim that the only conversation held with them in 2020 and 2021 was about the issue of giving Gilgit-Baltistan the status of a province, a critical demand of the local people and China’s desire. These sources say that even the ISI was on board with the idea. It was a critical issue as making Gilgit-Baltistan a province may have led to Kashmir also becoming a province. Clearly, despite the ISI agreeing to the idea, it fell through due to the initial internal disagreement among political parties that didn’t see merit in it. Then the Gilgit-Baltistan assembly unanimously passed a resolution demanding the status of a separate province. But by then, the initiative was lost, and the naysayers presented it as losing ground against India.
Consensus on peace with India will remain elusive unless the required process is put in place. This is a mistake that both civilian and military leaders make. At the heart of the State lies a big civil-military and ideological divide. Those at the top tend to ignore the two problems while pushing for peace, which is mainly focused on their personal gains.
Enmity, not peace, is their focus
Nawaz Sharif was twice at the helm of bringing about a paradigm shift – first, when he signed the Lahore Declaration, and second, when he welcomed Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Lahore. In 2015, when Modi flew from Kabul to Lahore, Pakistan army generals were carefully considering the idea of trade ties with India, though very reluctantly. Economic relations with Delhi were a subject carried over from the Musharraf years and slowly pursued by Kiyani. Between 2010 and 2015, there were a lot of small events and debates for the army and ISI-assisted civilians in government to review the idea. The generals allowed the talks but were in a wait-and-watch mood. Kiyani allowed the Sharif government to think about trade but then-Director General of ISPR told me that the government should not go so fast. The Modi visit turned things topsy-turvy.
Some sources that were involved with the negotiations argue that Sharif meeting Modi alone, and keeping the establishment entirely out, broke the consensus-building process. Nawaz Sharif tried to have a private conversation both with Modi and later with Indian businessman Lakshmi Mittal. Notwithstanding the Pakistan army’s rigid view on Kashmir, which is partly true, the military may have been convinced to change its position if a process was followed and they weren’t kept out of the room.
One is not even sure that Gen. Bajwa knew how to bring change beyond a mere desire of getting his name in history books. While Chaudhry’s article reads like an ode to Modi – possibly aimed at melting hearts across the border – Gen Bajwa’s ISPR has continued to build Modi’s image as the ‘Butcher of Gujarat’. The 2022 web series Sevak: The Confessions, created by a private company supported by the ISPR, is like a lesson in history and politics – actors blurting out data on killings of religious minorities in India and drawing out the role of Hindutva that the Imran Khan regime used to talk about. Sources claim that this is a play that Bajwa insisted on being released before his retirement.
All this indicates confusion on how Gen. Bajwa would have convinced Pakistan’s intellectuals and powerful elite – who, at a recently held conference on International Affairs in Karachi, booed the idea of Kashmir – to freeze the conflict through a bilateral dialogue. These are signs that the prevalent process invests in enmity and not peace with India.
We are looking at a situation in which one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing – Pakistan is enveloped by divided camps that do not necessarily agree with each other and individuals play several sides at the same time. If Shahbaz Sharif and the generals are keen to move forward, they should first get the process at home in order so that there are no ugly surprises in future.
Ayesha Siddiqa is Senior Fellow at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London. She is the author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter. Views are personal