Few things cause so much excitement in Pakistan as the utterances or actions of the Army Chief. General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s recent visit to the US therefore, created an absolute frenzy of speculation, all of which is a sad commentary on the state of a supposed democracy.
Meanwhile in Delhi, dark suspicions and cries of betrayal were heard on an equally supposed resumption of US ties with Pakistan, all of which made for good theatre. But it's as well to go behind the footlights and concentrate on facts rather than farrago.
The Visit Itself
On the visit itself. First, It was a five-day visit, just weeks into the retirement of the COAS Bajwa. That is not entirely unusual, but logically it should be a new chief who makes his ‘calls’ on the top power.
Second, the visit was postponed at least thrice, one of which was when then PM Imran Khan made that disastrous visit to Moscow, on the very day Russia invaded.
Third, the fact that the F-16 sustainment package was on the cards, was known well before the visit, signalling a public thaw ( as apart from the quiet military and intelligence talks that go on behind the scenes) . And fourth, the visit came just days after Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto was received by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. That press interaction (attended by a total of one person) spoke, however, of strengthening ‘economic and commercial ties’ and ‘regional security’. That would have caused a missed heartbeat somewhere. And not a word about Pakistan not doing enough against terrorism.
All in all, a positive setting for the COAS’s visit. That began with a meeting with General Diop, Military Advisor to the UN Secretary General, which is as bland as it gets and was probably meant to give a weekend of fun to the retiring chief.
Hollow Claims of Pakistan Army Staying Away from Politics
The actual visit in Washington began even more positively with the COAS choosing to announce his impending retirement at a meet at the Pakistan Embassy before embarking for his formal visits.
He then claimed that the armed forces had distanced themselves from politics and wanted to remain so. That’s a claim that was full of holes even before it was made. Just days earlier, senior PTI leader Ishaq Khakwani claimed on television that the party held a meeting with Gen Bajwa at the presidency, facilitated by President Alvi. This was more or less confirmed by the President himself. So much for staying away from politics.
In other remarks at the Embassy, Bajwa prioritised mending the Pakistani economy, noting that ‘There could be no diplomacy either without a strong economy’. He’s absolutely right. But, back home, a Finance Minister was removed because he had to report to two centres of power—the Prime Minister and his patron Nawaz Sharif in London.
He later observed ruefully that Pakistan was a 'One percent republic' where the elite one percent controlled the country. He also made the startling disclosure that the Imran Khan government had distributed some Rs 580 billion to this one per cent, and further that a certain rich conglomerate had asked for his support for setting up a 500,000-tonne factory of polypropylene with a 20pc duty protection for 20 years, citing inability to compete with the Chinese. Though none of this is uncommon in South Asia, the point is that the Pakistani economy is a leaking ship. US refinancing efforts cannot even hope to ever plug that.
Pakistan-US Defence Deal
Bajwa then met with US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, with the resultant shortest ever media release saying nothing at all. But there’s no need to get gleeful on that. The US may be wise to Pakistan’s constant shuffling of its cards on terrorism, but still needs it to get the remaining ones who seem to sprout almost daily.
The F-16 ‘sustainment program’ worth USD 450 million—announced on 8 September—is the first such deal in four years after the previous US administration turned the screws down hard on Islamabad. The notification says that the deal will allow ‘interoperability’ with the US for ‘counter terrorism’ which leads to the probability that despite vociferous denials by Islamabad, this is taking place in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
It is true that the package does not augment Pakistan’s arsenal, but provides standard services including improvement packages for its electronic combat suite and engine, among other things. All of this follows the targeting of Ayman al Zawahari in Kabul in August, presumably and almost certainly, with Pakistani help, leading to this ‘quid pro quo’. Trading terrorists has long been Islamabad’s way of working, and no US generosity has ever been able to change that.
American Ambassador's Visit to PoK
More changes seem to be in the offing for the greater good of Pakistan-US relations. That included a huge flood aid effort, which was entirely to the good. More controversially was the visit by the new Ambassador to Pakistan Donald Blome to the so called ‘Azad Kashmir’ which according to the Embassy post, says was to “promote the US-Pakistan partnership and highlight the two countries’ deep economic, cultural, and people-to-people ties.” .
The posts also referred to his visit to the ‘Prime Minister’ Tanveer Ilyas and academics and others. Considering the Ambassador has only just taken over, this first visit is highly significant, at this point, and also given that Washington has not seen fit to post an Ambassador to Delhi yet. The US position on Kashmir is that it is disputed, and that both sides should sit down to negotiate.
Apart from this, however, is the reality that Congressional hearings have repeatedly highlighted Indian ‘human rights violations’ in Kashmir, without so much as a mention of the constitutional black hole that is Gilgit Baltistan, or the farce of independence in so called “Azad” Kashmir. It is this two-facedness that annoys Indians, and thereby affects policy.
The conclusion that US-Pakistan ties are on the mend would be acceptable, since bilateral ties had virtually bottomed out in recent years. But more vexing is whether these ties are meant to signal to India that it had better not take its ‘Indo-Pacific’ friend for granted by flirting with China or by cosying up with Russia.
Neither is it likely to be comfortable with Foreign Secretary Jaishankar’s outspokenness in recent media interactions. Delhi need not be unduly worried, unless its economy takes a beating. Climate change, wars, and the threat of more wars in Taiwan is likely to send the global economy into another tailspin. That’s when even superpowers are likely to resort to new arm twisting measures to get themselves the best deal possible from ‘allies, friends and partners’ – none of which actually exist in a world where the bottom line is each for itself and none for all.
(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)