Last month, Former Chief of India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), AS Dulat, in an unusual overture, pitched an invitation to Pakistan’s Army Chief, Qamar Ahmed Bajwa, in an interview to an Indian media outlet. Dulat said:
‘We should invite General Bajwa, the army chief. He has been talking peace and also a lot of our frustration in our dialogue with Pakistan is because we feel frustrated by the armed forces or what we call the ‘deep state’ — the ISI or the army. Therefore, why not talk to the army chief directly? He is talking reasonably now. Why not invite the army chief, just an idea?
Dulat, who served as the Director of R&AW from 1999-2000, was also part of a rare book project published last month. Titled Spy Chronicles – RAW ISI And the Illusion of Peace, it consists of conversations between him and Lt. General Asad Durrani, former Chief of R&AW’s Pakistan equivalent, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), at different locations. Prominent journalist Aditya Sinha guided the conversations.
The former Chief of RAW’s suggestion to reach out to Pakistan’s Army Chief has been dubbed as outlandish by several retired diplomats, strategic analysts, and journalists. Dulat made this suggestion in the context of recent reconciliatory statements made by the Pakistani Army Chief on ties with India, most notably the passing-out parade of cadets at the Military Academy, Kakul on 14 April 2018 where Bajwa said:
‘It is our sincere belief that the route to peaceful resolution of Pak-India disputes – including the core issue of Kashmir – runs through comprehensive and meaningful dialogue.’
Significantly, Bajwa had also invited the Indian Defence Attaché in Islamabad, Sanjay Vishwarao, and other diplomats for the Pakistan Day Military Parade in Islamabad on 23 March 2018. India on its part accepted the invitation for the Parade.
Notably, the ex Indian spy chief wasn’t the only one to acknowledge General Bajwa’s hope for a peaceful settlement of disputes. Even the Indian Defence Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, welcomed the statements. On the sidelines of a seminar on Artificial Intelligence, Sitharaman had remarked:
“Any comment on wanting peace will definitely be taken seriously.”
Beyond the sensations
If one were to look beyond Bajwa’s remarks, a set other important steps have been taken by both parties in the past few months. Both sdes have agreed to humanitarian gestures pertaining to prisoners languishing in each other’s jails (especially the return of elderly and ailing prisoners). Pakistan has already released one ailing Indian prisoner on humanitarian grounds. The Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, Ajay Bisaria, has spoken about the need for giving a push to trade ties between both countries. The Indian High Commissioner at one of his addresses also stated,that India and Pakistan need to have a futuristic vision and could draw lessons from North and South Korea who have recently embarked on a historic path to reconciliation.
Dulat’s argument about directly reaching out to the Pakistan Army is not new; many on the Indian side believe that expecting any tangible results through outreach to the civilian leadership is pointless, since it is the deep-state military establishment that calls the shots on crucial foreign policy issues, especially ties with India. During the course of the book, this particular point has been reiterated on a number of occasions.
Moreover, Dulat and Durrani also talk about how ties between New Delhi and Islamabad witnessed an improvement during General Musharraf’s reign. Dulat, for instance, points to Musharraf’s flexibility on Kashmir:
‘Without hesitation or doubt, in the last 25 years there hasn’t been a Pakistani leader more positive or reasonable on Kashmir than Musharraf. His repeatedly saying that whatever is acceptable to Kashmiris is acceptable to Pakistan – that was good for India.’
Significantly, while General Zia-Ul-Haq (the architect of Operation Tupac), is often perceived as a villain in the context of India-Pakistan ties, both Dulat and Durrani have different views.
Durrani too argues that a better relationship with India is in Pakistan Army’s interest:
‘The military has enough on its plate internally. Once you have the levers of power, you would like to keep the eastern front as quiet as possible, as well as send out a good message. So there’s a pragmatic reason. Institutionally, the military in Pakistan is not anti-India. It shows that when the generals talk to one another, they don’t have to act tough, they saw we can manage relations, I am not inhibited by any political force.’
While there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the Pakistan army calls the shots, and some progress was made in terms of India-Pakistan ties during the Musharraf era, it is important to bear in mind some of the possible reasons for Bajwa’s recent statements.
Pakistan army in the heat
Bajwa’s remarks need to be seen in the light of the challenges facing the Pakistan Army. As India and China seek to mend their relations, Beijing is likely to be compelled to rethink its approach towards Pakistan-based terror groups, at least in the long run. Furthermore, one of the key takeaways from the Wuhan Informal Summit in April 2018 was that India and China would also be working in a joint project in Afghanistan – a decision that certainly wouldn’t have pleased the Pakistan Army.
Apart from this, the army is facing a serious challenge from the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM, Pashtun Protection Movement), an ethno-political movement that has found strong resonance amongst significant quarters of the Pashtun population. Led by Manzoor Ahmed Pashteen, the movement has been seeking redressal of human rights violations against Pashtuns, including extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, as well as compensations for property destroyed by the army during operations in the FATA region in northwest Pakistan.
It was the disappearance of an aspiring model, Naqeebullah Mehsud, in January 2018 that gave the PTM immense momentum for a full-fledged movement. Mehsud, who was working in Karachi, was picked up by the Karachi police in January 2018 and was never turned in (many speculated that Mehsud had been killed an encounter). There was massive outrage following the dissappearance.
While the army has been dismissive of the movement, it has nurtured a large support base, and can not be written off.
Pakistan Army’s words and actions: clear mismatch
There is also a clear mismatch between Bajwa’s words and actions.
First, one of the issues on which ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif differed from the army was ties with India. While Sharif took a hardline approach on Kashmir, he has broadly been in favor of a better relationship with India. If the current army chief was as committed to a better relationship, he would have backed Sharif’s initiatives for peace with India.
In fact, only recently, the former PM fell into a murky swamp when gave an interview to the Dawn and spoke about Pakistan delaying the trial of those accused in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. His remarks were criticized by Pakistan’s top civil-military body, the National Security Council, which was an obvious doing of the army. Sharif had asked:
“Militant organisations are active. Call them non-state actors, should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai? Explain it to me. Why can’t we complete the trial?”
Second, under Bajwa, the army has been backing Hafiz Saeed’s participation in the political process with a view to weaken Nawaz Sharif. The army hasn’t denied this. In fact, even in an interview to The Indian Express, the head of Pakistan’s Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), Major General Ghafoor, stated:
‘Hafiz Saeed is a citizen of Pakistan and anything he does, other than violence, is good. There is a process in Pakistan for anyone to participate in politics. The Election Commission of Pakistan has its rules and laws. If he (Hafiz) fulfills all those requirements that is for the ECP to decide’.
Saeed will be contesting under the dormant political entity, Allaha-u-Akbar Tehreek (AAT), since Jamaat ud-Dawa’s Milli Muslim League has not been registered as a political party.
Finally, if there is a change in mindset in the Pakistan army, why the hostile reaction to Durrani’s participation in the book project with Dulat? Immediately after the book generated an uproar in Pakistan, the Director General of ISPR tweeted:
“[Durrani] will be asked to explain his position on views attributed to him in book ‘Spy Chronicles’.” Ghafoor further said the “attribution [is] taken as violation of military Code of Conduct applicable on all serving and retired military personnel.”
Interestingly, Durrani has also been put on the Exit Control List (ECL). While the army has given the pretext of critical statements made by Sharif and Raza Rabbani (Sharif called for an enquiry into the book, while Rabbani stated, that if a politician had been part of such an initiative he would be dubbed as a traitor) as the reason behind its punitive treatment of Durrani, it is more than obvious that the army itself, besides the ISI, too would not have been comfortable with Durrani’s candor on mistakes made by Pakistan.
Patience, not haste
Members of the intelligence community, diplomats and bureaucrats are excessively status quoist and even hawkish when they are in service. They easily dismiss unconventional initiatives by the leadership. Dulat himself has confessed in the book that he was opposed to people-to-people contact while in service.
But, after retirement, many begin to speak about the dire need for mending the relationship. Some of these recommendations are indeed impractical, and not based on ground realities, the suggestion to reach out to invite Bajwa being one such recommendation. While New Delhi may certainly pay attention to Bajwa’s overtures and hope that there is a genuine change in the mindset of the Pakistan military, it would be naïve to take a giant leap of faith – especially when the army’s actions on the ground do not match its statements.
It would serve well for New Delhi to wait for the results of the July elections and see how the civil-military relationship pans out post the results. While focussing on economic links and people-to-people ties make sense, high level meetings that are scant in substance and raving on optics are not advisable. Reckless summitry has always backfired in the context of India-Pakistan ties.
Featured image of book cover from Harper Collins India.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based policy analyst currently associated with the Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat.
Views expressed here are the author’s own.