The deep-rooted military establishment has shown its muscle by not only cutting the biggest media house to size but also unleashing political opponents like Imran Khan and his associates to keep Nawaz Sharif under constant pressure
Dr Haider Shah
November handed out a mix of happy and woeful developments in terms of regional peace and development. On the Afghanistan side we have witnessed some very positive breakthroughs in Pak-Afghan relations. The Nawaz Sharif government and the army establishment seem to have found a common cause in rebuilding relations with the new government in Afghanistan. Arguably, President Ashraf Ghani is the ideal person to carry out the challenging task of building a state structure in Afghanistan, a task that has eluded many reformers in the past. He is a respected academic in anthropology and statecraft and has an association with many world class renowned universities. He is a reformer with high ideals but not a daydreamer who lives in a fool’s paradise. His experience at the World Bank and finance ministry of war-torn Afghanistan will prove very helpful in rebuilding the country. Unlike the bipolar Hamid Karzai, Ashraf Ghani is a cool headed and progressive leader who represents a broad based unity government in Afghanistan. In regional disputes, while the inertia of the past is the most potent determinant, the significance of personalities and their temperament can also not be underemphasised. Perhaps Ashraf Ghani is the right person for the right job at the right time.
Fortunately, both Pakistan and Afghanistan have finally realised that their economic development is dependent upon regional peace and mutual cooperation. A very high level exchange of visits has infused new life into their strategic relations. Foreign Affairs Advisor Sartaj Aziz, Army chief Raheel Sharif and the newly appointed Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Lieutenant General Rizwan Akhtar met their counterparts in Afghanistan in the recent past and discussed issues of mutual interest. Afghanistan reciprocated these peace overtures with the goodwill visit of President Ashraf Ghani. The narrative of military level cooperation and increasing Pak-Afghan trade is nothing short of a paradigm shift. I, along with many other well wishers of Pakistan, have been advocating this for a long time.
If on the western border Pakistan has broken new ground, the developments on the eastern border leave much to be desired. The initial optimism for significant improvement in Pak-India relations after the swearing in of Modi has given way to a belligerent exchange of accusations on both sides. Artillery also keeps roaring frequently on the Line of Control (LoC) to frustrate any trust building moves. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) heads of state moot in Nepal was overshadowed by lack of warmth in the relations between the two nuclear South Asian states. The last minute handshake between Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi and the inking of a regional electric grid agreement salvaged some pride for the South Asian regional forum for economic development and gives some reason for optimism to the doves on both sides.
Narendra Modi appears to be in full control of his office as a democratically elected chief executive of India. There is no doubt the input of his military advisers and public opinion play an important part in his policies but there is no perception that he is not calling all the shots. Temperamentally, Nawaz Sharif is not much different. He likes to think out of the box and make big strides. But the events of the recent past have put a big question mark on the ability of the Pakistani premier to act as an epoch making leader. The deep-rooted military establishment has shown its muscle by not only cutting the biggest media house to size but also unleashing political opponents like Imran Khan and his associates to keep Nawaz Sharif under constant pressure. In a recently published story in Foreign Policy magazine, Neha Ansari, a former staffer of a major news channel, reveals that the schemers have even enlisted a number of media houses to promote criticism of Nawaz Sharif. If Nawaz Sharif had enjoyed the same level of freedom as Modi enjoys as a chief executive, I might have seen his present jingoistic discourse towards India entirely differently. However, the national narrative is being carefully engineered by a coterie of retired military personnel turned defence analysts and has been forcibly put in Nawaz Sharif’s mouth: Mein khayal hoon kisi aur ka, mujhey sochta koee aur hai (I am someone else’s idea, someone else thinks on my behalf).
I have regularly been writing about instances of paradigm shifts in modern history. Nations are often faced with the difficult choice of making a disconnect with their past policies in order to survive in a new environment. Japan and Germany had to change their policies in the changed post-World War II environment. Russia, once the bastion of communism, is now an emerging capitalist power. Serbia has been historically known for jingoist policies towards non-Serbian people in the region. It traded a general, once a national hero, to secure the economic wellbeing of its nationals. We have been pursuing a jingoistic national security policy where we have used religious fanatics as an instrument of our foreign policy manoeuvres. This policy has failed to work and, instead, has backfired by exposing the population to the extremism of homegrown terrorists. Therefore, one can contend that, unlike the timid Serbians, we have shown no qualms in trading economic prosperity for the wishful geostrategic plans of a few generals.
The paradigm shift can only bear fruit if relations are redefined on both the western and eastern borders of Pakistan. There are greater chances of success if we do not weaken the office of our elected prime minister.