External Affairs Minister (EAM) Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Islamabad, where she announced the resumption of dialogue between India and Pakistan, is amongst the most dramatic announcements made by the Narendra Modi government so far. While many will question the turnaround by the Modi government, the truth is that it is Pakistan that has actually changed much more, with the military’s footprint writ larger over its foreign policy in past years. The shift means not so much the exit of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his advisors, as it does the entry of General Raheel Sharif and his officers on to the centre stage of Pakistan’s external relations. The breakthrough in Islamabad must be seen through this prism if it is to be understood correctly.
The first part of this shift played out in August 2014, when a tense stand-off quite literally ‘occupied’ Islamabad. After weeks of demonstrations by tens of thousands in the heart of Islamabad, led by Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI)chief Imran Khan and religious leader Tahir-ul-Qadri, both believed to be backed by the military, Mr. Sharif prevailed, but not before a power-sharing arrangement was worked out between him and General Sharif. Mr. Modi’s decision to suddenly call off Foreign Secretary talks, in an effort to make Pakistan bend on the Hurriyat question, timed in the middle of the stand-off, only served to make Mr. Sharif look weaker in comparison to General Sharif, whose troops were already firing harder at Indian posts on the Line of Control. Later in the year, the Peshawar school massacre, that occurred just as Mr. Sharif was exploring peace talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, was another inflection point. From then on, General Sharif mapped out Pakistan’s future course on terror, ordering special military courts to adjudicate on terror cases. In the past year he has been seen cracking down on militancy in Karachi, waging a war on terrorism in North Waziristan which his predecessors shied away from, and openly tackling militants of several groups under the new National Action Plan policy (with the exception of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, of course), with a spate of executions approved by the military courts and provincial ones. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, the number of civilians and soldiers killed in terrorist attacks this year could be the lowest since 2006. As a result, General Sharif’s popularity is the highest of any military leader since General Pervez Musharraf in his early days.
Buoyed, General Sharif marched into the international sphere, and has over the year received special welcomes in Washington and London for his ability to “get things done”. Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani consults him often. Foreign dignitaries call on him at the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, something that may be considered odd in other countries. And with his visit to Moscow, he scored his biggest coup. Russia, which for decades has avoided strategic ties with Islamabad, is now in negotiations for helicopter deals, and gifted Pakistan a $2 billion gas pipeline this year. At the same time, both General Sharif and Prime Minister Sharif appear to have carved out their own spaces, and Mr. Sharif has been left a free hand on running the country and attracting investment for his now less-beleaguered economy — 2015, in contrast to 2014, has been a year of guarded, yet peaceful, harmony between the two Sharifs.
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Suhasini Haider is the Strategic and Diplomatic Affairs Editor at The Hindu. She writes on foreign affairs and international relations.