LIP-READING A GENERAL

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Ever wondered why Pakistani politicians always seem to launch or run political parties from plush foreign locations? Pervez Musharraf has just launched his All Pakistan Muslim League at a gentleman’s club in Whitehall, Benazir Bhutto ran the PPP for years from Dubai and London, Nawaz Sharif ran his PML (N) from a luxurious palace in Saudi Arabia after a deal that got him out of jail under Musharraf and the MQM’s Altaf Hussain is permanently based in the UK.

It’s a somewhat trite fact but it shows the vast gulf in our political cultures and the entrenched power dynamics as they have developed in our two societies over the decades. Can you ever imagine a breakaway faction of say the JD(S) or the Samajwadi Party launching and running a political operation from faraway London?

The deeper problem is that mainstream Pakistani parties are controlled by a small clique of fratricidal elites – and Musharraf is now a politician – but because they are so distant from the touch and feel of the Pakistani street, as we saw during the floods, Pakistan’s politicians, when in trouble, always fall back on familiar default positions from the past. And Kashmir is the biggest clarion call of them all.

This partly explains Musharraf’s mea culpa of the past week on terrorist groups in the Valley. Despite his various corrections since, he has not really deviated from the substance of the line he took in the Der Spiegel interview: that Pakistan supported or turned a blind eye to the terror groups because it saw it as a way of keeping the pressure on India to talk Kashmir.

Whether Musharraf personally started these groups or not – as he has asserted in his rebuttals – is irrelevant. There is nothing here that we did not know before. What is new is that a former head of state is openly saying it.

What is more revealing is that the General’s assertion comes at a time when Pak politics is in a flux and the Army, firmly in the saddle, has been slowly but surely sharpening its hardline. Read transcripts of Musharraf’s various interviews this week and you can draw a straight line between his worldview and General Kiyani’s briefing to reporters earlier this year when he heralded a return to the usual tough talk on Kashmir, the foreign ministers press conference fiasco in Islamabad, Pak’s raking up of Kashmir in the UN General Assembly last month, at least some of the recent upsurge in Srinagar and Pakistan’s closing down of the Khyber Pass supply line for NATO troops. Musharraf is the Army’s man and he’s essentially echoing GHQ in Rawalpindi.

His interviews are replete with a sense of denial about all of Pak’s internal problems and the familiar discourse about the Army as its ultimate bulwark.

This change of line is symbiotically linked with the Pakistan Army’s bets on the endgame in Afghanistan. With Obama’s deadline for troop withdrawal approaching, Rawalpindi’s emboldened generals are playing hardball to regain Afghanistan, an area they have always regarded as one that would give it “strategic depth” against India.

The brazen closing down of the Khyber Pass checkpoint and the television pictures of the burning NATO fuel trucks are a clear signal of intent and its double-dealing. At stake here is the Haqqani network which the US has been targeting and the Pakistani establishment values as a strategic lever in defining post-US Afghanistan.

Hemmed in since 9/11, the Pakistan security establishment, looking at it from its own narrow prism, now sees an opportunity to regain its hand. Historically, Pakistan’s generals have made strategic political blunders almost every time they have felt emboldened. Ayub Khan, for instance, started the 1965 war because of an assumption that India, on the back-foot after the Chinese drubbing of 1962, would fold up easily; Musharraf himself initiated Kargil because of a sense that Pakistan’s nuclear parity would mitigate against a strong Indian repartee and the West would intercede quickly. But each time, this political over-reach has been disastrous for Pakistan in strategic terms.

India’s response needs to calibrated carefully, especially as this current phase of Pakistani verbal aggression comes during a time of unrest in the Valley. A soft healing hand in Srinagar must be matched with a tough diplomatic fist externally even as New Delhi watches the unfolding diplomatic game between Washington and Rawalpindi on Afghanistan.

The outcomes of Kabul are linked to the state of play in Srinagar. Until Kabul’s future is secure – and how Obama will react in the months ahead is crucial – the peace process with Pakistan seems destined to remain a non-starter.

In 1965, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto walked out of a UN General Assembly debate on Kashmir shouting that “we will fight for a thousand years.” In some senses, despite all the bonhomie, that mindset has become an almost permanent blind spot for much of Pakistan’s political and military class.

At a basic level, Musharraf is echoing this article of faith and it’s something we can’t afford to overlook as we move to soothe tempers in Kashmir.