No adventure please

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No adventure please | Imtiaz Aalam Latest column in The News newspaper | 14h July 2016

As posters appear on the main boulevards of major cities asking for a military takeover against the constitutional and democratic rule, Pakistan is vehement in its protest over the brutal killings of protesters across the Kashmir valley and violations of human rights there while demanding an inalienable right of the Kashmiri people to self-determination.

Despite this obvious contradiction, the recent upsurge in mass protests and militancy across the LoC nevertheless brings the Kashmir question into a contentious Indo-Pak equation – even though Pakistan’s security forces are fully absorbed on its north-western border. Isn’t this a catch-22 situation for a prime minister facing so many predicaments?

Although Director General ISPR General Bajwa has clarified that the “Army or any (of its) affiliate organisation have nothing to do with” the posters with the COAS’s picture, the rumour mills are operating at their full capacity regarding tension in civil-military relations. Regardless of the conspiracy theories that we are so obsessed with, the situation within and around Pakistan is taking an unpredictable turn.

Pakistan is faced with such daunting challenges at the moment that it cannot afford to have conflicting centres of power, and tension in what are apparently two separate wings of the executive. Regional and international isolation, coupled with the new radical upsurge in Indian-administered Kashmir and increased repression by Indian paramilitary forces, may present a very complex set of challenges to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who is also facing no less a serious threat to his government from an unrelenting opposition.

In an emotionally charged situation on both sides of the LoC, the ongoing election campaign in Pakistan-administered Kashmir is going to take an ugly turn. With the Bilawal Bhutto-led PPP attacking the PM for being a friend of Indian PM Modi, the PML-N is expected to take the pro-Kashmir rhetoric to extreme heights, even though Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had shown determination to improve relations with India.

The danger, however, is if the current rise in people’s protests and heightened repression escalates across the LoC – bringing the two militaries at a dangerous standoff on the eastern front. If that happens, Pakistan may face twin hostile fronts – the other being from the north-west, with a more activated additional fifth column consisting of freelance terrorists and renegade Taliban operating from Afghan soil.

These dangerous possibilities and deteriorating security threats are, coincidentally, converging at a time when the US and its 40 allies have decided to enhance their direct military engagement in Afghanistan and extend their support till 2020. Almost sharing the Afghan concerns regarding Pakistan’s alleged favouritism for ‘good’ Taliban, Pentagon Chief Ashton Carter has in his address to the US troops in Afghanistan vowed to directly fight against the Afghan Taliban along with the Afghan forces and target the enemies of Afghanistan and the US anywhere in the world.

In a clear departure from reconciliation with militant opposition, both the US and Afghanistan will build pressure on Pakistan to restrain or evict those Afghan Taliban who are not ready for a ceasefire for the resumption of dialogue, and not to let its territory be used for terrorism in Afghanistan.

In a very timely move, the civilian and military leadership had, in the absence of the PM, taken certain decisions to not let the situation further deteriorate. After visiting Germany and receiving other top military envoys, General Raheel Sharif had unequivocally called for an end to the proxy wars and directed all the forces under his command not to let anyone use Pakistani territory for terrorism against any other country in a specific reference to Afghanistan while expecting from the latter to reciprocate and cooperate in border management to quell two-way infiltration across the Durand Line. If that is the agreed stated position, then others are keen to see things happening on the ground, as reflected by various reactions from Washington.

It is time the prime minister convened a marathon session of the Cabinet’s Defence Committee and initiated an inclusive process of revisiting Pakistan’s security paradigm and its subservient foreign policy that has brought us into conflict with all our neighbours and isolated a crucial ally of the international community in the war against terrorism, despite our tremendous sacrifices and successes after the launch of Operation Zarb-e-Azb.

Reeling under terrorism, Pakistan simply cannot take the burdens of extended national security agendas, in both economic and strategic terms, nor afford to alienate the international community which is still ready to pay for and directly contribute to bring stability in the Af-Pak region. Most crucial is the decision that is to be taken about the Afghan Taliban who have to be either placed in quarantine or asked to leave if they don’t agree to a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

The Quadrilateral Coordination Group has to come up with a clear and unified position regarding restoring peace with or without reconciliation. As the security and stability of Afghanistan and Pakistan is inter-dependent, why don’t Afghanistan and Pakistan agree on a security or defence pact while agreeing to help each other in their fight against respective terrorists? Why don’t they also agree on a clearly defined border and its joint management, and allowing regulated movement of people and divided tribes?

There is no doubt that the ongoing proxy wars are increasingly becoming a tool of inter-state conflicts in the region. COAS Gen Raheel Sharif’s call to bring an end to proxy wars provides a unique opportunity to separately engage Afghanistan and India to sit across the table and evolve bilateral mechanisms to honestly and effectively bring it to an end, if they are really interested in peace that serves everybody’s purpose – except mercenaries, terrorists and agent provocateurs.

Before something extraordinarily provocative happens which may bring India and Pakistan into a conflict with unpredictable consequences, both the neighbours should ask their security advisers to initiate a separate track for jointly fighting terrorism and bringing an end to the proxy wars while allowing comprehensive dialogue to address all the issues, including the Kashmir question.

No doubt terrorism and the Kashmir imbroglio are too important to be ignored. New Delhi and Islamabad must make the next Saarc Summit a great success and help bring South Asia and Central Asia together for greater economic collaboration. Even on the CPEC and the One Road-One Belt project, Pakistan should take Iran on board to make the Chahbahar and Gwadar ports interconnected to provide easy access to and supply of gas and petrol to the countries of the region. This will create inter-dependence and strengthen connectivity for geo-economics instead of geo-strategic rivalry.

A paradigm shift for economic progress and stable security environment is necessary and requires the civilian leadership and parliament to get their act together. But the norms of our politics are too chaotic and self-serving. The primary responsibility lies on the shoulders of the prime minister who is bogged down under the Panama leaks’ controversy. He must get out of the dock by breaking the stalemate over the ToRs. His ministers have been unnecessarily prolonging the stalemate while the issue continues to bog down the government.

A bipartisan approach is required to address the generic issue of corruption and the Panama scandal. The politicians must realise that their future hinges upon the smooth transition of democracy – not in its derailment as certain unscrupulous elements are trying for so desperately. Both the government and the state are in a tight corner. No adventure please.

The writer is a senior journalist.