Recently, the US Defence Secretary Mike Pompeo reached out to Pakistan Army Chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa through a telephonic call. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauer released a statement with reference to the key issues discussed Pompeo’s conversation with Bajwa. Nauer said that the issues raised included: “need for political reconciliation in Afghanistan and the importance of targeting all militant and terrorist groups in South Asia without distinction….ways to advance US-Pakistan bilateral relations.”
A few points are evident, that while initially the Trump Administration, especially the President has spoken tough and warned Pakistan to do more in fighting terrorism (and maybe hasn’t really changed his approach), the US does realise that it needs a working relationship with the Pakistan army, for achieving its strategic goals in South Asia (not just in the context of fighting militant groups, but also for Afghanistan). Given the fact that the military in Pakistan has a complete veto over foreign policy, and this is not likely to change at least in the imminent future, the US approach is not wrong. After the July elections the civil-military equation is not likely to alter drastically. In fact, there is a strong speculation that the next government could be led by Imran Khan of PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-E-Insaaf), propped up by the military. It would be pertinent to point out that in recent months, Imran who was critical of the army has been praising the army chief.
Deterioration of Ties and Trump’s Statements
In recent times, there has been a deterioration of ties with the Pakistan army, especially after the Trump Administration’s decision to withhold military aid, and the US President’s tweet in January, where he stated: ‘The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!’
Both the army and civilian reacted to Trump’s statements. While Bajwa stated: ‘entire Pakistani nation felt betrayed over the US recent statements despite decades of cooperation’. Former Foreign Minister, Khawaja Asif while reacting to Trump’s statements had said: “We have already told the US that we will not do more, so Trump’s ‘no more’ does not hold any importance’
Khawaja Asif also said that Trump was expressing his frustration due to the US failure in Afghanistan, and that Trump’s figure of 33 Billion USD was grossly inaccurate. Asif had tweeted: “Pres Trump quoted figure of $33 billion given to PAK over last 15 yrs, he can hire a US based Audit firm on our expense to verify this figure & let the world know who is lying & deceiving..,” Asif tweeted.
Other Reasons for Friction
After Trump’s statement, the decision to put Pakistan on the grey list of FATF (Financial Action Task Force), led to a further deterioration of ties, it was the US which had put forward the motion for putting Pakistan on the grey list), since then there have been a number of high level meetings to put things back on track, including one by former PM, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi with the US Vice President Mike Pence in March 2018. According to a White House Statement, Pence categorically told Abbasi that Pakistan needs to do more to fight the Taliban, Haqqani Network and other terror groups operating from Pakistan.
In April 2018, relations took a further dip, after a U.S. Embassy vehicle driven by the US defense and air attache (posted in the US Embassy, Islamabad), Colonel Joseph Emanual Hall, killed a Pakistani motorcyclist in Islamabad on April 7. Both sides decided to impose restrictions on the movement of diplomats. Hall was not being allowed to fly out of Pakistan until the country’s Interior Ministry gave him clearance to fly out.
New Delhi’s Reactions
If one were to look beyond the Washington-Islamabad relationship, New Delhi too would be watching Washington’s outreach to the Pakistan army Chief.
First, it is clearly evident that in spite of all differences between Washington and Islamabad, the Pakistan Army remains important in the context of the country’s domestic and foreign policy.
Second, Pakistan Army Chief General has been assiduously trying to cultivate the image of a pragmatist in the context of Pakistan’s ties with the outside world, including India. Bajwa has in fact, spoken about better ties with India, and so have some other senior officials in the Pakistan army recently.
In fact, Bajwa’s statements have been closely watched in India. A former Chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), Amarjit Singh Dulat (who was also part of an interesting book project “The Spy Chronicles – RAW ISI And The Illusion Of Peace consisting of dialogues with former ISI Chief Asad Durrani)_in fact went to the degree of suggesting, that India invite the Pakistan Army Chief given his encouraging statements. Dulat said ‘We should invite General Bajwa, the army chief. He has been talking peace and also a lot of our frustration in our dialogue with Pakistan is because we feel frustrated by the armed forces or what we call the ‘deep state’ — the ISI or the army. Therefore, why not talk to the army chief directly? He is talking reasonably now. Why not invite the army chief, just an idea’.
Bajwa had made an address in April 2018 pitching for better relations with India, through dialogue, at a passing out parade of Cadets at the military academy, Kakul. The Indian Defence Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman had reacted positively to Bajwa’s remarks.
While not much has changed across the LoC – Line of Control (with ceasefire violations continuing), however, DGMOs from both countries have been talking to each other in recent weeks to restore peace on the LoC and International Border in Jammu and Kashmir . Interestingly, India and Pakistan will for the first time be part of a joint military drill, along with other members of the SCO.
There is not likely to be any significant progress over the next few months, only after the election results of July 2018, will New Delhi make any significant attempts in reaching out to Pakistan (that too is a minute possibility, given the fact that the general election in India is less than a year away, and there are a number of state elections in December 2018). New Delhi can hope however, that the US along with other countries continues to pressurize Pakistan to take action against terror groups targeting India.
New Delhi should welcome the recent outreach of Pentagon, towards the Pakistan military, because even though Pentagon’s clout with the GHQ may have reduced of late, yet it is very tough for the latter to ignore the former. While China too has given some encouraging signals in the recent past, that it might push Islamabad to act against terrorist organizations, which have received support from the deep state, targeting India, this is not likely to happen in the short run – the US remains the best bet.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based analyst interested in Punjab-Punjab linkages as well as Partition Studies. Maini co-authored ‘Humanity Amidst Insanity: Hope During and After the Indo-Pak Partition’ (New Delhi: UBSPD, 2008) with Tahir Malik and Ali Farooq Malik. He can be reached at [email protected].