Shifting Gears in a Minefield by JI President Sherry Rehman

Turning points often get read as pathways to either ruin or glory. In Pakistan, where muddle-through often serves as policy, the power of overnight change has much cognitive impact. But for the state, where overnight is overdue, policy-change is like an oil-tanker changing course in choppy waters. It takes its time and endangers the small craft near it, capsizing the fragile and smashing those in the backwash. That is the tussle, the existential back-and-forth going on in Pakistan today. The policy change, the turning point, is its review of national security, and how it deals with terrorism and extremism. The neighbours become links in that chain.

Has Pakistan turned any corner with its neighbours? The short answer is: It has with Afghanistan, not so much with India.

Over the last decade or more, events have forced some choices, such as the famous American phone-call to Musharraf, where he promised change without a plan, and then lost the plot, as it were.

Nothing since then has changed the view that trauma has become a defining trigger in Pakistan for policy review. Foreign policy, especially ties with neighbours, had been frozen in aspic, for over three decades, until bloodshed at the hands of terrorists propelled both parliaments and military elites to go public with the need to engage with ‘frenemies’ in ways that had potential to change the game. After the Zia era, which defaced Pakistan in ways that its society and state has still not mapped, it took a long time to be clear that if Pakistan was to secure its people, governments would need to look beyond some borders for making gains on fundamentals – in this case terrorism.

To be fair, civilian governments made a difference, at least in the vision they brought to the table. Making friends and doing business, to leverage Pakistan’s location as a potential gateway for trade and energy became the new mantra in Islamabad. Think tanks, journalists, even political parties pressed for exploring options just over the borders. Yet most of it was so much paper until the 2009 Swat operation against terrorists started the review ball rolling, where the start-up process ran into many hits and misses. Real alarm bells only rang when Pakistan’s operational hammer missed the anvil in the tribal badlands both at home and across. When the head of the Malakand terrorist group found refuge in southern Afghanistan, the need to deal constructively with an alienated Kabul graduated from preferred option to imperative. New Delhi’s reluctance to talk anything but terrorism after Mumbai 26/11 also became a neuralgia that needed reversing. There was no doctrinal shift in the Pakistan military’s thinking on India, which would only happen with serious CBMs on both sides, but there was a strategic shift in moving to work with the new century’s Asian re-alignments. This, of course, included the American pivot to the Pacific, and much useful rushing about between Islamabad and Beijing to move with the times.

In this calculus of transformational change, if there was one cliché that could hold course for policy-speak in the region, the catchphrase ‘multiple transitions’ scored high. So what is the new normal in the region, if at all we can bet on one?

Despite a year of paralysing political instability at home, Islamabad faced down many changes in the region with rare alacrity. Focus on moving a few eggs away from the big American basket had begun in 2010/11 when the military too felt it had to review ties with Washington, without making change a zero-sum option. But the real big change, and most would agree, opportunity, for re-booting ties with Kabul really surfaced after the Karzai-Kayani exit. Before that, and before the operation in North Waziristan, the good and bad Taliban message was still doing the rounds.

Today, the change between Kabul and Islamabad, divided by the spottily-policed porous border, is palpable. Years of vexed relations had left the bilateral equation in shreds. Despite President Zardari’s wooing of President Karzai, the latter had turned increasingly hostile to Pakistan in his sunset days. Pakistan’s long-awaited public shedding of ‘strategic depth,’ a policy to project political muscle in Afghanistan as a driver of its Zia era policy, reared its head around 2011. But as a policy shift it only caught credible momentum after 2014 and Zarb-e-Azb, with ISAF/American commanders in Afghanistan on the edge of their ramp-down of a 12-year-old combat mission. Better late than never was the message from everywhere.

The good news is that President Ashraf Ghani’s ascension to the presidency in Kabul has changed the dynamic between the two capitals dramatically and importantly. Gains are fragile, and like the American/NATO investments in Afghanistan, easily reversible. The establishment of a unity government in Kabul meshes well with the careful but crucial Pakistani policy of no-favourites in Afghanistan. Despite the old anxiety about Pashtun irredentism it is important to continue the multi-ethnic outreach across the board to build confidence in Afghanistan about Pakistani intent. The plan to support Kabul’s peace roadmap is only good if it is totally enunciated and sought by Kabul, no other.

On the other side, where Pakistan has a memory bank of unfinished stories with India, the election of a muscular new Modi government has changed everything. Well, pretty much. What was called the Congress government’s strategic indifference to Pakistan’s bids to resume formal dialogue after the Mumbai episode is now seen here, in comparison to today, as the decade of restraint. The new BJP’s resurfaced romance with Hindutva would be of little interest to Pakistan if it meant better or more stable relations with New Delhi. But unlike the Vajpayee BJP, which sought peace with Pakistan, the Modi government has unleashed a volley of hard talk across a flammable, flared-up border, portending only more ominous times for the nuclear neighbourhood. The condition for engaging with Pakistan is routinely trotted out as one that would only be possible minus the ‘din of terrorism.’ A desultory trade carries on now across the Wagah border, as does travel on a sole PIA flight to Delhi, but the 2003 ceasefire on the LoC in Kashmir is in tatters.

Now while sequencing counter-terrorism missions is understood by the savvy Afghan President Ghani as a prerequisite for taking on an alphabet soup of terrorist groups of every stripe, no such strategic empathy or space is messaged to Pakistan from India. In fact, quite the contrary; it appears that Modi is looking for enforcing what some say is a Reagan-like hard peace by flexing muscle and staring down the adversary. Yet this analogy too fits no suit, because Pakistan is neither at the geographical distance the Soviet Union was from America, (so wars and weapons have no insulation in South Asia), nor, unlike the cannier Reagan, is Modi able to talk while building arms. He is only building up the Indian defence machine. The point is not complicated. Pakistan has come to the counter-terror Rubicon at a very late stage, but it has begun a process. Even America, it is noted, the home of apple pie, Lockheed Martin and ‘do more,’ no longer tells Pakistan to become Denmark as a pre-condition before talking business with anyone.

The result is that while PM Nawaz Sharif continues to send olive branch after branch to PM Modi, the last decade’s hard-won multiparty consensus in Pakistan for softer conditions for peace with India has shifted its ground. Pakistanis are wary of the new India, a change that will not bring better integration for the economies of South Asia, nor will it reverse the tide of extremism and armed insurgencies raging within Pakistan, and in one-fifth of India itself. Other countries have been talking via post-SAARC vehicles, but Pakistan and India remain the Cold War T-Rexes that they are, locked in a geopolitical blind alley for no good reason.

After President Obama’s second visit to India, with a slew of new agreements flashing nuclear exceptionalism, sober minds in Pakistan too are alarmed. The issue is not at all about the fuzzy warmth of the India-US love-fest. In fact, that bears out what Foreign Policy Advisor Sartaj Aziz’s sanguine riposte of expecting better behaviour from India is about. A happier India engaged with a global hyperpower will expect to behave more rationally, goes this sound assumption. It is also not just the joint communiqué issued against Lashkars and others to be hunted down as terrorist franchises, as this would be a communiqué the people of Pakistan have been giving their government. The issue is about the timing and the source. It is also about upping the nuclear imbalance in South Asia, with little visible regard for Pakistan’s worries.

The bottom line is that Pakistan is facing an unconventional war with no exits, pretty much on its own. It’s time to focus inwards, start reclaiming territory, discourse and imagined space. Zero tolerance for terrorism can’t just be words, nor can terrorists just be the military’s targets.

The region is riddled with risks, but some paths are clearer. The Afghans are looking to create a new order from years of chaos, so they have a long way to go. Building state capacity, solvency and security will be their broad priority. Pakistan must support this effort, even if it means talking to India on Afghanistan. And before we overthink the impact of Indian ambitions in the region, we should carry on trading. And yes, Beijing is close enough for many hotlines, but don’t expect any free lunches. The coming years are going to be fuelled by conflict, terror, inequality and migrations. But it won’t, can’t be, a war without end.

Sherry Rehman is President of Jinnah Institute. Rehman has served as Federal Minister of Information and Pakistan’s Ambassador to the USA in the PPP Government. She tweets @sherryrehman

This article was originally published in Newsline’s February 2015 issue.