The Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, wants to reset Pakistan foreign policy’s strategic national security parameters – especially in relation to India and the core dispute of Kashmir. This has defined Pakistan’s goals for decades. He says a “strategic pause” is needed because of compelling new economic, political and regional realities. He outlined his thoughts at a National Security Conference in Islamabad last month and followed it up with a long, informal, talk with over two dozen journalists last week, the gist of which is the need to “normalize” relations with India without necessarily first resolving core disputes.
No one can dispute the sensible logic of being a “normal” country, with “normal” relations with other countries. After all, that is the way of the globalising world and no country can afford to be in a perpetual and continuing state of hostility and war with another country just because some disputes – even core ones – remain unresolved. But for a host of important reasons, this “noble” objective is easier said than done for Pakistan.
For over 70 years, Pakistan’s Miltablishment has bled the Kashmir scar of the Partition and treated India as the perennial arch-enemy with which there can be no normal relations until the core dispute of Kashmir is settled in accordance with pledges made by India to the United Nations in 1948. To this end, Pakistan has waged war with India four times and promoted jihad in Kashmir to try and liberate it from the yoke of Indian subjugation. Unfortunately, such efforts, far from bearing fruit, have exacted a huge price from Pakistan’s own state and society. We have lost half the country. We have lost Siachin. We have provoked the Indian state to unleash unprecedented, brutal repression on the people of Kashmir, wiping out two generations. We have impoverished tens of millions of Pakistanis by diverting scarce public resources from citizens’ welfare to requirements of defense. We have warped the Constitution to erode democratic freedoms and citizen rights. We have erected an education system to brainwash one generation after another with subnormal notions of ideology and sacred cows. We have made all politics subservient to an errant and unaccountable “deep” state rather than a democratic Constitution. And so on. How on earth, under these deep rooted adverse circumstances, does General Bajwa expect his proposed U-Turn to yield “positive” results overnight, not least when his own institution is under fire for a continuing string of constitutional subversions, for propping up an inept and unpopular government, for trying to eliminate two mainstream political parties which claim an overwhelming majority of the popular vote?
In fact, it can be argued that the PPP and PMLN have, by turns, tried to change the national security narrative of the state to better manage both “normal” relations with India and also improve the lot of the people by limiting the relentless growth of defense expenditures and spending more on social welfare. But both have been punished and outcast by the Miltablishment for precisely this thinking. Today, when General Bajwa is seriously considering the very options both these parties have long advocated, he might have been advised to make them lead partners in a historic U-Turn which they, and only they, can sell to the people of Pakistan.
Instead, General Bajwa has lectured a group of journalists to build a national narrative supporting his “strategic pause”. This “media-management” is misplaced concreteness. Even if they don’t admit it, half the journalists in this group are hapless victims of decades of brainwashing that refuse to see India as anything other than the hated, anti-Muslim, anti-Pakistan arch enemy with whom there can be no normalization; the other half would rather this proposal came from elected and accountable parties and institutions in parliament rather than the Miltablishment that is increasingly viewed as part of the problem rather than the solution.
General Bajwa’s problem is accentuated by his lone partner in this enterprise. The PTI neither has the stomach to digest this narrative – consider the abusive and arrogant personal tone of Imran Khan regarding his main interlocuter in India – nor the intellectual ability to negotiate an honourable “normalization” with India, let alone sell it to the increasing mass of angry, alienated Pakistanis who are praying for his exit.
The Miltablishment reacted to the August 6, 2019, abrogation of Article 370 and 35A by the BJP government cautiously, leaving the door open for “normalization”, but the PTI government was more loyal than the King and went overboard breaking all relations with India and putting impossible pre-conditions for normalization. Indeed, it later fully messed up an opportunity to restore trade when the national interest so demanded for the good of the economy.
It is also a moot point whether the Miltablishment is institutionally ready for thus “abandoning” the cause of Kashmir (“jugular vein of Pakistan”) after so much loss of blood and territory. We might recall the fate of General Pervez Musharraf’s “four-point” formula to normalize relations with India which was blithely “abandoned” by his Miltablishment successors who swiftly reverted to form.
If the Miltablishment wants to change course because its old doctrine has become untenable, it has to get ready to abandon the commanding heights of the state and let civil society and its popular representatives use democratic and constitutional methods to de-legitimise notions of a national security state perpetually at war with its own people as well as its neighbours and replace it with the idea of a people’s welfare state in which all organs of the state are bound by their constitutional requirements and limits. That is the “normal” way the modern state is expected to behave and conduct its business in an increasingly open, free and interlinked world.
One last point. If Pakistanis are not ready to buy General Bajwa’s “strategic reset” because it isn’t being sold to them by a trusted and popular vendor or brand, imagine how much more difficult it is for India or the international community to buy it. Indeed, if they perceive it as a transactional U-Turn rather than a strategic Reset, his cause is already lost.