AS the itinerary of Gen Raheel Sharif’s visit to the US, makes clear, this will be no ordinary visit. From a democratic perspective, this is discouraging.
While Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s White House visit weeks ago yielded a meeting with President Obama and Maryam Nawaz joined US First Lady Michelle Obama to unveil a female education initiative in Pakistan, there was a sense the more meaningful discussions on national security and foreign policy would occur during Gen Sharif’s visit.
Now, with the army chief set to meet virtually every senior security and military official in the US barring perhaps President Obama himself, there is clearly much serious business to be discussed.
While the military leadership has clearly grabbed a great deal of space for itself domestically, the government of Mr Sharif must be faulted too for this unhappy democratic state of affairs.
Have, for example, the prime minister and his senior aides really demonstrated much enthusiasm for tackling the complex problem that is Afghanistan or offered an alternative vision to the security establishment-led policy on Afghanistan?
While the domestic civil-military imbalance is worrying, there are also serious national security issues to be addressed.
The Paris attacks have shocked the world and made clear that the self-styled Islamic State’s goal is to wage a global jihad on a scale that dwarfs anything Al Qaeda attempted.
Given the precarious security situation in Afghanistan and the widely acknowledged vulnerabilities that the Afghanistan-Pakistan region has to the IS ideology, there is an urgent need for stabilising political actions and greater cooperation in the fight against militancy.
In Afghanistan, that would mean first and foremost reviving the stalled dialogue process between the government and the Taliban.
While Pakistani officials have publicly suggested that the environment is not conducive for the immediate resumption of talks, surely the meetings in Washington this week can go some way to creating the conditions for a quick return to the negotiating table.
As the Afghan, US and Pakistani — and even the Chinese — states appear to have realised over the last year or two, there is a convergence of interests when it comes to keeping IS out of this region.
It will not be easy, however. As background statements by senior security officials indicate, the military establishment also wants to emphasise the challenges that India is posing to regional stability. Be it the so-called India dossiers or talk of a possible civil-nuclear deal with the US or concerns about the size and scope of the Pakistani nuclear deterrent, the military leadership appears keen to emphasise its India concerns.
While India does have the potential to destabilise the region by making unwise choices, it is also the case that the military leadership here appears to be largely in a complaining mode rather than seeking ways to keep tensions in check. A dose of positivity and pragmatism could go a long way.
Published in Dawn, November 16th, 2015