Pakistan’s power struggle behind its aggression

The cross-border firings do not at all imply that Indian surgical strikes were a failure


Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

The continuous firing and shelling across both the Line of Control and the international border with Pakistan is reminiscent of the pre-ceasefire (2003) era. A number of Indian security personnel and civilians have been killed in Pakistani firing. The body of one particular soldier was mutilated by terrorists who operated under the covering fire of the Pakistani army. In response, the Indian Army and the Border Security Force have destroyed several Pakistani posts, thus inflicting heavy casualties on the other side. By all accounts, the Indian response has been firm and proportionate if not more.

The aggression by Pakistan has been interpreted by many as a clear failure of India’s surgical strikes in instituting any kind of deterrence. This newspaper had already anticipated this misreading—that the surgical strikes of 29 September would be perceived as an instant solution to the Pakistan problem of India. It bears repetition that taking out a few terror launch pads was just one step in the right direction. The government also understands this as it has unveiled a range of other measures ranging from raising Balochistan in the United Nations to actively trying to diplomatically isolate Pakistan.

The misreading of the near-term consequences of the surgical strikes is profound for two other reasons. One, it is well known that Pakistan’s attempt to infiltrate militants into India peaks just before the onset of winter. The infiltrators are usually provided covering fire by the Pakistani army. This is an annual phenomenon but Pakistan would want to push infiltrations in far greater numbers this year to exploit the disaffection in the Kashmir Valley.

Two, the current situation in Pakistan is such that any “cowering down” to India can be seen as politically costly. And the political costs are a factor not just for the civilian government but also for the military leadership in Pakistan.

The tenure of army chief Raheel Sharif is coming to an end. The brief window available to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to take advantage of his power to elect the next chief has evaporated with the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordering a probe against him in relation to the Panama papers revelations. Though cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan has decided to call off the anti-government agitation in Islamabad to celebrate his “victory” in the Supreme Court, Nawaz Sharif knows well that Khan will continue to be choreographed by the army against his regime. Talk of a coup has gained salience in the past few days.

But the coup—or what was widely referred to as a “soft coup”—had already taken place in August 2014. The army under Raheel Sharif had exploited the protest by Khan and religious preacher Tahir-ul-Qadri to renegotiate power-sharing arrangements with the civilian government. Since then, corruption allegations against Nawaz Sharif have only strengthened the position of the army relative to the civilian government.

Khan, leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, is not the first politician to be used by the army in Pakistan. All major political parties and many prominent civilian leaders including Nawaz Sharif have at different times acted in concert with the military, with the parochial aim of dislodging their rivals from power. After playing this game over and over again, Nawaz Sharif and the late Benazir Bhutto, former leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, had signed a “Charter of Democracy” in 2006 where the two had pledged “not to solicit the support of military to come into power or to dislodge a democratic government”. Since Khan has never come to power at the centre and thus never faced the brunt of an army takeover, he does not believe in such democratic niceties.

In order to save his throne, Nawaz Sharif and his administration have raised the rhetoric against India considerably. India’s alleged human rights violations in the valley are now being raised at every possible forum—domestic and international. Not to be left behind, Khan has talked of showing “Nawaz Sharif how to respond to [Narendra] Modi” in the aftermath of the surgical strikes.

Army chief Raheel Sharif has been caught in his own propaganda trap. He spent his entire three-year term building up a public image of absolute propriety and resolute firmness. This image has come under strain following India’s surgical strikes despite determined efforts to deny them in the first place. A show of muscle was necessary and has been seen in the growing number of ceasefire violations and the grisly mutilation. Besides, there is a significant battle for succession within the Pakistani army. All the prospective candidates would want to exhibit their credentials in terms of their previous and current operations against India. Even if Raheel Sharif is not interested in an extension for himself, he would like to control the succession.

The onset of winter—and one which will be politically tough for India in the valley—along with the current political moment in Pakistan have together created the ground for the latter to show strength in response to India’s surgical strikes. Nevertheless, New Delhi’s task is surprisingly simple: Raise the cost of anti-India activity for Pakistan through military, diplomatic and economic means.

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