Internal, External Challenges for Pakistan’s New Premier

Former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif speaks to journalists at his farm house in Raiwind on the outskirts of Lahore, May 13, 2013
Former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif speaks to journalists at his farm house in Raiwind on the outskirts of Lahore, May 13, 2013 (AFP/Getty Images/Roberto Schmidt)

For the first time in its independent history, Pakistan witnessed a democratic transition of power last week. Despite Taliban bombings and scattered gun violence, millions turned out to vote in a powerful demonstration of democracy. That in itself was extraordinary, even if the outcome was unsurprising.

Opinion polls had predicted a conservative Pakistan Muslim League victory since February. The outgoing People’s Party government was marred in corruption scandals while former cricket player Imran Khan’s anti-establishment party proved unable to stage a major win based on the charisma of one man, winning even less seats than the former ruling party.

Muslim League leader Nawaz Sharif is expected to return to the premiership after serving in the office twice in the 1990s. While he was groomed under General Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime in the 1980s, he had a bitter experience with the army while he was last in power. He handpicked Pervez Musharraf as army chief who subsequently led a coup against him. Sharif was exiled to Saudi Arabia but returned in 2007 and has been critical of the army since whenever there were rumors of political interference.

While he might not face too much obstructionism from the army, Sharif has many other security challenges to deal with. Communal and sectarian violence has risen in recent years. The outgoing administration tried to alleviate the situation by addressing the grievances of Pakistan’s minorities. It renamed the North West Frontier Province Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in accordance with the wishes of the Pashtun majority there and pushed for greater investment in Balochistan, the southernmost region of Pakistan that has economically been neglected by the Punjab center.

Sharif, by contrast, is seen as a supporter of the “Punjabization” of Pakistan. He will have to prove that perception wrong if he is to avoid more political unrest.

The next government’s tenure will likely see the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan, due in 2014. How this will affect the complicated relationship between the two Muslim countries is difficult to predict.

Many of Pakistan’s internal security problems have their roots in Afghanistan. The border region is a hotbed of insurgency. American drone airstrikes against suspected insurgents and terrorists in the frontier area have fueled anti-Western sentiment in the latter country and boosted support for both Imran Khan’s centrists and militant Islamist groups. Yet Sharif has given little indication of how he plans to address the situation.

Sharif’s previous stint as prime minister suggests that he will likely continue the incumbent government’s India policy. At the time, his attempts to improve relations were thwarted by the army which started a small war in the Kargil district of Kashmir. After winning Saturday’s election, he promised to take up the process where he left it. The onus is therefore on India: how will it react to Sharif’s overtures?

Calculated Political Tension at China-India Mountain Border

Beijing, China, May 3, 2007
Beijing, China, May 3, 2007 (Michaël Garrigues)

In the Himalayas, two great powers are blaming each other for stirring tension. India says Chinese troops crossed the Line of Actual Control, the de facto border there. China claims it was merely responding to earlier intrusions carried out by Indian border guards. We don’t know who is speaking the truth. But “calculated” political tension has emerged.

The root of the Sino-Indian border dispute lies in the 1914 Simla Accord, signed by India’s British rulers and demarcating the border with Tibet. This “McMahon Line,” named after India’s foreign secretary at the time, is recognized by India but disputed by China which insists that Tibet was not a sovereign power. China invaded and conquered Tibet in 1950.

A brief war between China and India in 1962 failed to settle the border issue. An area of some 125,000 square kilometers remains in dispute although the area of “real” conflict is the 95,000 square kilometers south of the McMahon Line.

China and India set up a joint working group in 1988 to try to resolve the issue. Special representatives were appointed in 2003 to advance the process. Fifteen rounds of talks took place before the representatives last met in December of last year. No concrete plan to solve the conflict has yet emerged.

Since the end of the Cold War and China’s emergence as an economic power, the government in Beijing has resolved many of its border disputes expect those with India, Japan and in the South China Sea. In many of the cases where it did compromise, it agreed to transfer land to neighboring countries. Its unwillingness to do so with India and its refusal to honor a century old treaty suggest that China wants to keep this border issue alive.

The last time Chinese border guards entered Indian territory was in 1986 at Sumdorong Chu in the eastern part of Arunachal Pradesh state. They vacated their position in 1995.

The porous Himalaya border and lack of clear demarcating features makes incursion an almost everyday incident. Their frequency depends on the status of the bilateral relationship.

The genesis of the present crisis likely lies in India’s increasing presence in Southeast Asia, especially its improving maritime relations with Vietnam, as well as an emerging alliance with the United States. China might interpret both moves within the context of the American “pivot” to the region and feel increasingly boxed in by powers that are hostile to its own designs.

Buddhist unrest in southern China could also play a role. The number of Buddhist self-immolations is rising. There have also been reports of unrest in Sichuan Province. Usually, Tibetan protests are violently suppressed by Chinese security services.

The political headquarters of Tibet’s refugees is situated in India’s northwestern city of Dharamshala. China tends to believe that all Buddhist political activity is orchestrated by the Dalai Lama there, the Tibetans’ religious leader. India does nothing to stop him and may therefore be held partly responsible for the uprisings by policymakers in Beijing.

Uniquely, Pakistan’s Army Not Involved in Political Transition

The border crossing into Pakistan at Wagah, June 1, 2011
The border crossing into Pakistan at Wagah, June 1, 2011 (Luke X. Martin)

Defying predictions about its continuity in office and amid all sorts of political troubles, Pakistan’s ruling People’s Party led by President Asif Ali Zardari successfully completed its fixed term in office this week.

In the beginning and middle of its term, the administration faced resistance from various quarters. That made many political pundits wonder about the future of Pakistani democracy. But things did not become worse and visceral situations for democracy were politically managed by the parties. The Muslim country has found a new form of democratic competition: ideologically different political groups joined hands against their common enemy, the army. The leading parties acted in unison to protect Pakistan’s democracy against the possibility of another military coup.

General elections are now expected to be called in May. A caretaker government under the prime ministership of retired judge Mir Hazar Khan Khoso has taken over.

After elections were announced, even former president Pervez Musharraf, who himself came to power through an army coup in 1999, arrived back in Pakistan from self exile in London and Dubai. He intends to compete in the election with a new party, the All Pakistan Muslim League.

The army, meanwhile, still the most powerful institution in the country, appears to have no role in the upcoming vote. This is a novelty in Pakistani politics. Not because there will likely be a democratic transition. For the first time in Pakistani history, the military is not engaged in the process altogether.

Free elections have taken place in Pakistan before. The 1969 vote was more or less fair otherwise it would have been impossible for Bengali nationalist Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to win so many seats in what was then the eastern part of Pakistan. The election foreshadowed the secession of Bangladesh after the 1971 war with India.

The 1988 election brought Benazir Bhutto to power. She had campaigned against General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s military administration. And the most recent, 2008 election was free as well. Asif Ali Zardari’s led the Pakistan People’s Party to victory without the army’s involvement.

Yet nearly all governments in the past, even if they came to power through free elections, depended on the military in one way or another. Sometimes the army created the circumstances to make space, through democratic means, for their civilian protégé to be at helm of government affairs.

The army’s political role is decades old. After the death of Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah in 1948 and the assassination of Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan three years later, the newly independent country was rudderless. The army and civilian bureaucracy exploited the opportunity to take political power. They mostly relied on the support of Pakistan’s elites and religious groups during their stints into power. When out of office, they ruled from behind the curtains. Zardari’s is the first administration that has managed to keep the generals, by and large, out of the decisionmaking process.

It is true that the incumbent government has failed on many scores. The office bearers, including the head of state, have been facing corruption charges. But it has also tried to put a stop to the “Punjabization” of Pakistan through the eighteenth amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits the president from dissolving the legislature unilaterally and renamed the North West Frontier Province Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in accordance with the wishes of the Pashtun majority there. It also pushed for greater investment in Balochistan, the southernmost region of Pakistan that has economically been neglected by the Punjab center.

Whether or not the ruling party’s accomplishments have been enough to outweigh its shortcomings; the simple fact that Pakistanis themselves will decide in less than two months’ time is groundbreaking.

Border Incident Sparks India-Pakistan War of Words

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India participates in the East Asia Summit in Phnom Phen, Cambodia, November 20, 2012
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India participates in the East Asia Summit in Phnom Phen, Cambodia, November 20, 2012 (MEA)

As usual, after the military tension at Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir earlier this month, India and Pakistan have reengaged in a verbal spat.

The first causalities of the recent tension were senior citizens from Pakistan who wanted to pay a visit to India. Their visa request was put on “hold,” which in pragmatic terms means denied by the government of India.

The second victims were Pakistani hockey players who were in India for games. They were sent back to their country due to ruckus created by right-wing fringe elements during the opening ceremony of a tournament in Mumbai.

The third mistake was committed by Pakistan’s interior minister Rehman Malik who suggested that India should provide better security for its famous film star Shahrukh Khan who was invited to Pakistan by a known terrorist. “We are capable of looking at the security of our own citizens,” said India’s home secretary, Raj Kumar Singh, in response. “Let him worry about his own.”

Khan wrote in Outlook magazine that he had sometimes “become the inadvertent object of political leaders who choose to make me a symbol of all that they think is wrong and unpatriotic about Muslims in India.” The actor also expressed his concern about the rising sectarian sentiments in India where the majority Hindu and minority Muslim populations seem to be growing further and further apart.

Rehman Malik’s statement revealed that the Pakistani establishment, 65 years after the partition of India, still thinks of itself as custodians of India’s Muslims — an affront to the leaders in New Delhi.

The recent tension began with a border incident in early January when Indian and Pakistani army forces opened fire on each other at the Line of Control. The situation seemed on the brink of escalation when Indian media reported that a solider had been decapitated and abused by Pakistani troops. Nationalist and right-wing commentators and politicians in India demanded that Pakistan be taught a “lesson.”

One person who kept her cool was Pakistan’s foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar. She proposed bilateral talks almost immediately to prevent the situation from escalating further. She also demanded third party mediation to resolve the Kashmir dispute which many, including herself, seem to believe is the “core” of Indo-Pakistani bellicosity.

However, even if the Kashmir dispute were resolved, decades of antagonism and warmongering on both sides are unlikely to simply go away. India and Pakistan have been rivals since partition. In order to reach a long-term peace, Kashmir is but one issue that has to be solved.

Khar’s offer to talk was rejected by India, specifically because of the demand for third party mediation in the Kashmir dispute. The two countries agreed in Simla in 1972 to resolve the issue bilaterally. But Pakistan is now in a much weaker position. It has lost three wars against India and copes with a tribal insurgency in its western frontier region. It insists on the involvement of a third party in peace talks to provide a necessary balance.

India-Pakistan Engagement Set Back by Border Dispute

Indian soldiers on the border with Pakistan at Wagah, November 23, 2008
Indian soldiers on the border with Pakistan at Wagah, November 23, 2008 (Dainis Matisons)

In modern international relations, states are expected to act rationally and responsibly. Looking into the behavior of South Asia’s great powers, however, it can hardly be said that the two act rationally and certainly not responsibly.

The region is in turmoil. The United States are preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014. The Taliban are hoping to return to power there. But instead of trying to meet those challenges, India and Pakistan were at it again in the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir.

The arguments are familiar. Pakistan wants the United Nations to look into an alleged breach of the ceasefire agreement. India does not. While the present standoff may not lead to another war, it does affect the pace of bilateral engagement between the two countries.

Trying to lay responsibility for the recent fray is like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg? Certainly on both sides of the border there are stakeholders who benefit from perpetuating the enmity between the two nations. As happened in the past, whenever there was a chance of engagement or a peace deal, some untoward incident derailed the frontier.

After Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee of India and Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan signed the Lahore Declaration in 1999 to stabilize relations between their countries after a series of nuclear weapons tests, the Pakistani army and the Islamist militant group Al-Badr, allegedly founded by Pakistani intelligence, destroyed any hope of a more permanent settlement with events that led up to the Kargil War.

When India’s left-wing government made overtures to Pakistan in the last decade, the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks occurred, setting back the peace process by two years.

There are also domestic political imperatives that can derail the bilateral relationship. India’s present government may find its very convenient to divert public outrage over rape cases to the border shootings. The ongoing debate in India’s press over the need to empower and protect women has been all but silenced as attention is diverted to the situation on the border.

There are also groups in India that are troubled by the prospect of a Pakistani peace altogether. Recent border incidents have thrust foreign policy hawks out of hibernation and given them a media platform to explain why India and Pakistan can never be at peace.

2012 was actually a successful year for Indian-Pakistani engagement. Confidence building measures and treaties were signed and there seemed to be a closed door understanding between the leaders of both countries to put the Kashmir issue aside for a while and make progress in other areas. An integrated check post was set up to allow trucks easier access across the border, thus facilitating trade. There was agreement to issue more visas to citizens from both nations. And in a symbolic step, Pakistan’s national cricket team came to and played in India late last year. All of it could unravel as the two rivals are at each other’s throats again.

War’s Legacy Still Frustrates Sino-Indian Relations

Prime Ministers Wen Jiabao of China and Manmohan Singh of India in New Delhi, December 16, 2010 (AP)
Prime Ministers Wen Jiabao of China and Manmohan Singh of India in New Delhi, December 16, 2010 (AP)

There is a popular Marxist axiom that says history repeats itself. That may be the case in many social sciences but a challenging proposition in international relations because of the constant changes that take place in the structure of the world system.

Many analysts consider the future of Sino-Indian relations through the prism of the Marxist theory. Foreign policy hawks and nationalists in both countries maintain that the two rising powers will reengage in war at some point. On the other hand, there are liberals and supposedly pacifists who do not buy this argument and claim that the two Asian giants will rise peacefully.

The debate has raged since the mid 1990s when both China and India started showing high economic growth. Fifty years after the two went to war, questions about the future Sino-Indian relationship are increasingly relevant. Hence the war itself is subject to intense historical scrutiny.

Many theories, indeed some conspiracy theories, have emerged into the reasons of the 1962 conflict. Almost all of them point to the border dispute as the war’s impetus. But that was rather an excuse than a cause.

Chinese ambitions of regional hegemony reemerged after the Communist Party had firmly established itself in Beijing. Indonesia, Japan and Malaysia were seen as hurdles to such a position but not an outright challenge. India, due to its sheer size and political clout, was. To claim a leadership position in Asia, China had to check India’s own aspirations through political or military means.

China’s unilateral ceasefire declaration without putting up serious terms or conditions suggests that its only wish indeed was to remind India of its power. Secondly, there was the clash of personalities between India’s prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who saw himself as the leader of the Nonaligned Movement, and China’s Mao Zedong, who contested for the leadership of the communist bloc. Mao’s willingness to go to war may at least in part have stemmed from his desire to degrade Nehru’s status on the world stage.

China and India reestablished diplomatic relations in the late 1970s. Trade has since increased between them. By 2015, the volume of Sino-Indian commerce is expected to top $100 billion per year.

Yet all is not well. Despite engagement for more than two decades, the two nations have yet to resolve their border disputes. They have also, intermittently, engaged in spats over political issues.

The present combination of cooperative economic engagement and political instability explains why questions over the future of Sino-Indian relations remain relevant. In the near term, economic necessity will preserve the cooperation that is seen in that sphere but even if another war seems unlikely, unresolved political disputes continue to frustrate a truly “peaceful rise” of both nations.

Singh, Zardari Deserve Admiration for Détente

President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India meet in New Delhi, April 8
President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India meet in New Delhi, April 8 (MEA)

The leaders of India and Pakistan are embroiled in scandals at home but can be applauded for at least keeping the dialogue between the two rivaling nations going.

Various scams have been unearthed during the most recent months of Manmohan Singh’s premiership in India. Several of his cabinet ministers are deeply involved. In Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari is in conflict with the judiciary for allegedly siphoning off public money.

Nevertheless, their governments have kept up negotiations, particularly about trade instead of more contentious and time consuming issues like terrorism and Kashmir.

In February, India’s commerce and industry minister Anand Sharma visisted Pakistan to finalize a trade agreement with his Pakistani counterpart. As a result, integrated border checks have been set up to facilitate and increase commerce. This month, the government of India allowed Pakistani investment, albeit in limited sectors of the economy.

No unfortunatele incidents have taken place since India’s external affairs minister Somanahalli Mallaiah Krishna and his Pakistani counterpart Shah Qureshi engaged in a verbal duel on the former’s first visit to Islamabad in 2010. Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan’s incumbent foreign affairs minister, paid a visit to New Delhi soon after assuming her post and received a warm welcome there. The two explored the possibility of engagement on commercial instead of security issues which appears to be bearing fruit.

This month, Krishna paid his second, much anticipated second visit to the Pakistani capital, again focusing on trade issues but also hinting that Indo-Pakistani relations would not be held hostage by disputes over the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks which India suspects were carried out with Pakistani assistance.

The main problem in Indo-Pakistani relations is not terrorism or border disputes, rather a lack of trust and, sometimes, outright hatred between the two sides. Tension will remain, no matter how many issues are resolved, if this mutual suspicion persists. Public debate in both countries unfortunately fuels the distrust, tempting politicians to toe the line of nationalists and radicals instead of improving bilateral relations through compromise.

Changing Indian and Pakistani perceptions of their neighbors is no simply task. The relationship has been marked by conflict since independence. But it is the only way to stabilize ties for the long term. It is the responsibility of leaders in both countries to take the first steps toward peaceful coexistence.