There were five major developments in Pakistan during the first week of October 2017. The first two – attempts to repair the relations with Afghanistan and with the US are inter-linked. Repairing Pak-Afghan relations seems to be a strategy towards the second - repairing Pak-US relations. Pakistan took measures on both.
Third major development during the week is Nawaz Sharif getting re-elected as the party chief of the PML-N. On the day of his re-election, he did make few statements including not learning the lessons relating to the fall of Dhaka – hinting at the role of military in politics. Sharif’s re-election and his statements do highlight a possible trend of worsening relationship between the Establishment and him even further.
Fourth major development is related to the above, hinting at the status of civil-military relations. An ugly episode of the Rangers who are under the Interior Ministry, getting deployed on a court premises on their own, and worse prohibiting their minister from entering the premise – has raised many eyebrows on the current level of civil-military relations. A subsequent press briefing by Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, the Director General of Pakistan’s ISPR instead of clarifying the issues, further muddled it.
If the first two developments hint at an external rapprochement, the next two developments highlight rupturing of relations between civilian and security establishments.
The fifth major development in Pakistan during the first week of October was the deadly suicide attack on a Sufi shrine in an interior district of Balochistan.
Repairing the Relations with Afghanistan & the US
Two visits were the obvious highlights of Pakistan during the first week. The first one was Gen Bajwa, COAS visiting Afghanistan, and the second one Asif Khawaja, Pakistan’s foreign minister visiting the US within weeks after his earlier visit in September. Both are inter-connected; a National Security Council (NSC) meeting preceded (held in Islamabad on 29 September) both the visits, where all the major actors were present.
Army Chief's Visit to Afghanistan and Foreign Minister's Visit to Washington
Both are clearly inter-linked.
Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Bajwa visited Kabul on 01 October 2017. According to a news report, he was expected to discuss border relations including border fencing, and militancy.
While the above issues have assumed a perennial nature in Pak-Afghan relations, the real reason behind Gen Bajwa’s visit seemed to be preparing the ground for the next Pak-US discussion. Asif Khawaja, Pakistan’s foreign minister left for a three days trip to US subsequently.
Trump’s hard-hitting statement on Pakistan, as a part of his new surge in Afghanistan, had also welcomed India to play an increasing role. Both the positions of the American President, if pursued seriously by the US would seriously jeopardize Pakistan’s preeminent position in the Af-Pak region. A reduced status will undermine Pakistan’s bargaining position vis-à-vis the US.
To restart its discussions with the US, and build a working relationship with the Trump administration, Pakistan will have to start from the ground. In this context – Afghanistan. The visit of Foreign Minister’s to the US in September was a part of this strategy - to find the American pulse on what is expected and what would be acceptable.
Gen Bajwa was expected to break new grounds in Afghanistan, primarily for the sake of repairing Pak-US relations. Though Pakistan would prefer to claim, this is a part of larger interaction with Afghanistan, the timing and the chronology of events since Trumps’ Afghan speech, Khawaja’s US visit, the NSC meeting in Islamabad would prove otherwise.
Did Bajwa break new grounds in Afghanistan?
A New Af-Pak Season?
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul called the meeting as a “new season of relationship.” According to news reports, the meeting discussed issues “including security in the region, bilateral relationship, peace and stability, anti-terror efforts, business and transit relationship, and mid- and long-term ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
The immediate requirement for both sides would be to target the militant safe havens in respective countries and prevent any major attacks across the Durand Line. And the second requirement would be to stabilize the Line itself. While the first issue is straightforward, the second issue is sociological and political.
Will this become a “new season” for Pakistan and Afghanistan, as the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has forecasted?
Much will depend on what happens next. The Afghan President is expected to visit Pakistan soon. It also depends on how accommodative Pakistan becomes vis-à-vis Afghanistan. The present strategy of calibrating violence across the Durand Line, closing Af-Pak entry points to pressurize Kabul, and completely blaming Afghanistan for Pakistan’s domestic violence is unlikely to help the Af-Pak usher into a new season.
Will Pakistan change its above three strategies vis-à-vis the Durand Line? In this context, there is a subtle difference between the civilian and military perspectives. The mainstream public opinion within Pakistan favours an over haul of Pakistan’s Afghan strategies. Even the Parliament would prefer to pursue a similar strategy. But do they have the space and power to reshape Pakistan’s Afghan objectives? Aren’t the objectives and strategies in Afghanistan are in the Establishment domain?
Unless the Afghan strategy of Pakistan is pursued by civilian leadership, and looks beyond the above three issues, the idea of a new season, will unfortunately remain a déjà vu.
Did Khawaja break new grounds in Washington?
“One more Time”
The contents of the latest meeting between Asif Khawaja and the US officials are yet to be known.
However, the statement made by the US Defence Secretary James Mattis at a hearing of the US Senate Committee on Armed Services hints at a roadmap for US-Pakistan relations. He was quoted to have stated: “We need to try one more time to make this strategy work with them, by, with and through the Pakistanis, and if our best efforts fail, the President is prepared to take whatever steps are necessary.”
The US seems also to be aware of the dangers and the problems of working with the US. General Joseph F. Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the same committee where James Mattis made the above point, was quoted to have said: “It is clear to me that the ISI has connections with terrorist groups.”
Both James Mattis and the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are likely to visit Pakistan subsequently during October to discuss US-Pakistan relations. In between Pakistan’s Interior Minister is likely to visit the US.
Whether Khawaja has broke new grounds on US-Pakistan relations are not, he seems to have succeeded in buying some more time for Islamabad.
Worsening Civil-Military Relations
Three specific events during the first week of October will highlight the growing divide between the government (led by the PML-N) and the Establishment: the episode involving the Pakistan Rangers in Islamabad preventing their interior minister from entering a court premises; Sharif becoming the party chief again, following a Parliamentary legislation; and the press briefing by the ISPR Director General.
Rangers defy Interior Minister; prevent him from entering the Court
The para military forces defying their political boss – the interior minister, from entering into a court premise could happen only in Pakistan. The interior minister had no clue under whose orders the Rangers were deployed in the Court premises. Neither the interior ministry ordered them, nor the Courts requested them.
It all started on 02 October morning, when Ahsan Iqbal, Pakistan’s Interior Minister was accompanying Nawaz Sharif to a court proceeding in Islamabad. The Rangers, who function under the interior ministry, prevented their minister from entering into the Courts.
The primary question in the immediate context is: who had deployed them? The Court officials have made it clear that there was no request from them. A letter issued later from the Office of the District Magistrate of the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) says: “Rangers was not requisitioned by the ICT for any kind of deployment in the premises of the Court on 2nd October 2017”. Then on whose orders were they deployed?
The larger question is what does this mean for the ongoing cases against Nawaz Sharif. He has been complaining about a conspiracy by certain actors outside the political institutions. In the public literature, there is adequate reference to actors who tried to influence the entire process through and outside the Courts. The October 2 incident would further question the entire judicial process leading to the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif.
Finally, what will the political institutions do further on this case – from the Parliament to government and the opposition? The interior minister has threatened to resign; perhaps, he would be asked to remain silent. He roared about an inquiry into the incident. Pakistan’s shelves are full of such inquiry reports, which never saw the light of the day. The interior minister also said: “I cannot be a puppet interior minister… There can’t be a state within state.”
Perhaps, there is. But what can the elected leaders do about it? All the interior minister could do is to talk about an enquiry or resigning. Instead of rangers, had the police chief in Islamabad deployed a small contingent in the same premise and prevented the Interior Minister from entering, would the Minister be talking about an enquiry and finding the truth behind deployment? Wouldn’t he have sacked the entire top leadership by now?
So what stops the interior minister from taking action against the Rangers, who are reporting to him? Consider what the Rangers did the following day; they had the audacity to remove themselves from the Parliament and wanted a formal request from the civilian leadership!
Will the opposition parties come together and make a stand in the Parliament and ensure that the latter remains supreme? Or, given Pakistan’s history, will this issue also die subsequently?
The gathering storm between the Establishment and PML-N
Immediately after the Parliament passed amending the Election Bill, the PML-N elected Nawaz Sharif as its leader. The new Act provides for electing a person to be the party chief despite his disqualification to be the member of legislature.
Though the PML-N would like to claim this as the choice of the people, it is clear that this is the party’s choice. The opposition parties in the Parliament did not support the Act in its present version. Some did suggest modifications and some did tore up the resolution. However, the PML-N succeeded in passing it, because of its majority in the Parliament.
Two statements made by Nawaz Sharif after getting re-elected as the Party Chief suggest his present position. He referred to “nothing being learnt from the fall of Dhaka” and the use of “Doctrine of Necessity” to oust him from being the Prime Minister.
The first reference is obviously towards the role of the military in politics leading to the breakup of Pakistan. His statement of “ending a black law which was enacted twice by two dictators Ayub Khan and then Pervez Musharraf” links the new amendment not to his re-election, but to the strengthening of democracy.
The second reference is aimed at the judiciary for being subservient to the dictators by inventing a doctrine of necessity. He stated: “In the past, the Doctrine of Necessity was introduced (to legitimise martial law)…Those who violated the constitutional oath remained Sadiq and Ameen. No action committed during dictatorial rule was taken notice of under Article 184(3) of the Constitution.” He has also called for creating a similar Doctrine of Necessity “to respect people’s mandate and democracy.”
The above two statements clearly reflect the present mood of Nawaz Sharif. The larger question is, whether bulldozing an act in the Parliament despite resentment from the opposition parties will strengthen the case of democracy and supremacy of institutions. Whatever may be the strength of the case leading to his ouster, he should have waited and cleared his name in all those cases before getting re-elected as the party chief. But he is a man in a hurry. For what? What will he do next?
The Asif Ghafoor Press Briefing:
What he spoke, what he meant and what he didn’t
On 5 October 2017, Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, the Director General of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) in Pakistan addressed the media on a series of issues. The press briefing took place in the background of recent statement by Nawaz Sharif on not learning from the fall of Dhaka, the Rangers fiasco in not allowing the Interior Minister to enter into a court premises and their subsequent withdrawal from Parliament, meeting of Corps Commander and the statement by an US Official about the American concerns on the stability of government in Pakistan.
Maj Gen Ghafoor was quoted to have stated that there is no clash between the state institutions and the army is subordinate to the Constitution of Pakistan. He denied that the army was behind the accountability process (leading to the disqualification of the Nawaz Sharif) and refuted that the military is looking for a martial rule. According to him: “We obeyed the orders of Supreme Court and our two representatives became part of the JIT. The army did not produce anything during the process. It is our stand that the process should be carried out by those who have the domain to do so.”
On Sharif’s reference to not learning from the fall of Dhaka, he was quoted to have said: “So much has happened over the last 70 years… it is time to move beyond the past.” Clearly, the military is uncomfortable to look back. Worse to learn from the past.
Given the tension between the PML-N and the military, civil-military equation has assumed importance in the public debate in Pakistan. The military perhaps wants to totally brush off any debate when Ghafoor said: “these are things that should not even be spoken of.” His response to the absence of any statement after the Corps Commanders meeting was: “Silence is also expression, right?”.
The military in fact has been silent on the entire accountability process. Is that also an expression? If it is, what does that mean?
From an Indo-Pak perspective, what he said on Cross-LoC firings was important: “If they fired one bullet, our troops will respond with five…Unlike India, we cannot fire indiscriminately, as there are Kashmiri brothers on the other side, so when there are casualties on that side, it is soldiers and infrastructure. But war is not the solution.”
Is it what we see along the LoC – that there are five bullets from Pakistan for one from India and those five are not indiscriminate, because they are worried about the Kashmiri brothers? Or is the ISPR statement is only for a Pakistani audience?
Suicide Attack on a Sufi Shrine in Balochistan
On 5 October 2017, a suicide attack on a Sufi Shrine (of Pir Rakhel Shah in Fatehpur in the Jhal Magsi district of Balochistan) killed more than 20 people.
The district borders Sindh and is dominated by the Magsi tribe of the Baloch. The district is predominantly rural; according to the 2017 census, of the total 72,300 population, 68, 400 lives in rural areas. Close to 70 percent speak Balochi, and the rest speak Sindhi and Seraiki. The district is neither a predominant part of the larger Baloch insurgency, nor a part of Pakistan Taliban’s focal area. Then why was there a suicide attack on a Sufi shrine in an insignificant district?
Two trends could be identified. First, there is a deliberate attempt in the recent years to expand sectarian militancy. Shia Hazaras have been under attack in Balochistan in the recent years. Though Balochistan have witnessed violence in the past, it was predominantly led by the secular and socialist Baloch groups. One could see a new actor – a radical one, backed by a particular religious ideology, targeting a section of the Baloch community. The Baloch were not known for their radical views with respect to the religion within Pakistan.
Second, there is a deliberate attack on Sufi shrines all over in Pakistan. During early 2017, there was a major suicide attack in another Sufi shrine (Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan) in Sindh. Before, there were numerous other suicide attacks on Sufi Shrines in Sindh and Punjab.
Clearly, the attack in Jhal Magsi is a part of a larger design. The statements made by the officials, linking to external sources show yet another trends – blaming the others for the violence inside Pakistan, and not looking inwards.