By Ashok K Singh
Did you notice Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif’s first tango in Riyadh? Well, if you missed them, they were there dancing to the tunes of the Saudi rulers.
The Indian government will have welcomed it, and it would have cockled the hearts of peace-niks in India to see the two Sharifs gyrate in synchronous on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Lahore visit and the Pathankot attack following that meeting. But, that wasn’t to be, even though a section of the India media went to town speculating on whether Pakistan’s civilian and the military establishments had turned a new leaf and were at last on the same page.
The fact of the matter is that Pakistan’s prime minister and his chief of army staff weren’t on the same page after Modi surprised them with his Lahore stopover. One may recall Raheel was conspicuous by his absence at the Nawaz-Modi Lahore meeting. Days later, they were not on the same page in the follow-up to India's demand for action against Jaish-e-Mohammed and its chief Masood Azhar.
There is another curious fact. And that also concerns Pakistan’s government-army relations.
Nawaz and Raheel's joint visits to Riyadh and Tehran — ostensibly on a peace mission to defuse Saudi-Iranian tensions — had a strategic purpose. But it also was a corollary to the misunderstandings that had arisen between the two Sharifs in their approach to India.
The army chief was keen on sending a message to the Nawaz government that it could not afford not to keep the army in the loop on decisions such as the one on meeting Modi and starting a process without taking the army on board. Raheel didn’t want to take chances after he was kept out of the loop in Lahore. He tightened his grip on Nawaz after the Lahore meeting and the Pathankot attack.
The duo travelled together, on one plane, to Saudi Arabia and Iran on 18 and 19 January. National Security Advisor Naseer Khan Janjua was also with them. The Pakistan government initially claimed it wanted to play the role of a mediator between the West Asian powers — the Sunni Saudi Arabia and the Shiite Iran.
But what on earth was the army chief doing in the company of Nawaz if it was a peace mission — a political and diplomatic mission? It turned out after Nawaz’s discussion with the Saudi king and Raheel’s meeting with the Saudi defence minister that the purpose of Pakistan’s declared mediation journey had changed. Before the Sharifs touched down in Tehran after talks in Riyadh, Nawaz’s office had cleared the air.
Their visit was more about talks on how Pakistan could participate in the 34-nation coalition of Muslim countries — an initiative taken by the Saudis, to combat “global terrorism” — and less about defusing the Saudi Arabia-Iran feud over regional leadership. The agenda was to discuss military cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and the role Islamabad could play in the theatre of West Asian wars.
Saudi Arabia has already set the framework.
Pakistan is required to play a military role in the Muslim coalition’s “counter-terrorism” initiative. Whether Pakistan’s role will be confined to sharing intelligence, training and logistics or whether it will go beyond that is the big question. The Saudi initiative is aimed at curtailing Iran’s influence in the region. It’s hard to understand how Nawaz and Raheel could play the role of mediator between Saudi Arabia and Iran, while they are part of an anti-Iranian coalition and while they are discussing the nitty-gritty of Pakistan’s role in the coalition with the Saudis?
The agenda of the visit — that is to define the role of Pakistan in a military coalition — explains the presence of the army chief on the delegation of the prime minister. Raheel’s presence also reinforces the fact that Nawaz is not free to take independent decisions on strategic issues whether relating to India or West Asia.
Nawaz overlooked this reality for a moment while welcoming Modi in Lahore, even though it wasn’t a structured strategic meeting. The army chief is said to have remarked after the Lahore meeting that the civilian government was being given breathing space.
That Nawaz and Raheel were not on the same page on Modi’s Lahore visit and on the Pathankot attack became clear from the whole series of confusions and mixed signals that emanated from Islamabad in response to the Indian demand for action against JeM chief Masood Azhar. They had nuanced differences and perceptions, if not outright disagreement, over the events starting from Modi’s Lahore visit, the Pathankot attack and the Indian insistence on hinging the foreign secretary-level talks on the action to be taken against the terrorists involved in the attack.
Did Pakistan put Azhar under detention? Nobody, including the Pakistan’s ministers, knew for sure.
Is he under detention? There is no answer.
Was his office sealed? Well, according to some Pakistani newspaper accounts, Azhar has no office. He operates out of a seminary in Bahawalpur.
So, which office was sealed?
This confusion arose because Nawaz and his army chief were not on the same page. All through those days after the air base attack, the army kept Nawaz on tenterhooks. The prime minister was desperate to save the Lahore process and save face; Raaheel was keen to send a message to the civilian leadership that the army would call the shots.
And the army chief grabbed the initiative when the Saudi foreign minister and the defence minister visited Islamabad in quick succession to persuade Pakistan to join the Saudis in their feud against Iran.
It’s the Sharif tango that India needs to watch closely in dealing with Pakistan.
The writer is a journalist and commentator