General’s Dilemma: To Solider On or Go Public

Gulf News, November 1, 2004

If General Pervez Musharraf means what he says in calling for a national debate on ways to resolve Pakistan’s dispute with India over Kashmir, he might be taking the most far reaching initiative of his military and political career. According to AFP, the General told a reception of government officials, diplomats and media in Islamabad that Pakistanis must discuss a ‘‘change of status’’ for Kashmir.

‘‘Change in status could be independent status… joint control, it can be UN mandate also,’’ he reportedly said. ‘‘We’ll have to sit down with legal experts who can give their opinion on what other status are possible, I don’t know,’’ Musharraf added. But he ruled out accepting a settlement that would turn the Line of Control into an International Border — a suggestion that has been around for decades and repeatedly turned down by Pakistan.

This is a step forward, albeit only a partial one.The problem is, after 58 years of describing Kashmir as Pakistan’s primary national cause, it would not be easy for an unelected military ruler to effectively manage the shift in national priorities that it entails. The General would have to brace himself for opposition from all sorts of hardliners. Pakistan’s all powerful military, on whose shoulders Musharraf has reached the country’s presidency, has traditionally been averse to any suggestions of compromise on Kashmir. The country’s weak civil society, which Musharraf has done little to strengthen, is more inclined to seek a settlement on Kashmir.

If, after declaring his desire for considering various options for a Kashmir settlement, Musharraf expands his power base beyond the military, and genuinely empowers civil society, he would be moving towards a genuine reorientation of Pakistan’s national priorities. If, however, he remains beholden to the Army, his initiative would turn out to be nothing more than a PR exercise.

That the General is conflicted in what he declares to be his vision and what he feels he needs to do to stay in power has been obvious for quite some time. In February, soon after the breaking of the news regarding Dr A Q Khan’s nuclear proliferation network, Musharraf told Pakistani newspaper editors that in his view Pakistan’s ‘‘two vital national interests’’ were ‘‘being a nuclear state and the Kashmir cause’’. This was clearly in keeping with the conventional wisdom of the Pakistani national security establishment.

Then, in September, he told a garrison Darbar in Quetta that Pakistan would not give up Kashmir. ‘‘We will not give up Kashmir,’’ Musharraf was then reported as saying by the official Pakistani news agency. ‘‘We have fought wars over it. Pakistan will have to ensure the interest of the Kashmiris,’’ he had said, adding, ‘‘I will meet Manmohan Singh and tell him in unequivocal terms about our stand on the issue. We will not give up Kashmir.’’

Has General Musharraf’s belief in Kashmir being a vital Pakistani national interest changed since February? Or has he realizd after his meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, after his ‘‘we-will-not-give-up-Kashmir’’ speech, that he should work towards a face saving semi-solution that enables him to move forward with India on other issues? It is difficult to categorically answer either question.

But it is clearly in Pakistan’s interest to start looking beyond the single issue focus on Kashmir that has held back Pakistan’s political and economic progress. Beginning with the organization in 1947-1948 of the tribal ‘‘lashkar’’ to secure Kashmir, Pakistan’s approach to the resolution of the Kashmir dispute has been characterized by a series of tactical moves, lacking a coherent strategy or a planned end game.

Since Independence, Pakistanis have complained (with justification) that the Boundary Commission headed by Sir Cyril Radcliffe cheated them by providing India access to Muslim majority Jammu and Kashmir through Pathankot Tehsil of Gurdaspur district. But Pakistan has paid a heavy price for pursuing the Kashmir dream in terms of weakened state institutions, the pre-eminence of the military in Pakistani society and, more recently, the growth of Islamic militancy.

Pakistan’s military-dominated decision-making process has resulted in combinations of short-term military and diplomatic moves without a well thought out end game for resolving the Kashmir dispute. As pointed out by retired Air Marshal Asghar Khan, Pakistan’s military adventures have been launched in the hope that world powers would come to our rescue, intervene, bring about a ceasefire and somehow help us achieve our political objectives.

The emphasis on seeking to ‘‘complete’’ Pakistan by acquiring Kashmir was directly related to this sense of insecurity. But over the years, structures of conflict have evolved, with the Pakistani military as the major beneficiary of maintaining hostility. The possession of nuclear weapons gave the Pakistani military a sense of invulnerability and increased its willingness to consider options of unconventional warfare leading to the Kargil debacle. The environment of the global war against terrorism restrains Pakistan’s ability to persist with its policy of supporting Islamic militancy in Indian-controlled Kashmir. But in the absence of a sustained peace process between India and Pakistan, there could always be room for new tactics that prolong the conflict and attempt to alter the status quo. For that reason, it is important for Pakistan to go beyond its maximalist demands on Kashmir and start looking at alternatives.

Musharraf’s call upon Pakistanis to look at possible solutions for Kashmir would work only if the General is willing to put it into the broader context of Pakistan’s structural flaws. Historically, countries dominated by Praetorian armies do not easily move away from conflict. Musharraf’s might have to follow up his stated willingness to scale down Pakistani demands over Kashmir with a willingness to scale down the Pakistani military’s extensive control over the country’s political life.