Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has appointed Lt Gen Raheel Sharif as the new Chief of the Pakistan army after General Kayani relinquished the post. This appointment might just open a window of opportunity for India. To appreciate how, a broad understanding of the situation inside Pakistan would be in order.
In Pakistan the army exercises a decisive influence in policy making. The shadow of its intervention always looms over the head of the civilian government. The Pakistan army is divided. There are moderate elements inside it that consider the internal threat from the Taliban to be graver than from India. Retired Army Chief General Kayani publicly stated as much. After all there are many more victims of terrorist killings in Pakistan than in the whole of India. However there are also hardcore elements inside the army which continue close liaison with the terrorists and prefer using them for operations in Afghanistan and India. This segment enjoys considerable support in public opinion incensed over US drone strikes and India’s control over Kashmir.
The challenge before India lies in negotiating with and strengthening the moderates, disarming the hardcore, and winning over popular public sentiment in Pakistan. To accomplish that General Sharif’s appointment presents an opportunity.
General Sharif was born in Baluchistan and is closely connected to an influential Baloch aide of Prime Minister Sharif. He superseded others including the senor most Lt Gen Haroon Aslam who is considered more hardcore. That the new appointment did not unduly ruffle feelings of outgoing General Kayani was ensured by Prime Minister Sharif. He appointed Kayani’s own choice for Chief, Lt Gen Rashad Mehmood, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee.
It might be recalled that General Kayani had already proposed to India a joint probe between the Indian and Pakistan armies to defuse border incidents. By reputation General Sharif is a moderate. According to retired General Talat Masood, “He will pursue the civilian government’s policy on India provided there is reciprocity.” According to London based Afghan security analyst Mr. Musa Khan Jalalzai who is generally very accurate on affairs related to the Af-Pak region, General Sharif is sympathetic to the US and CIA and is likely to take a tough stand against the Taliban.
The obvious goal for India to pursue is of course to promote close cooperation between the armies of India and Pakistan for eliminating terrorism from the region which is extracting such a heavy toll from both nations. The problem is that no substantive dialogue with Pakistan is practical until after the 2014 general election when the next government would be installed in New Delhi. At the same time the interregnum is crucial because it can be exploited by enemies of Indo-Pak peace to ruin prospects of a future settlement. That is why the UPA government should not wait but move ahead and initiate a meaningful dialogue with Pakistan for cementing cooperation between the armies of both nations. It can respond to General Kayani’s proposal for joint probe on the border as a start. Such a measure would only benefit the dwindling electoral fortunes of the Congress.
Even in opposition the BJP can give a positive boost to Indo-Pak military cooperation before it aspires to sit in government after the 2014 election. Nothing stops the BJP from sending a goodwill delegation of senior ex-servicemen, who support the party in plenty, to Pakistan for initiating an unofficial dialogue with their counterparts. Time should not be lost. The opportunity for a breakthrough must be seized. The start of Indo-Pak rapprochement by initiating military cooperation is a historic necessity for the stability of the entire South Asian region.