Path not taken

Path not taken
Three recent developments are significant. They shed light on the path that Pakistan’s powerful Establishment is treading. This will determine how Pakistan will fare at home and abroad. But, as a poet remarked, the path not taken will make all the difference.

The Establishment’s “strategic deterrence against India” was successfully tested last Wednesday. The Nasr short range ballistic missile is equipped to carry “tactical” nuclear bombs. The army chief, General Qamar Bajwa, said that “Nasr has put cold water on cold start”. The Indian “cold start doctrine” – readiness to aggress against Pakistan at hours’ notice – was earlier confirmed by the Indian army chief Gen Bipin Rawat. Regional peace is now dependent upon an expensive arms race that has escalated from conventional to nuclear weapons at the cost of people’s social welfare in both countries. Pakistan’s strategic capability, said Gen Bajwa, was a guarantee against a highly militarized and increasingly belligerent neighbor. India is the leading buyer of weapons in the world and the Modi government is vigorously pursuing the Doval “doctrine of aggressive-defense”.

The Establishment’s policy towards Afghanistan is also shaped by its India policy. Originally, it was packaged as a quest for “strategic depth”. This meant support for jihad by Pakhtun Islamic Mujahideen in the 1990s. When that project didn’t succeed, the Taliban were muscled into Kabul. But when that project also failed, they were provided safe havens in Pakistan’s borderlands to bide their time. Unfortunately, the unintended consequences of that reprieve led to the creation of the Pakistan Taliban and their transfiguration into the Islamic State in recent times that threatens both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The strategic doctrine also changed marginally. Instead of “strategic depth” in a client state, the Establishment now furthered the cause of a “friendly state” in an independent Afghanistan. When this too didn’t happen, the doctrine was further adjusted to accept a “neutral” Afghanistan with power sharing among the various Afghan protagonists, especially Pakistan-backed Afghan Taliban. But the inability of the Establishment to nudge the Afghan Taliban into such an agreement, coupled with the inability of the US backed Kabul regime to coerce them into submission, has put paid to such efforts too. This failure in Afghanistan is now impinging critically on the Establishment’s relations with America. That leads into the second development.

US Senator John McCain’s warning – Pakistan should stop supporting or sheltering the Haqqani network or face US sanctions – comes after his visit to Pakistan last week. Earlier, Nato Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, found it “absolutely unacceptable that a country provides sanctuary to terrorist groups responsible for terrorist attacks inside another country”. Much the same sentiment was expressed in a recent Pentagon report to Senator McCain that blames Pakistan for the failure of US policy in Afghanistan. The pro-India Trump administration is now seriously reviewing its relationship with Pakistan in the light of its dwindling options in Afghanistan.

The third development that is casting a shadow on the Establishment’s national security paradigm is internal. It is reflected in the increasingly shrill accusation by the ruling PMLN party and government that the Establishment is “conspiring” to get rid of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. On Wednesday, as the army chief glowed with satisfaction over Nasr, the prime minister’s daughter, Maryam, was slamming the “hidden hands” behind the PanamaLeaks probe who were “hatching conspiracies against her father”.

The Establishment is institutionally hostile to popular civilian leaders who don’t fully buy into its India-fixated national security paradigm. Nawaz Sharif has seriously challenged this in his last two incarnations as prime minister. But the problem of getting rid of Mr Sharif is akin to the problem of getting rid of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Mr Bhutto spawned Benazir who spawned Bilawal Bhutto. Last Wednesday, Maryam Nawaz Sharif emerged from the wraps of the Sharif household to successfully mark her political debut as a credible political successor to her besieged father. This would suggest that, in or out of office, Nawaz Sharif, and if necessary Maryam, will be the leader of the PMLN. And, like the PPP in Sindh, the PMLN is in Punjab to stay. This “regionalization” of politics reflects a failure of the Establishment to hold the center.

The Establishment’s refusal to talk “realistically” with India undermines its credentials and ability to negotiate “realistically” with Washington and Kabul. Much the same attitude underscores the debilitating tension in its relations with popularly elected civilian leaders at home. Significantly, attempts to review external policy and establish internal political neutrality after every change of high command at GHQ have invariably been wrecked at the altar of an unbending institutional view on both fronts.

This suggests that Pakistan is on a “collision course” at home and abroad. Fighting with India, US, Afghanistan, Taliban and Islamic State amidst shrill tensions in civil-military relations at a time when the comforting breeze of CPEC is just beginning to stir the economy, is bad for Pakistan. The sudden plunge of the rupee against the dollar is an ominous sign of the times. The path not taken will make all the difference.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.