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Worldview From GHQ
For decades now, Pakistanis have watched on their TV screens images of the corps commanders’ conference room at the Pakistan army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. The images are invariably beamed every time the generals meet. And invariably, the images would show dour officers seated around a long table, engaged in discussions on the country’s future. Of course, these TV grabs are supposed to evoke a sense of awe, conveying to the audience who really holds the reins of power in Pakistan. It’s in this room that contemporary history has been shaped—generals are known to have walked out to stage a coup, call for election, or reprimand civilian governments trying to assert themselves.
Into this room I walked in gingerly on February 12, Friday. Present along with me were a clutch of former generals and strategic thinkers. The room reeked of history, of power, but today also an expectation of disclosures significant to diplomacy and the region in general.
Islamabad is worried about Gen Kapoor’s statements on a cold start strategy “under a nuclear overhang”.
Perhaps my expectations rose because of the timing of General Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani’s briefing, held as it was in the week during which India had invited Pakistan for talks. For a man who was at best reticent during his earlier tenure as director-general, isi, it was surprising to find the army chief expressing his thoughts on strategic issues with a candour quite remarkable for a general. During the three-hour interaction, he smoked six cigarettes, each time replacing the one in the cigarette filter before it had become a stub (he didn’t light up in the first hour) as he proudly talked about the successful army operations in Swat, Malakand and South Waziristan. The myth had been broken, he said, that no army could take control of South Waziristan and hold it. Heliborne operations at 8,000 feet in South Waziristan were the largest ever in South Asia, he declared, and for which the US didn’t pay a cent.
The conversation turned to India. Questions flew thick and fast. As Outlook heard Gen Kiyani speak on strategic issues, it was easy to draw some conclusions: Pakistan won’t countenance a significant role for India in Afghanistan; New Delhi’s recent military pronouncements worry Islamabad immensely; the gains from backchannel diplomacy, launched during Pervez Musharraf’s rule, need not necessarily be the starting point for Islamabad now; and Kashmir remains Pakistan’s principal focus.
At one point during the interview, Gen Kiyani intoned emphatically, “Yes, we are India-centric.” He then went on to spell out his reasons, taking quite seriously Indian army chief Deepak Kapoor’s cold start doctrine articulated in December last. General Kiyani said, “We have unresolved issues, a history of conflict and now the cold start doctrine. Help us resolve these issues so that we can shift our attention from the eastern borders to the west. Let us normalise these burning issues. We want peaceful coexistence with India. After all, India has the capability, and good intentions can change overnight.” Strong words these.
Islamabad remains worried about General Kapoor’s statements at a closed-door seminar at the Army Training Command, Shimla, where he underlined the need to bolster India’s capability to wage a two-front war (against Pakistan and China). He had wanted India to develop a cold start strategy—of launching quick offensives (presumably against Pakistan) “under a nuclear overhang”. New Delhi’s disclaimers that it didn’t share Kapoor’s views had no takers in the GHQ.
General Kiyani also opposed the idea of India training the Afghan National Army. “Strategically, we cannot have an Afghan army on my western border which has an Indian mindset. If we have an army trained by Pakistan, there will be better interactions on the western border.” Expect an intense jostling for space between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan.
Partly, the jostling for space arises from Pakistan’s need to remain relevant in the region, at a time New Delhi has inched closer to Washington and gallops ahead economically. Kiyani said as much, “Our objective is that at the end of all this (Afghanistan), we should not be standing in the wrong corner of the room and should remain relevant in the region. This is our greatest challenge.”
Kiyani’s remarks, and those of many others in the government, have etched out the backdrop to the talks between India and Pakistan. For one, it seems quite probable that Pakistan would want to start fresh on Kashmir, not inclined to consolidate upon the scheme agreed upon by Musharraf and Manmohan Singh. Reportedly worked out through protracted backchannel diplomacy, the two sides had agreed to provide self-governance in the two parts of Kashmir, undertake demilitarisation in phases there and, ultimately, establish a joint mechanism to administer the two parts.
Reflecting the military’s thinking (which controls Islamabad’s policy on Afghanistan, India, the US and nuclear policy) was foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who declared, “We know nothing of this backchannel diplomacy. There is not a shred of paper present in the foreign office on this.” Countering him was his predecessor, Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri, who told Outlook, “What’s he talking about? Why this flip-flop? The files are present at the president’s office and President Zardari must have seen those when he commented, soon after he took office, that the nation would hear some good news on Kashmir soon. (If you do this flip-flop), no one will take you seriously....”
The political class seems to be veering around to the view that Pakistan must begin afresh on Kashmir. As Pakistan Muslim League (Q) leader Mushahid Hussain says, “Many problems have accumulated since the time Musharraf left. India now boasts of a cold start doctrine, there is also the looming water war, the situation in Balochistan and India’s role in Afghanistan. The Pakistan army also feels that India left no stone unturned to isolate it internationally.” About the backchannel diplomacy under the current dispensation, Hussain said, “To my knowledge, only one meeting has taken place, between Indian diplomat S.K. Lambah and (ex-foreign secretary) Riaz Mohammad Khan in Bangkok.”
At the GHQ interaction, Kiyani confidently said that the world was finally listening to Pakistan’s story. It should give a certain heft to Islamabad as it engages with New Delhi. Perhaps it was also the reason why India did not overplay the Pune blast, aware that the wind perhaps has shifted direction post-Mumbai.