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Friday, February 16, 2024

Keepers of the Holy Grail

Pakistan also needs to bring China and the US together by removing the US apprehensions and misunderstandings about CPEC. For this to happen, US sensitivities and fears about Chinese activities in the India – Pacific region should be addressed. What happens in the South China Sea, particularly the Strait of Malacca, is closely linked with CPEC.

In Medieval Christian literature, Holy Grail is traditionally thought to be the cup that Jesus Christ drank from at the Last Supper and that Joseph of Arimathea used to collect Jesus’s blood at his crucifixion. The cup, according to the early Christian romances, held magical powers. It was believed that the person possessing the Holy Grail would be the legitimate heir to Christ’s spiritual and temporal legacy, and the true claimant to rule Christendom.

King Arthur was a legendary British leader who, according to medieval histories and romances, led the defense of Britain against Saxon invaders in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. The greatest adventure of King Arthur and his Knights was the quest for the mythical Holy Grail. While King Arthur was never to find the Holy Grail himself, his knight Sir Galahad did because of his purity of heart.

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Understanding the matter better

The Holy Grail, in the context of Pakistan, is Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s moral and political legacy. The claimants to this legacy are many, even those who had vehemently opposed him during his struggle for Pakistan. Who is the Sir Galahad of Pakistan’s power dynamics – the fortune hunters-turned- politicians like Zardari and the Sharifs, the idealists like Imran Khan, the holy fathers of the seminaries, or the Pakistan Army?

For the last many decades, it is the Army that stands out as the most vocal claimant to the title of “Keeper of the Holy Grail” – the defender of Pakistan’s geographical and ideological borders. In that case, bad economic performance was not the only factor for bringing in the no-confidence-motion against Imran Khan’s government. The other factors were 1) Political instability; 2) Insurgencies in the erstwhile FATA and Balochistan; 3) The situation in Indian Held Kashmir, 4) Relations with the US; and last, but not the least 5) Recognition of Israel. All these factors involved Army’s concerns.

Whereas the latest economic survey indicates that PTI had put the economy on the right track, it was still far from being satisfactory.

What is the military dimension of Pakistan’s economy?

Currently, the Indian military budget surpasses Pakistan’s entire budget. The armed forces are keeping the Indian juggernaut at bay by making do with mostly second-hand equipment In the not-so-distant past, our Army had bought second-hand helicopters from the US and rebuilt junk armored personnel carriers received, gratis, from Italy.

Much before PAF inducted the Chinese J-10, it wanted the F-16 Viper (the latest version) to counter India’s SU-30s and the French Rafale. Due to lack of funds, it resorted to buying second-hand, old version F-16s from Jordan and elsewhere. The air force also keeps re-building its more than half a century old Mirages to keep them flying. The navy, except for its four Chinese-origin frigates, for the last three decades was making do with two to three decades old hulks. As for nuclear deterrence, a nuclear bomb is a deterrent till it is not used. Once used, it unleashes mutual hara-kiri. So basically it is the conventional deterrence reinforced by nuclear posturing.

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The economy of Pakistan, as it stands today, cannot support the armed forces to even maintain a semblance of a viable defensive posture. And this is happening when the army and the air force are fighting active insurgencies along the western border, as well as keeping more than an eye on the eastern border.

In such a situation, when Pakistan’s armed forces are financially hamstrung in meeting their defence needs, they will continue to play a larger-than-life role in the national decision-making process. Perhaps it was the Army’s apprehension that the Imran Khan regime would take too long to overcome the economic crisis, which prompted the army to look toward Shehbaz Sharif as a replacement – he had marketed himself well as a strong administrator in Punjab – the so-called Punjab Speed. The readers would remember a statement Nawaz Sharif had made at the end of his rule. Replying to a question, Nawaz Sharif had said “So what if I am living beyond my means? What have the others got to do with it?” And it is, for this reason, Army decision-makers are looking the other way when it comes to Zardari-Nawaz corruption.

Political Instability

Much before Imran Khan came to power, his political opponents had started feeling the heat. Zardari and the Sharifs, both their dynasties catapulted to power in the wake of Zia ul Haq’s plane crash, consider Imran Khan as the real threat and challenge to their jiggery-pokery. Pakistani politicians, those who use religion as the source of financial sustenance, have always looked toward the feudal lords and tribal chiefs for sponsorship. It is in this context most religious parties find a common cause with PML (N) and PPP.

Talking about feudalism, during the last half a century the large landholders have transitioned into businessmen and industrialists. Currently, Pakistan’s economy is held hostage to sugar, textile, and fertilizer barons. All of them are also controlling the arable land, forests, and sources of water in the arid areas.

In the canal irrigated areas of the Punjab, Sindh, and KPK, the provincial irrigation departments are under the thumb of these fat cats. Together, all these land lord-turned-industrialists and tribal chieftains have made the establishment believe that Imran is an arrogant, inflexible, and inexperienced person who should not be trusted with the handling of Pakistan’s economy. Imran himself didn’t help the perception about him improve by insisting on appointing a DGISI of his choice.

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The Insurgencies

Insurgencies are going on in Balochistan since the 1960s. Besides Balochistan, the army and air force are also embroiled in fighting with terrorists in the erstwhile FATA. These terrorists are funded by India, Iran, the US, and Afghanistan. On top of that, the Army is under pressure from the US to restore the air corridor through Pakistani territory. The corridor, also known to the USAF pilots as the Boulevard, links the US military bases in the Gulf with Kabul.

In the past, Imran Khan had snubbed the US demand for restoring the air corridor and providing them military bases like Shamsi, in the vicinity of Jacobabad. The US drone attacks against Al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban were launched from Shamsi. Perhaps Imran Khan’s blunt refusal of the US demand was not considered a prudent response, particularly when Pakistan needs a financial bailout from the US-controlled IMF and other financial institutions.

The situation across the LoC

A lot of political mileage was extracted by Imran Khan’s opposition when Modi abrogated Article 370 and Article 35 A of the Indian constitution. The abrogation resulted in the creation of two union territories of Ladakh and Jammu& Kashmir, to be governed by a lieutenant governor and a unilateral legislature. Besides its cartographic optics – the map of IHK was redrawn – the abrogation is aimed at changing the balance of population by settling Hindus in the Muslim majority areas.

Kashmiri freedom fighters are waging a long-drawn-out struggle against the Indian occupation for the last half a century. IHK, even as the Gaza strip, has been turned into a huge prison. The strategy of the Pakistan Army is to hold the LoC in strength while the Kashmiris are embroiled against the Indian occupation army. However, for the last more than one year, a cease-fire along the LoC is in force. This has provided a breather to both armies.

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Saudi Arabia and UAE, prompted by the US, are trying to pursue Pakistan to accept the LoC as the International border between India and Pakistan. They have promised to invest around USD 100 billion in the disputed state India and Pakistan accept their proposal. Pakistan and India had almost reached a similar agreement during Pervez Musharraf’s rule. After Musharraf’s departure, the political governments of the Noon League and PPP didn’t show any interest in the agreement. They even refused to acknowledge the existence of any such move. The establishment needs a government that can take a pragmatic decision on Jammu &Kashmir.

Relations with the US

All the above-mentioned factors have an American dimension. I had written earlier that despite the rhetoric about refusing military bases to the United States, Pakistan is a “Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA)”. According to the US Department of State, MNNA status provides Pakistan with certain benefits in the areas of defense, trade, and security cooperation. Whereas the defense and trade cooperation with Pakistan is conveniently muted by the US, it demands security cooperation from Pakistan. This security cooperation, in the context of the US-Pakistan relationship, commits Pakistan to provide its airspace to the US for carrying out future military operations in Afghanistan.

Pakistan also needs to bring China and the US together by removing the US apprehensions and misunderstandings about CPEC. For this to happen, US sensitivities and fears about Chinese activities in the India – Pacific region should be addressed. What happens in the South China Sea, particularly the Strait of Malacca, is closely linked with CPEC. China is developing CPEC to counter the US plan for blockading the Strait of Malacca in the event of a war between the US and China. The US, goaded by India, is contemplating embarking on yet another series of quixotic adventures in the South China region. To facilitate this, the US is providing COMCASA-compatible equipment to India to snoop on the Chinese navy and air force.

Reportedly, the US wants India to monitor the Chinese submarine traffic through the Strait of Malacca and, if possible, block it for the Chinese shipping in a future war. Western think tanks say that India can easily block Chinese shipping by parking a few ships at the mouth of the Strait of Malacca. This is a hare-brained scheme. The Strait of Malacca, if blocked, will be blocked for all maritime traffic that passes through it.

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Short of providing bases to the US, Pakistan should bargain for the fruition of its strategic goals and interests. These may be translated into a win-win relationship between the two hitherto estranged allies. Recognition of Israel is a corollary to the other US-Pakistan issues.

It is a demand by the US

Pakistan Army needs a responsive civilian government to support it in all these strategic issues. But blocking Imran Khan’s future entry into the corridors of power, by bringing in opportunists like Zardari and the Sharifs, is not the answer to address the present economic and political tumult. I will not be making a sweeping statement if I say that Imran Khan is Army’s natural ally.


Saleem Akhtar Malik is a Pakistan Army veteran who writes on national and international affairs, defense, military history, and military technology. He Tweets at @saleemakhtar53. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.