Rising from Sarabjit's funeral pyre, questions about peace

“Let me remind you that Pakistan was created in the name of Islam,” Pakistan army chief Parvez Ashfaq Kayani said last month, in a speech to cadet-officers at Kakul, not far from the home Osama bin-Laden was killed in. “I assure you that regardless of odds, the Pakistan Army will keep on doing its best towards our common dream for a truly Islamic Republic of Pakistan.”

In the great games of power that nation-states must engage in, the life of one person, or sometimes many, matter little. There is one reason alone that the murder of Sarabjit Singh is of special significance: if the India-Pakistan peace process isn’t robust enough to secure the life of one prisoner, despite repeated appeals since 2005, it’s profoundly unlikely to deliver the more substantial changes in Pakistani behaviour that India has long sought. Through Thursday, India’s Members of Parliament competed to voice outrage, each calling for stronger responses than the last. No one, though, has said what precisely they think India should now do—and the truth is that it’s a lot easier to talk about a response than spell out one.

Kayani’s speech points us to a looming moment of ideological crisis in the Pakistani polity. In response to a challenge from powerful jihadists seeking to capture the Pakistani state, the army is seeking to rebuild its legitimacy by casting itself as a defender of Islam and the nation founded in its name. This contestation has had, and will have, serious consequences for India.

In November, once elections to Pakistan’s parliament are over and a new prime minister is in place, Islamabad will set about making the really important decision: appointing a man to head the country’s pre-eminent institution, its army.

Kayani

The Pakistani Army is rebuilding its legitimacy by casting itself as the defender of Islam. AFP

Khalid Shamim Wynne, the four-star general who serves as Pakistan’s chief of defence staff, is due to retire on October 6; his colleague Lieutenant-General Khalid Nawaz Khan, commander of the X corps in Rawalpindi, will have left service two days earlier, along with Lt Gen Muhammad Alam Khattak, commander of the Quetta XII corps. Kayani protégé Lieutenant-General Muhammad Zaheer-ul-Islam, the chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence, will be in the race, along with Mangla-based I corps commander Tariq Khan and Lieutenant-General Raheel Sharif. Early this year, Kayani signalled his preference, making Lieutenant-General Rashad Mahmood Chief of General Staff—head of the directorates of both military operations and military intelligence.

The man who does take office will have one principal task: ending Pakistan’s losing war with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, as well as other jihadist groups.

For months now, Kayani has been telling top journalists that the army alone can deal with this growing existential challenge—not politicians, who ought to limit their ambitions to governance. He has been elusive, though, on detail. The strategic analyst Ayesha Siddiqa writes of Kayani’s soirees: “he sits there strategically dropping pearls of wisdom to set the tone for a debate... He offers no comments; he only blows rings of cigarette smoke around his captive audience.”

The past offers some insights into what Kayani’s thoughts might in fact be. Following the carnage on 9/11, Pakistan’s strategic appraisal of its position changed—and not only because George Bush threatened to bomb it back into the stone age. The then interior minister Lieutenant-General Moinuddin Haider told the scholar George Perkovich that he had persuaded President Pervez Musharraf his economic revival plans would not work as long as religious extremists generated crisis. He wasn’t alone. Former ISI chief Lieutenant-General Javaed Ashraf Qazi also argued for a break with the jihadists, publicly saying “the Jaish-e-Mohammad was involved in the deaths of thousands of innocent Kashmiris, bombing the Indian Parliament, Daniel Pearl's murder.”

In the wake of the 2001-02 military crisis with India, which imposed crippling costs on Pakistan’s economy, Musharraf began listening to these voices. His eventual decision to back down from the jihad against India involved complex secret negotiations—including talks towards a phased settlement on Jammu and Kashmir and secret meetings involving the Research and Analysis Wing and the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate on ending cross-border terrorism.

Things didn’t quite work according to plan, though. In July 2007, the Pakistan army was forced to storm the Lal Masjid, a hardline seminary in Islamabad—setting off what was to turn out to be a decisive break between the jihadists and the Pakistan state. Musharraf also faced increasing opposition at home, leading the army to eventually ease him out of office—and the country.

Kayani’s leadership saw the army change course drastically. In 2008, soon after General Kayani took office, the ISI authorised a murderous attack on India’s embassy in Kabul. Investigations into 26/11 also found the ISI played a direct role. His handpicked ISI chief Lieutenant-General Shuja Pasha hailed jihadist leaders Baitullah Mehsud and Mullah Fazlullah—the first alleged to be Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, the second the killer of hundreds of Pakistani troops—as “true patriots”. The secret dialogue on Kashmir was killed. Speaking to journalists, Kayani bluntly announced that the relationship would not “change in any significant way until the Kashmir issue and water disputes are resolved.”

Even though Kayani kept telling the United States he would soon unleash his forces in Waziristan against jihadists—there are one infantry division, five brigades, 12 battalions and 11 Frontier Corps units deployed in the region’s northern division, and another division, four brigades, 11 battalions, seven Frontier Corps wings in the south—he equally consistently failed to do so.

These tactics, the data show, did buy peace. Fatalities in terrorist attacks fell from 11,704 in 20o9 to 2,354 last year, according to the Institute for Conflict Management’s South Asia Terrorism Portal. In part, this was won by making a succession of peace deals surrendering state authority to local Islamist warlords.

Not surprisingly, a price has been paid. The ongoing elections in Pakistan have, for all practical purposes, been subverted by violence, especially targeting anti-jihadist formations like the Awami National Party. Karachi-based newspaper Dawn has pointed to the “Faustian bargain” major democratic parties have made with jihadists. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League has openly allied with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi terrorists in Punjab; Imran Khan has been equivocal.

In a video released last month, Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud explained the Taliban bombing campaign. “Democracy,” he said, “is a system of infidels and [is] against the shari’a, Allah's system. So we do not accept democracy. We would have jumped into the field of democracy if we were convinced. We consider democracy as unbelief. Democracy was introduced by the Jews in order to divide and create rifts among Muslims.”

Mehsud concluded: “We want Allah’s system in the land of Allah.”

Kayani, we know from his April speech, is promising exactly the same thing—and suggesting the army, not the politicians, can ensure it. The scholar Ali Eteraz has observed that Pakistan’s institutional secularism disintegrated in 1971—the moment he described as the country’s “Iran moment”. The constitution brought into force that year decreed that “sovereignty over the entire Universe belongs to Almighty Allah alone.” Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s military ruler from 1977 to 1988, built the state this constitution enjoined, placing the army at its core. He left no manifesto, but commended to his officers Brigadier SK Malik’s The Quranic Conception of War. The raison d’etre of new Islamic state, Brigadier Malik argued, was jihad, the “near-equivalent of total or grand strategy or policy in-execution.”

Put another way, Zia’s Islamic state was designed for perpetual conflict—conflict that would ensure the primacy of its praetorian guard, the army.

Zia’s ideas long survived his demise—shaping official discourse all the way to Kayani. Brigadier Saifi Ahmad Naqvi, writing in Pakistan army’s official Green Book in 1994, argued that “the existence and survival of Pakistan depend upon complete implementation of Islamic ideology in true sense.” That ideology, others went on to claim, precluded an alliance with the west. In 2008, Brigadier Waqar Hassan Khan even claimed that the Taliban (whom his comrades were fighting) were “a bogey created by RAW, Mossad, and probably the United States.”

In recent months, evidence of the Pakistan army’s intentions on India has been mounting. Ever since Kayani took power, the ceasefire put in place on the Line of Control in 2003 has frayed. India reported 28 ceasefire violations in 2009, 44 in 2010, 60 in 2011, and 117 last year. Though there’s plenty of reason to believe Indian troops have given as good as they’ve got, the uptick is worrying. Kashmir has continued to see a decline in violence: fatalities, including of terrorists and security forces, fell from 368 in 2010 to 195 in 2011 and 124 in 2012. Yet, the first three months of this year alone have seen security force fatalities cross 15, last year’s total. Perhaps most worrying, evidence continues to pour in that Karachi-based jihadists are sponsoring terror cells in India.

No one in India knows for certain who murdered Sarabjit Singh: prisoners acting alone for reasons unknown; killers linked to jihadist groups, in retaliation for Afzal Guru’s hanging; elements of the ISI, who feared a man they claimed was a terrorist might be freed under pressure. It's possible we’ll never know the truth—and in some senses it doesn’t matter. The point is that the Pakistani state, despite repeated Indian entreaties and warnings that Singh’s life was at risk, didn't see reason to act.

Singh’s cremation today, thus, isn’t just a moment to contemplate an act of violence against Indians by elements in Pakistan. In that grim chronicle, it is, tragically, a minor footnote. The more important question is where the India-Pakistan relationship is headed. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s much-reviled Pakistan policy might indeed be replete with sentimental banalities, but it is is founded on common sense: wars undermine India’s overarching strategic goal, as-rapid-as-possible economic growth. It is also clear, though, that India will face escalating threats from both the key actors who hold the keys to Pakistan’s future—the military, and the jihadists.

There are all sorts of weapons India could prepare for possible use, from the targeted assassination of jihadist leaders, to military pressure on Pakistan on the Line of Control, to the use of economic muscle, to hardball diplomacy. None is guaranteed to work—and all come with consequences..

Even if we’re not interested in war, goes a saying attributed to Leon Trotsky, war is interested in us. It’s an aphorism Indian strategists need to start contemplating.

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