Pakistan is one of the few countries today that puts its defence minister in virtual purdah . All those who deal with Pakistan have heard of, or seen, the ubiquitous General Raheel Sharif. Does anybody, however, know the name of the person who holds the high office of defence minister in Pakistan?

The peripatetic Gen Sharif is in Washington one day, in Kabul the next. He also frequently travels with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. When VIPs, including Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, or US Vice-President Joe Biden visit Pakistan, they visit the GHQ to pay respects to the army chief. But the defence minister, Khwaja Asif, a Muslim League stalwart, is rarely seen or heard.

No gumption

Pakistan’s defence ministry hardly has the gumption or authority, to turn down anything that the army chief, based in Rawalpindi, says or does. Raheel Sharif has never been seen accompanying, meeting or talking to the hapless Khwaja Asif. He is only seen sitting opposite or beside Nawaz Sharif, behaving like a co-equal of the prime minister.

Even federal ministers and the prime minister’s brother and chief minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, have to seek permission to meet the regal Raheel Sharif in his hallowed GHQ.

The army regards itself as being above the law, disregarding notices from the Supreme Court on its operations in Baluchistan and undermining the court’s efforts to bring former president Pervez Musharraf to book for violating Pakistan’s constitution. Given this exalted role of the GHQ, one was surprised to recently read a widely publicised statement made to a parliamentary committee by Pakistan’s defence secretary. Incidentally, given their contempt for “bloody civilians”, the Pakistan army routinely insists that the defence secretary should be a retired army officer.

Defence Secretary Lt-Gen Alam Khattak told the parliamentary committee on April 6 that India’s ‘infamous’ R &AW had set up a ‘special cell’ to sabotage the much-hyped ‘China-Pakistan economic corridor’ which, the Pakistan army believes, is the ‘magic wand’ to solve all the country’s economic ills. Khattak’s statement the came day after Raheel Sharif said the same thing, while blaming India for “destabilizing” Pakistan.

Khattak added the usual ‘ masala ’ to his statement by alleging that the Indian consulates in Jalalabad, Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan were working with that country’s National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan counterpart of the ISI, by carrying out “subversive activities” in Baluchistan and the Pashtun tribal areas of Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan.

Old allegations

Such allegations against India are not new. The recent addition has been references to that ‘notorious’ Indian ‘spy’, Kulbhushan Jadhav, who was first said to have been arrested along the border with Afghanistan and was later claimed to have been arrested in Baluchistan.

But, here again, Pakistan finds itself in a bind. By denying India customary ‘consular access’ to an arrested Indian national, statements made by Jadhav while under Pakistani custody will be seen to have been made under coercion. If Pakistan releases him, which seems unlikely for the present, Jadhav will sing a different tune and severely embarrass his captors with the many truths he will reveal.

The Jadhav episode has also cast a shadow on Pakistan’s efforts to mend its strained relations with Iran. The bumptious Raheel Sharif chose not to be present when Nawaz Sharif met the visiting Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani. With his customary swagger stick in his hand, he separately met Rouhani the next day.

The obedient army spokesman dutifully tweeted that his exalted boss had given “evidence” to the Iranian president about the ‘evil’ Indians using Iranian soil to destabilise the exalted Islamic Republic of Pakistan. An obviously irritated Rouhani bristled with anger when he was asked about this, noting that India, like Pakistan, was a friendly country. The Iranian embassy reiterated this a few days later.

All this is occurring at a time when Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan are going through a critical phase. With great difficulty and with significant help from Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of the infamous Taliban-linked Haqqani Network, the ISI has united a number of top Taliban leaders, including members of Mullah Omar’s family, with its handpicked protégé, Mullah Akhtar Mansour. The ISI calculation had been that with the Obama administration beating a hasty retreat from Afghanistan, its Taliban protégés would take over, with China facilitating this process of transition.

China obviously expects that a Pakistan-sponsored regime in Kabul would help it eliminate the insurgency by its Muslim population in Xinjiang province. With the Taliban determined to seize control of more and more territory, one can expect heavy casualties in the ensuing months in Afghanistan. More so as the China-US-Pakistan peace talks, which are said to “Afghan-led” and “Afghan-owned”, are going to be headed nowhere.

Lack of foresight

Pakistan cannot remain unaffected by the conflict across the Durand Line. Raheel Sharif’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb in the Pashtun tribal areas has resulted in nearly one million Pashtun tribespeople being uprooted from their homes, with bleak prospects of early return and rehabilitation. The Tehriq-e-Taliban, now operating from Afghan soil, has hit back, with attacks on institutions in Pakistan linked to the Pakistani military. For the first time, the army is fighting its citizens in all four provinces of Pakistan.

With Pashtuns comprising around one-fourth of the army, its generals will have to start looking at the reliability of its Pashtun soldiers. Raheel Sharif has obviously learnt nothing from history. The only time Punjabi soldiers prevailed over the Pashtuns was when they were under the command of a Sikh general, Hari Singh Nalwa, during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Sadly for Pakistan, Raheel Sharif does not have the leadership attributes of Nalwa.

It is clear that the present dispensation in Pakistan has neither the imagination nor the foresight to escape the inevitable consequences of its blunders in Afghanistan.

Moreover, after the revelations of the Sharif family’s off-shore accounts in Panama, Pakistan’s prime minister himself faces an uncertain future and tempestuous times ahead.

While continuing a process of engagement with Pakistan, India should not have exaggerated expectations of any significant ‘breakthrough’. Raheel Sharif should be left to stew in his own juice along Pakistan’s western frontiers.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

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