Machil encounter: Raheel’s anti-India legacy may continue

The latest escalation in border violation from Pakistan including the beheading of one of the three Indian soldiers killed in the Machil sector of Jammu and Kashmir reflects the last hurrah of the Pakistan Army chief, General Raheel Sharif, who is all set to retire later this month. This would be the first time in two decades that an Army chief would retire after completing one term without seeking another.

Raheel has been a known India-baiter, and his actions have demonstrated that time and again. That India retaliated the very next day, killing at least nine Pakistanis, also conforms to a pattern of tit for tat. In October last, a similar beheading of a soldier of India’s border action team by Pakistani soldiers had led to a quick Indian retribution with four Pakistani border posts being razed to the ground in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

If border tension between the two countries has escalated in the three years that Raheel Sharif was at the helm of the Pakistan army it is in large part due to the pathological hatred that General Raheel Sharif has had for India, perhaps fuelled by the killing of his uncle and his brother in the 1965 and 1971 wars with India respectively.

This country will watch with interest whether the person who succeeds Raheel would be as much a hawk as him, stonewalling all attempts by the civilian administration to normalize relations with India and also whether Raheel is elevated to the rank of Field Marshal as is being talked about in which case he may retain a measure of participation in Army affairs.

It is indeed a hard reality that even as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was reduced to a virtual dummy especially after the Panama papers revealed his corrupt deals, Raheel Sharif had as Army chief taken over control of Pakistan’s foreign policy and the country’s internal security. He undermined the successful meeting that Nawaz Sharif had with Prime Minister Modi in Ufa by not permitting his Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) to meet his Indian counterpart.

According to G Parthasarathy, former Indian envoy to Islamabad who is a noted defence analyst, Raheel then deliberately sabotaged any chance of a rapprochement with India by the attack on the Pathankot air base, just after Modi had extended a hand of friendship by visiting Lahore during the wedding of Nawaz Sharif’s daughter. General Sharif took over the conduct of relations with Afghanistan to such an extent that when the Taliban, which has links with the ISI across the border, mounted terrorist strikes in Afghanistan, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani spoke to him rather than to Nawaz Sharif .

It now remains to be seen whether under a new dispensation, the Army allows greater leeway to the civilian government of Nawaz Sharif or it continues the same degree of control as Raheel Sharif did. If what Nawaz Sharif has declared is anything to go by, the tight Army control on Pakistan’s India policy will continue. Nawaz’s foreign affairs adviser Sartaj Aziz has constituted a new committee with liberal representation from the Army and ISI to formulate “a doable and sustainable” India-Kashmir policy.

The panel, consisting of senior officials from the ministries of defence, interior and information, the Military Operations Directorate, ISI and Intelligence Bureau (IB) will now brief two other committees that had been formed to look into Kashmir affairs. Aziz said that a committee had also been formed to prepare fact sheets, counter India’s “propaganda campaign” and design a media strategy to continuously highlight the Kashmiri issue.

This committee also includes representatives from the ministries of defence, foreign affairs and information technology, as well as members of the Military Operations Directorate, ISI and IB. Aziz told ‘The Dawn’ that the Ministry of Information Technology had been asked to prepare a comprehensive strategy to highlight the Kashmir issue via social media.

There continue to be question marks over Nawaz Sharif’s longevity in office. With the Supreme Court looking into the revelations of corruption contained in the Panama papers, Nawaz is on tenterhooks. The decision on him could come well before next year’s general elections and while a renewed mandate for him could quieten the Army for a while, an adverse apex court decision could finish his political career.

In either case, there is little chance of the Army loosening its grip on the policy towards India. The personality of the successor to Raheel Sharif would also matter a great deal. With Nawaz Sharif heading for the US, it would be interesting to see how relations with the US take shape under Donald Trump. Nawaz would indeed do everything possible to humour up the US presidential-designate but how Trump would react is anybody’s guess.

As for India, it would need to play its cards calculatedly and with tact.

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