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Tension looms on India’s western borders

G Parthasarathy | Updated on November 01, 2021

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Pakistan PM Imran Khan’s hardline stance and ISI’s influence in Afghanistan do not bode well for India

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan appears to be accident-prone. His most serious gaffe arose recently, when he sought to challenge the writ of Pakistan’s Army chief General Bajwa on the postings of two very senior military officers. The conventional practice has been that for all officers of the rank of Lieutenant General, other than the ISI Chief, the Prime Minister signs on the dotted line, on the Army chief’s proposals, for promotion or transfer.

Imran Khan landed himself in deep trouble by challenging an order issued by General Bajwa, simultaneously transferring the ISI Chief, Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, to Command troops deployed on Pakistan’s borders with Afghanistan, while appointing the Corps Commander, Karachi, Lt. General Naveed Anjum, as the new ISI Chief.

Quite evidently overjoyed by Pakistan’s victory over India in World Cup, Imran Khan made the fatal mistake of refusing to endorse the Army chief’s recommendations. He soon faced humiliation, and quietly accepted the Army chief’s recommendations.

A logical question that arises is: Why and how an Army chief can prevail over an elected Prime Minister, who is exercising executive powers he constitutionally enjoys? Pakistan’s history, however, is marked by events where the Army chief had no hesitation in overthrowing an elected Prime Minister.

On October 7, 1958, the then President of Pakistan, Iskandar Mirza, overthrew the elected Government of Pakistan, only to be deposed by the then Army’s Commander-in-Chief, General Ayub Khan. The most remarkable example was when General Zia-ul-Haq overthrew the recently re-elected Government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1977, on grounds that Bhutto had rigged the recent elections.

General Zia then proceeded to rule till 1988, after getting Bhutto hanged. There was, thereafter, the case of General Pervez Musharraf overthrowing the elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in 2001, after the Kargil conflict ended. Sharif, thereafter, faced the prospect of being hanged after he sacked General Parvez Musharraf. He was saved from being hanged by Saudi intervention, and now lives in exile, in London.

Imran Khan initially rejected advice, which challenged the Army chief on postings of army officers, could inevitably have serious consequences. But, despite being a well-known and highly admired fast bowler, Imran Khan obviously does not want to end up like Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. In today’s Pakistan, the Army chief, General Bajwa, will have no difficulty in getting enough defections from the ruling party, to have the Prime Minister unseated.

India and the world, thus, have to deal with a Prime Minister who is sitting on a very shaky chair. In any case, India has not dealt with any Pakistan Prime Minister as hardline and abusive as Imran Khan.

The Pakistan Army has initiated and, thus far, implemented a ceasefire across the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir. Infiltration across the LoC, however, commences significantly after the winter snow melts. Much will, however, depend on developments in Afghanistan. This is primarily because, the ISI has moved developments in Afghanistan in a manner that ensured that Pakistan got a hardline Taliban regime installed in Kabul. Significantly, the Home Minister of Afghanistan, Sirajuddin Haqqani, lives, and has large properties, in Pakistan. He also has a long history of close links with the ISI, and terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed.

Much is now going to depend on how the Taliban is able to deal with internal political and economic challenges it faces, including the suspicions of neighbouring countries on its western borders, like Tajikistan and Iran. While China and Pakistan are pushing hard for getting international recognition for the Taliban, there is considerable support internationally to linking relations with the Taliban to their treatment of women and respect for basic human rights.

While Pakistan and China may want a dilution of such considerations, there is strong international opposition to any dilution of demands for the Taliban to respect human rights. A recent meeting of some of the countries sympathetic to the Taliban, that included Iran, China and Russia, called for an “all-inclusive and broad-based government in the country”, which “provides protection to women”. Given its hardline propensities, the Taliban will take considerable time to meet the minimum conditions placed on it for international recognition.

Maintain goodwill

India is highly respected by a large cross-section of people in Afghanistan, as its economic assistance has benefited people across the country for the past two decades. The peoples’ goodwill that India earned should not be lost. It is important that India continue with its economic assistance to Afghanistan, primarily by supply of essential items like wheat, medicines and other relief supplies, while ensuring these supplies reach their intended recipients.

International assistance, including from UN agencies, could be sought and obtained for ensuring the supplies reach the people. It may be useful to have a small team in Kabul to keep an eye on ensuring that relief supplies do reach the people of Afghanistan. It would also be necessary to keep in touch with the Taliban, in Qatar, till conditions are created for a return to peace and personal freedoms in Afghanistan.

In a larger perspective, it should be borne in mind, that historically the Afghans have never recognised the Durand Line as their international border with Pakistan. Moreover, the Pakistan Army’s harsh crackdown in Pashtun Tribal Areas resulted in the displacement of thousands of Pashtuns from their homes. The Tehriq-e-Taliban, which seeks separation from Pakistan, operates from Afghan soil. Its emergence is the outcome of the Pakistan Army’s brutal attacks on its Pashtun Tribal Areas.

Moreover, Pakistan is today an economic basket case, dependent on doles from Western countries, China and Saudi Arabia. The Taliban is also setting the stage for increasing tensions with Iran and Tajikistan, because of its military actions against Tajiks and Shia Hazaras. India’s western neighbourhood is inevitably heading for troubled times. There are also prospects of our western borders facing increasing exposure to cross-border terrorism, especially after the appointment of Sirajuddin Haqqani, a long term ISI “asset”, as Afghanistan’s Home Minister.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

Published on November 01, 2021

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