The Trump administration is mixing harsh words in public with significant concessions to Islamabad in private. Moscow is giving top of the line offensive military equipment to Pakistan. China too remains a generous armourer of GHQ Rawalpindi.
New Delhi: When GHQ Rawalpindi placed its bets on Imran Khan as the Prime Minister, most likely to carry forward its regional and international agenda in 2015, there were several sceptics among the Corps Commanders who collectively form the Politburo of the ruling power in Pakistan, the army. The former cricketing sensation was known to be “difficult to handle”, given his ego-centric personality and mercurial temperament. However, over the previous six years that he was being carefully studied by the military top brass, Imran Khan had shown himself to be attentive to the needs of the army and attuned to their wavelength, both domestically and externally, if only because of his ambition to head the civilian government in Pakistan. After testing him in informal and quasi-diplomatic missions in Europe, the Middle East, the US and China (which in ascending order are the most important theatres for Pakistan’s military-linked diplomacy), it was decided by the generals that an Imran Khan Prime Ministership would give a misleading and internationally acceptable civilian face to GHQ Rawalpindi’s policies. Thereby, enough camouflage netting could get drawn over military policies concerning terror auxiliaries. Imran was clearly capable of charming sceptical establishments in Washington, London and Delhi into making concessions today on the promise of good behaviour by Pakistan tomorrow. Although Imran Khan saw himself almost as much Brit as he was a native Pakistani (while remaining a nominal Pashtun), such a cultural anchor did not prevent him from accepting the military’s views on how to deal with China, the country that is now seen by GHQ Rawalpindi as central to the future of the troubled and vivisected state. On Afghanistan and India, a Prime Minister Khan would do what the Chief of Army Staff “advised”. Towards mid-2015, the operation to remove Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif through use of the judiciary, which historically has been as dismissive of civilian governments in Pakistan as it has been fawning towards the men in uniform, went into high gear, and was reported in The Sunday Guardian. It may be remembered that Sharif himself was similarly discovered and promoted by the military towards the close of the 1980s, falling foul of GHQ only after he developed unreal views about his actual power by the close of the 1990s and even committed lese majesty by throwing out an army chief and publicly humiliating his successor. The final straw was the attempted exile and replacement of COAS Pervez Musharraf with a known toady in1999, a step too far which led to the Corps Commanders’ coup and the subsequent assumption of authority by the new “CEO of Pakistan”, General Musharraf, who was soon internationally rehabilitated by Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee’s generous and forgiving gesture of recognising the legitimacy of the coup beneficiary’s government and inviting the leading coup beneficiary to Agra in 2001 despite Commando Musharraf being responsible for the Kargil adventure hardly a year back.
THE UTILITY OF IMRAN KHAN
In the 2018 national elections, where management of the final outcome by the military was only thinly veiled, the PTI’s Imran Khan followed the GHQ script by squeaking through. A more impressive victory would, it was calculated by the analysts at the ISI, have made the headstrong sportsman “less manageable”. When sworn in as Prime Minister in August 2018, the first task handed over to Khan was to rescue Pakistan from economic collapse through securing an immediate loan of at least $15 billion. This would be on top of the $20 billion already owed to China because of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Although the IMF was tapped in the expectation of getting a long-term facility of $8 billion, this stalled because of the insistence of the IMF Managing Director that full details of the moneys received from China needed to be given before the loan application of Pakistan could be considered. Such transparency would have revealed both the rate of interest (known to be on commercial lines) of the Chinese loan, as well as made clear that there was no way Islamabad would be able to repay this loan (the full complement of CPEC moneys from China, once completed, being estimated at $57 billion) without restructuring the debt, an outcome unacceptable to Beijing, which thus far has held back from fresh loans to Pakistan. After this rebuff, Prime Minister Khan turned to friends in the UK, who turned to friends in the US, who in turn contacted Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Tokyo. The consequence was that Saudi Arabia gave $6 billion, the (US and Japan-dominated) Asian Development Bank $7.5 billion and the United Arab Emirates $3 billion and counting. This has rescued Pakistan’s finances from imminent bankruptcy. The utility of Imran Khan as the face of Pakistan’s civilian government in the essential matter of once again enjoying the patronage of Washington has become obvious to the policymakers in Delhi who have been cultivating Washington since 2014.
PAK AND US, RUSSIA, CHINA
The Trump administration mixed harsh words in public (which they knew would fall like honey on Indian ears) with significant concessions to Islamabad in private. Apart from rescuing Pakistan from economic collapse after Beijing declined to write another large cheque for the country, the US has taken care of three of the top five non-conventional enemies of GHQ Rawalpindi. While Ehsanullah Ehsan was turned and has now become an ISI asset from his former role as an enemy of the Pakistan army, two other leading commanders of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan have recently been “droned to death” by the US military, which has thus far refrained from similarly acting against India’s foes Hafiz Saeed or Masood Azhar. Of course, verbal and written denunciations of the two come frequently from Trump administration officials, who in this respect behave in a manner very similar to their counterparts in India, where officials are known to mix a drop of action with a ton of verbiage.
President Trump is well on the way to fulfilling another of the demands of GHQ Rawalpindi, this time by withdrawing at least half of the 13,800 US troops still stationed in Afghanistan. This is the residue of a force of 200,000 US troops that began fighting the Taliban in 2001, but which has now tacitly acknowledged defeat against that foe the way the Soviet Union did against the Mujahideen in 1988. The Taliban, whose Pakistan-based supply lines are no secret, now control nearly 54% of the land area of Afghanistan, up from the 29% they had control over less than three years ago. Most of the opium production in Afghanistan takes place within territory controlled by the Taliban, and in which staff of the Pakistan military have free access, although almost always under civilian cover. It is not a coincidence that the situation in Kashmir has been getting exacerbated together with the advance of the Pakistan-backed Taliban forces within Afghanistan. For political reasons related to the 2020 US elections, President Trump needs to declare victory and get his forces almost entirely out of Afghanistan by the close of 2019, and the National Security Council selected by him seems to have decided that the best path to this goal is to replicate the Bush-Cheney decision post-9/11 in 2001 of appointing the lead arsonist (GHQ Rawalpindi) as the firefighter-in-chief. The calculation in Washington is that this time around, any disaster from such a decision will not hit the US, although it will almost certainly impact its strategic ally in the Indo-Pacific, the Republic of India, which too has lately been singing the same US-backed tune of “Let’s talk to the boys from the Taliban”, to the delight of GHQ Rawalpindi. US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is replicating the Bush-Cheney policies during the Trump era, not a surprise in view of his being a lead points man for the same during the disastrous Bush period. Since his appointment in 2014, President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan has zealously followed the line marked for him by the US administration of the day, but appears now to be edging closer to the Hamid Karzai view, which is that obedience to US dictates will inevitably doom Afghanistan into another long night of rule by the Taliban.
The problem facing Ghani is that Russia (a Great Power with the will and the capacity to battle the Taliban) has fallen in step behind China in cosying up to the Taliban’s patron, GHQ Rawalpindi. For the first time ever, joint military exercises between Russia and Pakistan are now regularly taking place in both countries. T-90 tanks and Mi-35 helicopters at least as good as those supplied to India have found their way from Russia to Pakistan. This is the first time that Moscow is giving “top of the line” offensive military equipment to Pakistan, the country with which another war with India is most likely. Of course, just as US military hardware was intended to “fight not India but the Communists”, the increasing supply of military stores flowing in profusion from Moscow to GHQ Rawalpindi is (or so Delhi has been assured) “exclusively for use on the western border” of Pakistan. This tectonic shift in Russia’s policy is taking place despite vigorous Indian diplomacy with the Putin administration, and after massive purchases of Russian equipment, including four new nuclear reactors and the S-400 missile defence system. As a consequence of the last purchase, it is less likely that the US will any more offer such advanced airborne platforms as the F-35, or even that the earlier offer of relocating the F-16 production lines to India from the US still stands. Much more than the purchase of crude oil from Iran, which is an entirely commercial decision, the purchase and installation of the S-400 system from Russia may become a game changer in India-US military relations, and for the worse, unless the fallout gets contained through countervailing measures. It may be added that China remains a generous armourer of GHQ Rawalpindi, and is going ahead with the setting up of assembly lines in Pakistan for the manufacture of advanced Chinese military aircraft, not to mention assistance in the domestic manufacture of aircraft radar and avionics systems, facilities that none of India’s defence partners have thus far offered to host within our country. While Hindustan Aeronautics Limited appears to be slowing down, its equivalent in Pakistan is gathering speed and capability.
While relations between Delhi and Moscow have become cooler in recent years, as evidenced by the warmth of Moscow-Islamabad ties, that with China are still “idling on the runway” as it were, perpetually revving up without a takeoff that could see a shift in emphasis from Pakistan to India on the part of the world’s second biggest economy. Commerce is the top card in Delhi’s hands, but as yet neither has Huawei been permitted to set up 5G networks in India (the way the company has begun doing in the UK) nor has work on either of the proposed China-centric industrial and technology parks agreed upon in India. And given the official constraints holding back such possible revenue earners as million-strong tourist flow from the Peoples Republic of China or relocation of several Chinese enterprises to lower-wage India, the trade deficit between the two countries remains uncomfortably high. In the case of the US, apart from the S-400 shock, other irritants include the oft-declared refusal by Delhi to station troops in either Iraq or Afghanistan, even for the purpose of training local militaries. Not a single sortie has thus far been flown by the immensely capable Indian Air Force against ISIS targets, nor has there been any operation by the well-regarded Indian Navy to assist the US and other powers in the ongoing war against ISIS in the Middle East. Neither has the core India-US defence agreement BECA been signed as yet, nor has there been any serious response to President Trump’s offer to set up advanced military platforms and production capacity in India the way China (and possibly soon Russia) will be doing in Pakistan. Managing the relationship with the globe’s two superpowers (China and the US) as well as our historically closest Great Power (Russia) remains a work in progress so far as the Government of India is concerned.
GHQ Rawalpindi is readying to deliver a blow on India at the coming Financial Action Task Force meeting by accusing it of funding terror groups in Pakistan, and producing manufactured evidence in support of such an allegation. Kulbhushan Jadhav languishes in custody while a doctored case gets created around him about his being a willing catspaw for the highest echelons of India’s national security system. Hectic efforts are ongoing to relight the Khalistan fire, such as through using the Kartarpur corridor to net more recruits to the cause, although the jailing of Sajjan Kumar has impacted such moves. Moves are intensifying through friendly NGOs to get the UN Human Rights Commission to launch a probe on alleged human rights violations in Kashmir and elsewhere in India. In this context, the (often ISI-inspired) attacks in some parts of India on innocent individuals eating or transporting cattle meat have come in handy. The agitation against the Supreme Court-cleared entry of women between 15 and 50 in the Sabarimala temple is being used globally to present Hindus as being patriarchal in their ways. Overall, the ISI’s objective, for which GHQ Rawapindi has given generous support, is to portray India as a cesspool of hate and fanaticism, and Hindus (known globally for ahimsa) as intolerant and violent. Such efforts are likely to intensify ahead of the Lok Sabha polls.
FRAGILE SITUATION IN PAK
The good news is that the internal situation in Pakistan is much more fragile than appears on the surface. The economy, thanks to the chokehold of the military, is faltering, a fact apparently noticed by the Chinese, who are reluctant to throw in good money after bad in a losing bid to keep the Pakistan economy afloat. The US has directed assistance to Pakistan through its allies and not directly, President Trump having been astonished at the vast sums spent by George W. Bush and Barack H. Obama in Afghanistan. Despite some missteps, India is still seen by many within the Trump administration as an indispensable security partner for the US, and by the Chinese Politburo as an essential commercial partner. Before or after the next Lok Sabha elections, the government in place will need to ensure that a policy matrix gets designed that avoids the snares which GHQ Rawalpindi is designing. Steps need to get taken that can ensure the hitherto elusive level of double digit growth, without which it will not be possible to lift hundreds of millions of citizens from poverty within a generation.