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A false dawn?

In a remarkable development, the Pakistan government (read: civilian establishment) has reportedly warned its military of the country’s increasing international diplomatic isolation and asked that it assist in coming down hard on terror groups. An exclusive report by a leading Pakistani newspaper, Dawn, said that in an “extraordinary” meeting earlier this week chaired by Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, intelligence agencies and army officials were told, “not to interfere if law enforcement acts against militant groups that are banned”. According to to the report, the government had “in a blunt, orchestrated, and unprecedented warning” explained the country’s current situation of “diplomatic isolation” and that Islamabad’s recent foreign policy initiatives have been “met with indifference in major world capitals”. Present during the meeting was Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) chief Rizwan Akhtar. Sharif also instructed that investigations into the Pathankot attack are finished soon and that trails on the 2008 Mumbai attacks be restarted. Since the Pathankot attack earlier this year, Pakistan has faced intense pressure from India to crack down on militant groups working in the country. Following the Uri attack last month, bilateral ties between the countries have deteriorated. New Delhi has accused Pakistan of harbouring the JeM militant group it says was behind the Pathankot and Uri attack, while Pakistan has denied the allegations. Although India’s “diplomatic offensive” has played its part, there is little doubt that Islamabad’s change of heart comes amidst increasing pressure from China to change tack. During the meeting, Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhary said that while “China has reiterated its support for Pakistan, it too has indicated a preference for a change in course by Pakistan”. It is a clear attempt to protect Chinese economic interests in the region. The $46-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor runs through Balochistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir—regions known to house terror camps. Allied with their economic interests is an underlying security angle. In the face of serious transnational terrorism sparked by ISIS, China’s security establishment has thought it wise to use regional clients like Pakistan to contain the threat. However, reports of a growing exchange of fighters from its troubled Xinjiang province to jihadist groups in the Middle East and Central Asia have raised alarm bells in Beijing. With Uighur fighters in the Xinjiang province taking up arms, Beijing seems to have realised that it needs to quietly direct Pakistan away from sheltering such elements, even though it continues to stand in the way of UN sanctions on JeM chief Maulana Masood Azhar.

During the meeting earlier this week, Chaudhry also said that “the principal international demands are for action against Masood Azhar and the Jaish-i-Mohmmad; Hafiz Saeed and the Lashkar-e-Taiba; and the Haqqani network.” In a response typical of the military establishment, ISI chief Akhtar said he was concerned about the timing of these moves and that they needed “to not be seen as buckling to Indian pressure or abandoning the Kashmiri people”. But the growing political consensus in Pakistan also seems to be shifting away from the military’s line. Addressing a joint session of Pakistan’s Parliament, a senior Pakistan Peoples’ Party leader Aitzaz Ahsan said on Thursday that Pakistan is isolated because it gives freedom to non-state actors. “The government has been completely unsuccessful in imposing restrictions on non-state actors according to the National Action Plan,” he said. Terrorists and their backers in the Pakistani military establishment use the recent unrest in Kashmir and militant attacks on Indian military installations to maintain the hostility between both nations. Analysts in India have argued that the Pakistani civilian leadership has sought to end support for terror outfits in the Kashmir Valley. However, they claim that the Pakistani military leadership in Rawalpindi does not support that strategy. Rawalpindi believes that escalating violence will increase pressure on India and force it to react, which, in turn, will compel the international community to intervene. While the Pakistan establishment wages a battle against the likes of Jamaat-ur-Ahrar, Tehrik-i-Taliban, and other domestic terror groups inimical to the nation’s security, it has continued to support outfits like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. “The state is willing to crush jihadi groups that engage in violence against Pakistani citizens and security personnel but has no qualms about the mobilisation of jihadis that target other countries, particularly India, Afghanistan, and even the United States,” says Hussain Haqqani, the former ambassador of Pakistan to the United States and a leading expert on South Asian affairs. “The problem with this policy has been that jihadi groups do not make the distinctions made by the government and often collaborate with each other on the ground.”

Despite the civilian leadership’s desire to change strategy, it seems unlikely that Pakistan’s military establishment will follow suit. One must also place the current exchange between Sharif and the military amidst talk of whether General Raheel Sharif’s tenure as Pakistan army chief will receive an extension. One of Pakistan’s most popular army generals in recent times, his current tenure will reportedly come to a close towards the end of November. If the stand-off with India continues for a month, there might be renewed calls for Sharif to remain. Nawaz Sharif has always been at loggerheads with the military establishment over the appointment of army chiefs. But there are serious doubts about whether Nawaz Sharif can dictate appointments or order the army to act against terrorists. It was not too long ago that the military establishment had cut him to size, following the coup in 1999 orchestrated by Pervez Musharraf.
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