End of Kashmir Dogfight?


In the wake of drying US aid, China asking Pakistan to divert its focus from Kashmir to its ambitious CPEC project, Shahid Afridi’s comment on Kashmir cannot be taken lightly

By Shankar Kumar

During a recent event organized by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, US Assistant Secretary of Defence for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, Randall G Schriver said many new governments come to power in Islamabad and want to improve relations with India but then soon face realities and difficulties. It was an apt narrative given by the US official. Prime Minister Imran Khan who won the July 25 National Assembly election on the promise of ‘Naya Pakistan’ and improving relations with India, is finding it difficult to walk the talk. Pakistan Army Generals have begun to show him his place in the myriad political system of the country.

But recently when the Pakistan Prime Minister made a visit to China, which was in keeping with his objective to secure loans from Beijing, Chinese leaders are said to have told him in plain words that they wanted him to first secure their $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, instead of engaging in slugfest with India over Kashmir. Whether it is true or not, China is said to be rattled by India-Pakistan tension. It fears that continued dogfight over Kashmir may cast shadow on the early finalization of the ongoing CPEC project. As bringing a 360 degree shift in its policy towards Kashmir in one day or night is not possible, Pakistani cricketer Shahid Afridi’s recent statement in London that “Pakistan doesn’t want Kashmir…It can’t even manage its four provinces,” is seen by analysts as a new feeling among local Pakistani people towards Kashmir. Since Afridi is considered as a close supporter of fellow cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan, his statement on Kashmir is not taken lightly by some foreign watchers as well..

Nonetheless Pakistan is passing through a turbulent phase of its political history. On the one hand, it is in deep economic problem, on the other, internal law and order situation is bursting at seams, giving terrorists and their sympathizers enough time to expand and strengthen their networks and trigger mayhem and blasts at will across the country.  A few daysago, suicide bombers stormed Karachi-based Chinese consulate and killed seven people. This was the fourth attack on a diplomatic mission in Pakistan since the mid 1990’s. Last time when any embassy or consulate was ever attacked in Pakistan, it was that of Danish embassy in 2008. In the killing field of Pakistan, such incidents show that even diplomatic missions are not safe from attack by terrorists in the country. However, in the case of attack on the Chinese consulate, it is the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), a banned militant organization with its bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which has claimed responsibilityfor the act.

The militant group, fighting against the Pakistan government for its discriminatory attitude and exploitation of Balochistan’s natural resources, is against the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The China-led project is seen by the group which sources most of its members from Pakistan’s Marri and Bugti tribes, as part of Beijing’s expansionist design. It fears that Pakistan’s Gwadar Port to which China will link its Xinjiang province’s Kashgar city, will be used as a base for the People Liberation Army’s Navy. In May this year, 11 people working for the construction of road under the CPEC project were gunned down in Gwadar. While in June 2017, two Chinese nationals were killed by ISIS in Balochistan.

For Pakistan, attack on the Chinese consulate has come at its worst time. It has taken place when Pakistan, staring at financial crisis, is seeking help from Beijing to avert its balance of payment problem. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent visit to China was in keeping with his objective to get loans from Beijing.  According to media reports, Pakistan has received assurance from China of getting $6 billion loan. But the same has not yet been revealed by the Chinese leadership so far. It is in this situation, suicide bombers carried out their dastardly act by storming the consulate in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and financial capital.

Even if the incident may not cloud Pakistan-China relations, it is felt that worried China may compel Pakistan to provide more security cover to its men and financial interests. For cash-starved Pakistan, putting up more men to protect Chinese interests means pumping in huge amount of money by withdrawing from its exchequer. That means money intended for development, education, health and other social causes in Pakistan may be diverted towards meeting objectives of providing security to China’s human and financial interests in the country. But since there is nothing like foolproof security, Pakistan’s militant organizations could hardly be reigned-in completely from undertaking terrorist acts. In that case hard-pressed China, which has made Pakistan heavily indebted with its money, will have two options: Either to withdraw from the multi-billion CPEC project or send its army to protect it.

In neither case, however, China will be able to save its skin. The CPEC project which is part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2013 launched Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has already sucked in more than $10 billion Chinese money. Facing liquidity crisis, withdrawal from the project at this stage, will be suicidal for President Jinping as he will not be spared by his rivals and old guards from the Chinese Communist Party.

Since the arrival of Jinping at the top of China’s power structure, several senior CPC leaders have been silenced, while old guards like former Presidents Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and ex-Prime Minister Wen Jiabao are cooling their heels in some remote areas of the country. They are waiting for an opportunity when they would question the leadership of the incumbent President, who has managed to amend the party’s constitution to stay in power for life term. President Xi Jinping won’t be able to send Chinese troops to Pakistan to provide security to the CPEC project. If he does so, it may set alarm bells ringing across the world and suspicion being raised over BRI that it is a front for China to become a global military ruler may get confirmed. For Pakistan itself, it would not be a happy proposition to welcome Chinese troops on its land. If it does so, local people may raise hue and cry over the sovereignty issue, which may turn indefensible for Islamabad.

Yet there are some media reports which suggest that China is going to raise three divisions of its PLA to guard the Chinese interests in Pakistan. A few months ago, Indian Army spotted the presence of PLA officials at the forward posts opposite Nowgam sector in North Kashmir. Last year, India had registered its protest against the presence of Chinese troops in Gilgit and Baltistan, an area of PoK. Local Kashmiris in PoK and people in Balochistan have also raised banner of revolt against Chinese troops’ presence. The Free Balochistan Movement (FBM) has been campaigning against Chinese presence in Balochistan across national capitals of European countries, America and Canada. The statement released by the BLA after the attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi expresses clearly about discontent against China. “The objective of this attack is clear: We will not tolerate any Chinese military expansionist endeavour on Baloch soil,” the BLA said in its release, giving sufficient indication that enough is enough for Baloch.

Clearly, it manifests deep woes that Pakistan is in today. Two key reasons hold it to such situation—first, its obsession with Kashmir and use of militants to gain control over it; second, lack of economic reforms and no serious political efforts to make the country peaceful and stable. And all this can’t happen without changing its negative mindset towards India and its use of terrorists as tools to inflict ‘thousands cut’ on the latter to make it surrender to its wishes. In the 60s and the 70s, Pakistan’s economy was better than India.  Thanks to the US and Western nations’ backed programme of industrialization and privatization, Pakistan was chugging along the high growth of economic trajectory. In fact, its economic growth was so impressive that South Korea awestruck by it had ended up copying its five year plan in its bid to develop Seoul in a short period of time. But from the mid-70s onwards, things started changing towards worse as Pakistan started promoting rabid form of Islam and fanaticism.

In the 80s and the 90s, it turned into a breeding ground for terrorists who used to cross over Afghanistan’s border to uproot the Soviet Union-backed government and in India to dislodge democratically elected government in Jammu and Kashmir. But this way, it completely changed internal landscape of Pakistan. On the other hand, India was deeply engaged in improving economic situation and living standards of its people. Backed well by the gains of the Green Revolution, the country was able to cross one frontier after another with ease of the bird’s flight. It opened itself to the world. When neighbouring country Pakistan was labouring under the weight of jehadism and Islamization of institutions and was busy in producing men and materials for terrorist organizations like Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Harkat-ul-Islam, Taliban, Hakkanis and others, India was engaged in producing and exporting IT professionals, medical practitioners and teachers to the world.

Thus the two neighbours with  different world views were incompatible with each other on several key issues. But ultimately, Pakistan took the Kashmir route to frame its relations with India and this is what has so far proved to be the main cause of deterioration of bilateral relations and its consequent international isolation. Too much focus on Kashmir and its’ desire to snatch it away from India on the strength of terrorism, has today turned Pakistan into a pariah state. Hardly any multi-national company ventures into Pakistan for sake of investment. In fact, so much unsafe has it become that day in and day out, one nation after another, goes on issuing advisories to their citizens on their travel plan on Pakistan. It has a highly talented cricket team, but no country dares to play cricket with Pakistan inside Pakistan after terrorists had attacked the Sri Lankan team on March 3, 2009. Indeed, the same terrorist outfits which grew and proliferated under the nose of the country’s defence establishment, are now giving headaches to their masters. If Pakistan’s Prime Minster is going from one country to  another with a begging bowl in his hands, the blame for this condition lies at the door of instability that terrorism and sectarian violence have brought in the country, which has in turn left Islamabad with no coffer to run import-export business for even two weeks. Imran Khan first went to Saudi Arabia and then the UAE in the Gulf to secure loans for Pakistan; he then leaped frogged to China to ask for money. China has so far not revealed how much loan it has given to the debt-ridden Pakistan. Whatever be the loan amount, Pakistan is heading towards becoming another Sri Lanka.

. To rescue itself from going down the sink hole of debt and to avert its sovereign assets—Gwadar Port or others—from being leased out to China, the troubled nation has no immediate recourse. Yet, there are chances of re-establishment of peace and security in the country if it genuinely takes concrete step to banish terrorism from its land, maintains statuesque stance on Kashmir and improves relations with India. Cricketer Shahid Afridi’s comment on Kashmir may be brushed aside by the Pakistani establishment as off-the-cuff remark, but thousands of common Pakistani nationals must be maintaining the same stand on Kashmir. They want to leave in peace, have a good job and lead a decent life. They too, like their Indian counterparts, must be pinning to see big multinational IT firms like Google and Microsoft have their branches in Pakistan. They too must be yarning for an atmosphere where startups can grow without hindrances coming their ways.

Prime Minister Imran Khan may dream of making ‘Naya Pakistan.’ But his dream can’t see light of the day unless he sits with his Army Generals and formulate a roadmap to ease tension with India. One needs to understand that without taking long term confidence building measures, years of trust gap between the two countries can’t be addressed. More often than not it has been seen that whenever dates are fixed for meeting between leaders or officials of the two countries, irritating, mischievous and sometime very shocking incidents are triggered from across the border, rendering the whole exercise to defrost tension between the two nationsnullified. In September, India had to cancel a meeting between External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and her Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly just 24 hours after agreeing to it whenIslamabad released postage stamps glorifying Kashmiri terrorist Burhan Wani and brutal killings of three policemen in Jammu and Kashmir shook the nation.

Therefore, in the wake of Pakistan not able to continue its Kashmir policy anymore in the wake of drying US financial aid and China not ready to walk even a single inch beyond its CPEC project, Shahid Afridi’s comment over Kashmir needs serious analysis by the diplomats in New Delhi. They need to take advantage of this catch-22 situation in Kashmir and try implement their healing therapy, which Atal Behari Vajpayee had once applied and gained major traction in the valley. If Islamabad backs out from its age old Kashmir policy, it would leave separatist leaders in limbo. So, it’s opportune for the Indian government and its diplomats to hit below the belt. They can now size on the opportunity in Afghanistan too. In fact, the Indian government seems to have started to work on it too. Sending Indian representative in Moscow to attend the meeting with Taliban leaders seems a part of this gimmick. Indian diplomats are looking to hit two sparrow with single arrow. They want to dry the funding of terror organizations operating in J&K and at the same time they want to use Talibans in Balochistan as Russia is trying to toy with Talibans in Ukraine. But, for Kashmir, the India government will have to first pare the trust deficit emerged in last few years among the Kashmiris and the central government. This deficit has potential to pare — at least high voter turnout in recent Panchayat Polls suggests the same.

Now through Kartarpur Sahib Sikh pilgrimage, a new move has been undertaken to normalize the two countries’ ties. Both India and Pakistan took decision to open a corridor on either side of the border to let Sikh pilgrims visit the shrine. Seen as right decision to sideline their animosity for a moment and allow voice of reason and peace to prevail on both sides of border, India happily accepted Islamabad’s invitation to attend the ground breaking ceremony of the Kartarpur Sahib corridor on the Pakistan side of the international boundary on November 28. Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi had extended invitation to his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj, Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amrinder Singh, Punjab Minister Navjot Singh Siddhu to attend ground breaking ceremony in Pakistan. While Sushma Swaraj thanked her Pakistani counterpart for the invitation, but she agreed to send Union ministers Harshimrat Kaur and Hardeep Puri to Pakistan, instead of travelling herself to the country to attend the ceremony. On the Indian side, the foundation stone for the construction of Kartarpur Sahib Corridor was laid by Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu in Mann village in Gurdaspur district on November 26.

These developments, indeed, brought some warmth to the frosty relations of the two countries. Yet it is seen as a facile and short gap arrangement. Pakistan needs to look at the broader picture to improve its ties with India; by playing politics over Kashmir, Islamabad has, in fact, gained nothing, except for wars, destruction, international humiliations and penury. In the scenario when China appears to be desperate to save its CPEC project, Pakistan’s activities on Kashmir have to be closely watched and monitored. For Pakistan, no strategy will serve its interest better than following the path of peace religiously. Given this, is Pakistan ready to turn a new leaf over Kashmir? This is a million dollar question for which only Islamabad has an answer.