Agreeing to unconditional talks with Pakistan will be in India’s interest
With the new Pakistan Army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa having taken charge, the question Indians are asking is whether he would be a hardliner like his predecessor or ease tensions with India across the Line of Control (LC)?
The answer, perhaps, lies in two recent observations made by the Pakistan’s High Commissioner in India, Abdul Basit. Speaking with the Indian media, he said that democracy has matured in Pakistan, the balance (in civil-military relations) is set, and the era of coup was over. What he did not say is that the balance has tilted so much in favour of the military (army) that coups have been rendered unnecessary. And, ironically, India, by its 1998 nuclear tests, has contributed towards it.
With nuclear weapons in the open, the Pakistan army chief has become the unquestioned strategic player responsible for Pakistan’s foreign and security policies. In choosing Bajwa by deep selection from the list of contenders sent to him by Rawalpindi, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, like earlier times was not picking up the candidate for the powerful post of army chief who may not overthrow him, but one who would give breather from alleged corruption charges levelled against him by Panama leaks.
It all started with Pakistan Army chief, General Jehangir Karamat, who in May 1998 took the decision for Pakistan to conduct its nuclear tests to ‘maintain strategic parity’, as he put it, with India. Having demonstrated nuclear weapons capability, converting it into nuclear weapons under Rawalpindi’s watch, was the natural next step. Within weeks of the nuclear tests, the Pakistan Army was briefing the Pakistan foreign ministry on various aspects of its nuclear policy. With the ownership of nukes, the stature of the Pakistan Army chief, both within and outside the country, was taller than that of the prime minister.
Given the altered situation, the Pakistan military sought a more direct role in the country’s governance and to use its nuclear weaponisation to give it a larger role on the world stage. With this in mind, Karamat, on 5 October 1998, publicly floated the idea of a National Security Council (NSC) where, in an institutionalised fashion, the army would have a role in the government. Prime Minister Sharif saw this as an affront to the people’s mandate, and asked Karamat to resign, which he did on 7 October 1998.
His successor, General Pervez Musharraf took two steps immediately on assuming command. He created the Strategic Plans Division (SPD) comprising army officers to oversee nuclear weapons management. And he submitted the National Command Authority (NCA) organisation plan for nuclear weapons decision-making to be headed by political and military leaders to Prime Minister Sharif. Sharif was sceptical of the NCA plan as it resembled the NSC (first proposed by General Zia ul Haq in 1985) and had more military officers rather than civilians in it. It remained on paper until Sharif was deposed by Musharraf after the 1999 Kargil conflict.
Once in power, Musharraf, on 2 February 2000, announced the creation of the NCA, consisting of military and political leaders under the direction of the SPD. Musharraf as the Chief Executive (and later as the President) was the chairman of the NCA and the SPD reported to him. Having assumed total control over all aspects of nuclear weapons policy and management, Musharraf formed the NSC (for institutionalised role of the military in governance) for which Karamat had been forced to resign. The NSC did not go far as (a) its role was unclear; whether it was an executive or advisory body, and (b) after Musharraf was deposed, President Asif Ali Zardari simply let it languish.
Meanwhile, following the 18th amendment to the Constitution in April 2010 whereby substantive presidential powers were handed over to the prime minister, Pakistan Army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani revamped the NCA to consist of the Employment Control Committee (ECC) and Development Control Committee (DCC). The DCC responsible for nuclear weapons management has the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC), always from the army, as its deputy chairman and all members from the military (read army) with the prime minister as its chairman (on paper). With the SPD as the nerve centre of the DCC firmly under the control of the army chief, the prime minister, just like the Inter-services Intelligence (ISI) which notionally reports to him, had as little to do with nukes as he had with sub-conventional (terrorism) warfare. Since both the director generals of SPD and the ISI report to the army chief, he, and not the prime minister, is the key strategic player with whom the world (except India) interacts with.
The ECC, also headed by the prime minister with the foreign minister as its deputy chairman and with military chiefs amongst others is responsible for nuclear strategy — their employment, deployment and actual use. With the DCC and the SPD under the army’s control, there is little that the ECC can really do. It instead had during Kayani’s tenure evolved into the forum where governance issue was discussed by the political and military leadership — a de facto NSC.
Peculiar to Pakistan, while the prime minister select the army chief, the latter draws his strength from three extraneous sources: his control over nuclear weapons management, his ties with the nine corps commanders who command field forces, and his association with jihadi leaders, who working with the ISI, undertake sub-conventional operations. Given the unique position of the army chief where he now dictates governance to the prime minister, Basit was right in saying that the era of coups in Pakistan was over.
Basit’s other observation was equally significant: Since escalation on the LC is not in Pakistan’s as well as India’s interest, sooner or later, the two sides will need to sit down and talk all issues that confront them. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s defence minister, Khawaja Asif was quoted as saying that the military policy will not change with the change of guard at Rawalpindi. This has been interpreted by analysts to imply that Bajwa will remain focused on the LC and not de-escalate tensions with India. This would be an incorrect interpretation.
Being Pakistan’s foremost strategic player — which is being much more than operational commander like Indian services chiefs — Bajwa’s top priority, much like his predecessor, would be the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Pakistan’s turbulent eastern front (India) and western front (Afghanistan) gain importance because of their immediate relevance to the CPEC — which is the flagship of China’s One Belt One Road project meant to propel it as the foremost geostrategic player in Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region.
The southern end of the CPEC ends at the Gwadar port which, in November 2016, has transformed from China’s logistics support hub to military base. Once the first Chinese merchant ship carrying cargo transported along the CPEC left Gwadar for the Middle East, Pakistan announced that guarding the Gwadar port would be the joint responsibility of the Pakistan Navy and China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Given the task which involves building interoperability (ability of two navies to fight together for common mission), PLAN warships (including submarines) would be permanently stationed at Gwadar.
Not to miss the commercial opportunity, Russia, which has joined China’s One Belt One Road, expressed desire (as disclosed by Pakistan on November 26) to use the warm water Gwadar port. Once Russian commercial ships escorted by its warships start using the Gwadar port, Moscow would, de facto, legitimise the CPEC. To take this argument further, India, which gets its operational sustenance (spares for its Russian equipment inventory) from Moscow might have difficulty in getting Russian military procurements (including BRAHMOS cruise missile) in the event of an India-Pakistan escalation on the LC.
Meanwhile, the northern end of the CPEC which passes through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) is unstable. Instead of discussing the Kashmir resolution with Pakistan, the Narendra Modi government has declared getting back POK and Gilgit-Baltistan from Pakistan as its mission. The dichotomy in the end-game desired by India and Pakistan is responsible for tensions between India and Pakistan. Bajwa, who has China’s support and perhaps now of Russia as well cannot be expected to defuse tensions on the LC until India agrees to unconditional talks.
Moreover, with both Pakistan and China being non-status quo powers, it would be difficult for India to control the present escalation levels on the LC for long. Sooner rather than later, India will need to take the call: either talk Kashmir resolution amongst other issues with Pakistan (the Pakistan Army through the National Security Advisor route), or be prepared for the worst. Given the state of India’s military preparedness, it would be unwise to let matters drift.