Just back from a seemingly successful US trip, the biggest issue for Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, is to what degree can he resist not responding to a crisis in Kashmir.
The Narendra Modi government has effectively scrapped Article 370, which assures special status to the state.
Bajwa and his team returned home from the US feeling elated: they managed almost-unforeseen tactical gains in the American capital. The military trio that went to the US separately, and not with Prime Minister Imran Khan, on a special flight had hoped to start a conversation with the Americans.
What they got was much more: a 21-gun salute, and meetings with US President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, retired US General Jack Keane, and other important people in the American administration. All this was organised courtesy Britain and Senator Lindsey Graham, termed by journalist Wajid Ali Syed as a newer version of Charlie Wilson.
Sources say that even the IMF and World Bank officials were asked to meet General Bajwa after his meeting at the White House although they had already met Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Besides the fact that the tactical success happened in a space ridden with rising economic tension between Delhi and Washington, Pakistan’s military thought it was playing well on American tactical needs – driven by demands of the forthcoming elections to settle the Afghanistan issue, Washington was ready to engage with Pakistan.
Apparently, Trump flattered the Pakistani general at length. For Bajwa and his men, Afghanistan proved to be a door-opener. There was hope that the relationship could be built upon further by giving the US administration the confidence that Pakistan would divert from China to the West and not allow Beijing strategic access to Gwadar.
What’s next for Pakistan
Trump did more than making the Pakistani visitors happy. Responding to a question by a Pakistani journalist, the US president showed his inclination to mediate between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir issue. This was probably interpreted as Washington’s willingness to put pressure on India to solve the Kashmir issue. The military trio was probably so overawed by Trump’s charm offensive vis-à-vis General Bajwa that they did not think about a situation in which Delhi would go on an offensive in Kashmir.
So, in reality, not only did the ‘successful’ visit not materialise in any cash in the pocket, the Pakistani visitors ended up committing abandonment of a major part of the military’s strategy – the jihadi proxies. The fact is that there is nothing allocated for Pakistan in the current financial year ending June 2020. The only signal of good faith from the US is the approval of $125-million worth of military equipment under Foreign Military Sales (FMS), which means that Pakistan will have to pay the amount itself. But the approval of FMS for Pakistan’s F-16s is tantamount to making a cat happy so it follows you around a bit more.
It’s to tempt General Bajwa to take the harder decisions of containing militancy in Pakistan and not allowing the Chinese the strategic use of Gwadar port. Both are major decisions for the army leadership.
Challenge for Bajwa
For Pakistan’s army chief, a successful US visit was important for personal reasons – an extension that will be decided by the middle of September. The issue is not the political government but his equals in his own organisation, who are watching intently as to what does he bring to the table.
The officer cadre, in general, like the idea of Imran Khan, which is now intertwined with the image of General Bajwa. Prime Minister Imran Khan represents that rootless class of Punjabi politicians, which is not connected with the baradari (kinship) system to exploit it to its advantage in building a parallel base that could be used to challenge the military. Thus, Khan will remain tied to the military’s page for longer than his predecessors.
In the words of a British journalist, it is now easier dealing with the Pakistan government because, unlike Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan doesn’t mind if foreign governments and their representatives speak to Bajwa first or don’t talk to the prime minister at all. Furthermore, Khan is wholeheartedly committed to aiding in constructing the image of the military as the only above-board institution and drawing attention solely to the wrongdoings of politicians.
But when he faces his generals Tuesday at the corps commanders conference, would General Bajwa be able to claim that he changed the US-Pakistan relations qualitatively? The bilateral relations have, in fact, become very sharply utilitarian.
Pakistan is expected to demonstrate ‘irreversible action’ against militancy that is verifiable by, what sources claim, CIA and the British MI6. It seems that in Washington the military trio agreed to an action plan that is “discreet, tangible, and measurable”.
The Kashmir question
However, would this agreement work now when India seems to have checkmated Pakistan in its tracks? Although the excuse being used to repeal Article 370 is that Pakistan may have planned another Pulwama-type attack, the probability of Pakistan Army’s involvement at this stage ought to be questioned. Bajwa and his men couldn’t afford to make a move before consolidating possible gains from the visit. Now, violence and an increase in the political temperature in the Kashmir valley are a possibility, which would put pressure on the army chief to respond, both from his own men and the militants.
Already, there is an observable chatter in the jihadi circle’s support base on social media. According to one such supporter: “It is time to release Hafiz Saeed. It is time to see Molana Masud Azhar in action. Wait for it the legends are coming”.
A political change in Jammu and Kashmir could weaken Pakistan Army high command’s ability to remain resolute in fulfilling its commitment to the US as per the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) yardstick.
It was just 10 days ago, after Imran Khan and General Bajwa’s return from the US, that sources claimed the para-military Pakistan Rangers arrested a large number of trained militants from south-west Punjab, which is part of Punjab chief minister’s constituency. Many of the arrests, said sources, were made based on information from Hafiz Saeed.
General’s Catch-22 moment
There was never a plan to urgently eliminate all militants. A large part of the strategy seems to depend upon cooperation from the leadership of militant groups to remain quiet and not resist arrests. This approach may not work if things go bad in Jammu and Kashmir.
Pakistan Army cannot be seen supporting proxies, especially now that it has promised Donald Trump that it will fulfil FATF goals. But then, would Bajwa want to be seen as compromising as Musharraf was to the Americans after 9/11? Americans are fairly unpopular among the mid and junior ranks of the army.
Would the men be sympathetic to their chief seemingly abandoning Kashmir because Washington wanted him to, or left him with little option? This may be the general’s Catch-22 moment. The political opposition that the general had locked up and tried to silence through his civilian partner Imran Khan is already baying for his blood, seeking answers to why an Indian action was not foreseen.
The question is: Does General Bajwa have much of a choice at the moment? His first instinct would be to call the Americans and seek their intervention, which may not necessarily go in Pakistan’s favour.
Islamabad is likely to argue that allowing US to dabble in Kashmir would hamper Pakistan’s ability to deliver in Afghanistan. There will be a lot of back-channel diplomacy between Islamabad and Washington, and Delhi and Washington. Trump would certainly like to mediate but would not want to catch his Pakistani visitors red-handed using jihadi proxies.
Also, with American intervention, the possibility of turning the LoC into an international boundary remains high. The US President’s idea of solving an outstanding dispute in South Asia may not be different from how he has visualised it in the Middle East – fence the issue in a manner that it doesn’t disturb the peace and quiet of his main partners. The question then is what would such a solution mean for the Pakistan Army that was unwilling to make adjustments with India, arguing it would compromise on the solution to Kashmir as per the UN resolutions?
Pakistan could also go to China, but the fact that in the recent months Bajwa was vocal about his preference for the West over China may make the conversation a bit difficult. Not to forget that in the past China advised Pakistan to integrate Gilgit-Baltistan into its territory, which is part of the larger J&K unsettled dispute. The idea was rejected because it would mean Pakistan accepting the LoC as international boundary. The three major powers – the US, Russia, and China – have a consensus on putting an end to militancy in the region. There will be little sympathy for allowing Pakistan to re-energise the jihadi proxies.
Domestically, the army chief could tempt himself into adhering to the hawkish voices in the military fraternity, such as the former ISI chief, General Asad Durrani, who believes, as he stated in a social media conversation that the army must “declare a state of emergency and put the country on war footing”. There is always the fear that unless the army could find a good strategy to push back India, it may try to embellish its future diplomatic offensive against Delhi with oppressive measures at home. None of this would provide immediate relief to Kashmiris in the valley.
The author is a research associate at SOAS, London and author of Military Inc. She tweets as @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.