Pakistan army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani (Pic:http://www.pakistanarmy.gov.pk/)
Far be it for me to say that Pakistan army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani takes his strategic cues from my blog. Well, it may not be as far as I say it is out of fake humility because I am about to imply precisely that.
On April 15, this blog, under the headline ‘It is time to end Siachen standoff’, said: “The time is opportune for India and Pakistan to declare joint ownership of the (Siachen) glacier and withdraw their troops.” My conclusion was based on my long-held belief that the nearly three-decades-long military standoff between India and Pakistan over the glacier is a consequence of bogus strategic posturing.
Notwithstanding that there is nothing even remotely original about my position, it would be harmless to claim that it is at least not conventional wisdom. It turns out General Kayani seems to think so as well. On April 18, he caused quite a stir in bilateral relations by supporting a proposal to demilitarize the world’s highest battleground at 22,000 feet.
It is one of those oddities of public life that when a politician talks peace, it sounds like expediency but when a general does it sounds statesman-like. So while many on both sides of the India-Pakistan border have said for sometime now that the Siachen standoff has to end, it is only because Pakistan’s army chief concurs that it has acquired unusual traction. I doubt whether it would have meant as much had India’s army chief General Vijay Kumar Singh said exactly the same thing. That is because Kayani’s word is of far greater political consequence within Pakistan than that of Singh’s within India given the latter’s robust democracy.
That Kayani has in a sense aligned his position with former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who has called for Islamabad to withdraw troops is also causing considerable surprise within Pakistan. Coupled with the idea of demilitarizing Siachen are Kayani’s comments that make the pronouncement significant. He has been quoted as saying that the Pakistani military understands “very well that there should be a very good balance between defense and development. You cannot be spending on defense alone and forgetting about development. Ultimately the security of a country is not only that you secure boundaries and borders but it is when people that live in the country feel happy, their needs are being met. Only in that case will a country be truly safe.”
The general is striking all the right notes which is extraordinary within the bilateral context. It is safe to assume that the deadly Siachen avalanche of April 7 that is feared to have killed more than 130 Pakistani soldiers and civilians is acting as the immediate reason for this shift. However, it could not be just the avalanche that is causing the Pakistani military leadership to rethink. The deeper motivations behind Kayani’s comments are not easy to fathom.
Now that I have claimed to be ahead of the curve on this, let me ask what I think is the most pertinent question. Given that Kayani’s comments came before India test-fired its first long-range, nuclear-capable Agni V missile yesterday, would he still remain as committed to demilitarizing Siachen?
Of course, there is no direct correlation between Siachen and India’s missile program but India-Pakistan relations are so convoluted that it is almost impossible to tell what might suddenly weight them down. A bad umpiring decision in a cricket match between the two is entirely capable of throwing everything out of gear.
So let’s see if Kayani positive overtures that followed Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari’s short but optimistic visit to India together help the two countries achieve something truly meaningful. We are already witnessing some very positive developments in bilateral trade. Signs are clear, although the outcome never is.