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Pakistan’s new COAS Gen. Raheel Sharif will have the last word on bilateral relations

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

While General Raheel Sharif has been appointed Pakistan’s chief of army staff (COAS) by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, he is not dependent on him because he will draw his strength from three different sources: his relations with his nine corps commanders, his firm hold over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons including delivery systems, and how well he manages to retain friendly terrorist groups co-opted in his war plans against India. These terrorists groups like Laskhar, Jaish, Hizbul are what General Musharraf had once called Pakistan Army’s first line of defence (read, offence).

Thus, the Prime Minister and his COAS will not be on the same page regarding Pakistan’s national security and foreign policy. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s maturity will lie in how he handles the newly created ‘Cabinet Committee on National Security’ (CCNS) which he heads with the COAS as a member. A lesson that the Prime Minister would have learnt is that having a majority in the Parliament does not impress the army of his country. Had he listened to General Jehangir Karamat in 1998 and formed the CCNS then to accord a formal role to the army in governance, he would not have been overthrown by General Pervez Musharraf.

Therefore, while Prime Minister Sharif will at best be a notional chair of the CCNS, it is his COAS who will have the last word on Pakistan’s relations with India, the US and China. So, the Kashmir issue will continue to get high priority over bilateral trade that the Prime Minister desires. It will not be like India’s relations with China where India has allowed the trade deficit to balloon with little hope of border resolution.

This is what New Delhi needs to grasp. Like the US and China, India should attempt to open direct and parallel channel of talks, with or without the liking of Prime Minister Sharif, with General Sharif. The subject to begin with could be Afghanistan where India, to the dislike of the Pakistan Army, is seeking a foothold post-2014 when the US and Nato forces are scheduled to leave the country. India could ask the US to arrange these bilateral talks specific to Afghanistan with the Pakistan COAS.

Meanwhile, talks between the director generals of military operations for peace on the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir, which have been agreed by the two countries, should commence at the earliest. For these reasons, New Delhi should have asked General Bikram Singh to send a congratulatory letter to General Sharif on his appointment as the COAS, something which has unfortunately not been done. A thank-you note from General Sharif hopefully would have set a positive tone between the two armies.

This is not all. India needs to take two additional actions domestically to signal to General Sharif that the sought rapprochement is not from a position of weakness. One, there is the need to de-link ceasefire violations from both infiltration across the LC and bilateral talks between the civilian governments of the two countries. It should be clear that dynamics on the LC have little to do with relations with Pakistan; the first is controlled by Rawalpindi and the second by Islamabad. And, infiltration is a war-fighting strategy of the Pakistan Army much in the same way as counter-insurgency is of the Indian Army. And two, the Indian Army has to build a conventional deterrent capability at the LC. This requires an institutional change of mind-set, something that a defensively oriented army is reluctant to do.

There are a few interesting takeaways for India from General Sharif’s professional profile. His command and staff appointments against the Indian front have been exceptional, he has done courses in the UK and Canada, and retiring in October 2017, he will have a four-year tenure as COAS. The general appears more in the mould of his predecessor, the brainy General Karamat, rather than the brawny General Abdul Waheed. It is hoped that he would be less brash and opportunist than General Musharraf, more balanced in developing Pakistan’s civil-military relations, and open to level-headed negotiations. India for him, however, will remain the existential threat and Kashmir the prize to be won with credit going to his army. Therefore, his foremost priority would be to negate Indian military’s advantages, something that General Kayani did with close military ties with China and the induction of tactical nuclear weapons in the inventory.

Another significant marker in General Sharif’s profile is his last tenure as head of Pakistan Army’s doctrine and training evaluation. This would have given him a good insight into the making and execution of irregular warfare against India. Thus, on the one hand, Prime Minister Sharif would be wise not to attempt to wrest control of ISI from Rawalpindi as has been speculated in the Pakistani media. On the other hand, India will do well not to blame Islamabad for the excruciatingly slow progress on the 26/11 case for justice. There is little gainsaying that the 26/11 terrorist attacks were the handiwork of the Pakistan ISI with full support and knowledge of Rawalpindi. To expect Prime Minister Sharif to deliver Hafiz Saeed, or Dawood Ibrahim to India is akin to the US asking Islamabad to hand over Mullah Omar to them. India should learn to differentiate between Islamabad and Rawalpindi and not see the two Sharifs as one.


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