The recent statement by Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, on the second day of the Islamabad Security Dialogue has left many wondering about a new paradigm in Pakistan’s security apparatus. The army chief’s remark, “We feel that it is time to bury the past and move forward,” hints at not just a policy change, but also towards a détente in the relations between India and Pakistan,
General Bajwa echoed Prime Minister Imran Khan’s proposal about resolving all outstanding issues with India. This begs the question: is new strategic thinking in place, or is this statement a tactical move foreseeing Pakistan’s precarious position vis-à-vis its perennial external and internal threats? The short answer to this remains to be seen – the long answer demands that the statement be objectively analyzed first.
Pakistan is in a precarious position as of now, both internally and externally. The country’s economy is in trouble, and the system is on the verge of a meltdown owing to the on-going polarization and political instability. On the external front, the country is facing isolation and derailment – by both imagined and unimagined enemies.
The United States has substituted “Asia” for “Indo-Pacific” and its main foreign policy objectives in the region are to:
- Prop up India against a revisionist China.
- Secure a peace deal in Afghanistan.
The first gives undue importance to India in the US National Defense Policy. President Biden after assuming office, in his phone call to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, implied that the US promises to “promote a free and open Indo-Pacific”. The significance of India in the US foreign policy not only downgrades Pakistan-US relations but has the potential of the US turning a blind eye to Indian aggression on the Line of Control, and Kashmir.
On the second front, the US needs Pakistan’s help to influence the Afghan Taliban and secure a workable peace deal. It has been able to get Pakistan to cooperate on this front without necessarily giving much in return. For Pakistan to cooperate, the threat of being blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is enough.
As of now, there is little Pakistan can do as the Afghan Taliban, sensing victory, are less likely to roll up to Islamabad’s demands. Whatever political capital Pakistan had, it has already spent in getting both the Taliban and the US on the negotiating table in the Doha Accord.
If the situation on the external front is hostile and unfavorable for Pakistan, the situation on the internal front is equally bad, if not worse. There has been a massive surge in political temperature across the country. No country can hope to have a successful foreign policy without political consensus, which seems like a distant dream in this era of partisan and polarized politics.
Some recent events which are worth quoting here would be the NA-75 Daska election controversy, the Senate elections, the subsequent need for a vote of confidence by Prime Minister Imran Khan, and the increasingly hostile anti-establishment sentiment in Punjab – post PMLN discarding its policy of reconciliation and adopting an aggressive stance.
While anti-establishment sentiment has been relegated to the fringes of Balochistan, KP, and even Sindh, to some extent, what stands out here is that for the first time such sentiments are being echoed in Punjab by the opposing political parties. The army chief hinted at the growing instability as he said, “No good can be expected from outside until we put our own house in order.”
Sans politics, Pakistan’s economic troubles are hampering its national security objectives. The country cannot meet its growing defense and development needs in a troubled economy. The pandemic saw the economy contracting in the negative; recovery seems to be painfully slow as the State Bank has predicted that the growth rate will range from 1.5 to 2.5 percent.
On the other hand the World Bank, in its report titled “Global Economic Prospects (GEP) 2021” stated that Pakistan’s economic growth rate for the current fiscal year is forecasted to remain subdued at 0.5 percent. Moreover, it rebuked the continued fiscal consolidation pressures and service sector weakness.
Not to mention Pakistan has one of the most regressive taxation systems in the world and the tax to GDP ratio hovers around 10%. With an ever-growing population and human development needs being sidelined for security objectives for decades, the situation will only get worse from here on in. With this, it can be said that the situation is extremely fragile right now and army chief’s remarks could be in light of these new realities.
A “Strategic Shift” or Just a “Tactical Response”
While no one can answer this with 100 percent conviction, as the matters concerning establishment are shrouded in institutional secrecy, one can look at this from a broader angle to come to a conclusion. The question which arises here is, “Is this shift the result of some thorough institutional introspection, or is it just a tactical response to the growing political complexities?”
Has this not happened before? President Musharraf’s four-point agenda, to resolve the festering Kashmir issue between India and Pakistan, at the time was revolutionary and implied a change in institutional thinking and in the relations between the two states. However, these new policies were ultimately not implemented.
If there is a likelihood of a strategic shift in Pakistan’s policy w.r.t. India, a grand dialogue between all political stakeholders of the country is a must. Without a political consensus, no foreign policy endeavor can be successful.
It remains to be seen whether the opposition would cooperate this time as it did during the 2019 India-Pakistan standoff when there was a need for political consensus on handing over the captured Indian pilot. 9 out of 10 political parties in the “Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM)” have nothing left to lose. In their opinion, they have already had the worst happen to them.
If Bajwa’s remarks are indeed an indication of a strategic shift, the government and the army will start making an effort to bring the political temperature down and focus on constitutionalism and political stability. If it is not a shift, it is a tactical strategy adopted owing to internal threats and the unfavorable hostile situation abroad.
It remains to be seen whether the remarks made by General Bajwa at Islamabad Security Dialogue indicated a shift in institutional thinking or not. Regardless, the statement is worthy of appreciation and one must hope that General Bajwa and his entourage come through with it.
The Possibility of an India-Pakistan Détente
With regards to Pakistan’s motivation, this article has extensively shed light upon whether the state is going through an institutional shift in thinking or its seriousness about peace with India is just a tactical move. What remains to be seen is if there’s a slight possibility of a détente between India and Pakistan.
The chances of success of this détente greatly depend on Pakistan’s internal political stability to forge consensus and its economic turnaround to project strength. On the other hand, India can hardly afford to let this opportunity pass up. It is no secret that it harbors delusions of being a regional hegemon; its internecine conflict with Pakistan, not to mention its clash with China on the Himalayan border, is dragging it back.
Despite being a significant ally of the U.S, India’s soft power has taken a beating since the Modi government came to power. India is being increasingly criticized for its human rights record and its majoritarian policies. It was recently downgraded to “partially free” in US-based Freedom House’s “Democracy Index”. A thaw between India and Pakistan can help it reclaim some of its lost international goodwill.
Significant signs pointing to that effect are the joint communiqué between the Director-General of Military Operations (DGMO) of Pakistan and the DGMO of India. The DGMOs promised to adhere to the 2003 ceasefire agreement between both countries. Furthermore, the Indian Prime Minister wished Prime Minister Imran Khan a speedy recovery after he was diagnosed with COVID-19.
These incidents are the result of the significant back-channel efforts between India and Pakistan to improve their relations. So, is a détente possible? Yes! But will it happen? It’s too early to predict that because one of the things India and Pakistan are known for, in their relations, is their ability to go back to square one.
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