On a visit to Siachen to inspect the rescue work being carried out to find the trapped soldiers and civilians at Gayari, COAS General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani received president Asif Ali Zardari, who was also there for the same purpose. While talking to media, the COAS delivered a surprisingly refreshing view of Pakistan-India relations. The common perception about the military is that it regards India as a perpetual enemy and therefore cannot contemplate any improvement of relations with our eastern neighbour. This ‘single track’ view of the military may well have underestimated the capacity of the military for course correction where national interests demand it, at least if what the COAS said can be relied upon as an authoritative statement of the military’s wisdom. General Kayani spoke about the need for a peaceful resolution of the Himalayan glacier dispute with India, and went on to stress that Pakistan should spend less on defence and more on development. “Peaceful coexistence between the two neighbours is very important so that everybody can concentrate on the well-being of the people,” General Kayani pronounced. He went on to explain that national security should be a comprehensive concept, implying that spending more and more on armaments and defence preparedness while the people were unhappy would eventually affect national security in very negative ways.
The cost to Pakistan of cross-border tension or conflict and the blowback of supporting jihadi extremism has been extremely high. The economy has tanked because capital is either shy or flying to more salubrious destinations. Large numbers of our people are on the verge of starvation, which has thrown the whole question of sustainability of such a grievously inequitable system in doubt. What we are witnessing is a rethink in the perceived military fixation with India as permanent enemy. Realism, pragmatism, growing understanding of the way forward, the obvious advantages of peace in the region may finally be coming to sway GHQ’s thinking.
While General Kayani’s remarks are very welcome in the context of renewed openings to the east, a border that may soon see peace and quiet and mutually beneficial exchange, so long as our western border is hot (with its concomitant effect on stoking internal strife), the anomaly or contradiction at the heart of our policy is glaringly obvious. If regional peace is what our situation demands, it is time to revisit our Afghanistan policy, especially its component of relying on extremist jihad, which soon transmogrifies into terrorism against us. In the context of the endgame in Afghanistan, the wish to control or dominate that country (dubbed ‘strategic depth’) has turned into a nightmare. We do not want to come out of the Afghanistan wars after the US/NATO forces leave that country by 2014 to be seen as the stokers of a pro-Taliban civil war that may break out post-withdrawal. That would isolate us regionally and internationally, a denouement that cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered in our best interest. The contradiction at the heart of our policy in this regard is supporting the Afghan Taliban while fighting against the Pakistani Taliban. In essence the two are one, united in eventual purpose even if not in tactical considerations.
On Siachen, Nawaz Sharif has gone further than most in demanding Pakistan take the lead in withdrawing troops from the glacier, a move he thinks will make no difference militarily. Certainly the ceasefire in place on the glacier since 2003 would suggest that an absurd confrontation has been reduced to insanity if all the troops of both sides are doing up there is battling the elements, not each other. Of course it is a reflection of the intractability of conflict between Pakistan and India that even the rational cannot be conceded by either one side or the other (in turn) for fear of showing weakness. Settling irrational conflict requires strength. It cannot therefore e be construed as weakness. Time to descend from the icy heights, gentlemen.