Last week, the media in Pakistan was agog with reports that the military had killed 11 Indian soldiers in cross-border firing. This was quickly rejected by India’s Udhampur-based Northern Command, but it left many curious about what had prompted the Pakistani military to make such a claim.
At a time where every death on the border or on the Line of Control is closely followed and recorded, such a high number of casualties would have been impossible to miss. After the death of 20 soldiers in an attack on an Indian Army base in Kashmir’s Uri town on September 18, every death of an Indian soldier has been reported by the media meticulously. In November, six Indian soldiers and one Border Security Force jawan have been killed in cross-border firing. In the latest such incident, three Indian soldiers were killed, and one of them mutilated, on the Line of Control in Machhal sector of Kashmir on Tuesday, prompting the Northern Command to say “retribution will be heavy for this cowardly act”.
So what explains the Pakistani military’s macabre competitive claim of inflicting higher casualties?
A new Army chief?
It could have something to do with an expected change of guard at the Pakistan Army. On November 29, the current chief of the Pakistan Army, General Raheel Sharif, is expected to step down and reports in the Pakistani media indicate that he has already started a round of farewell visits to various military formations. While there is some apprehension that he might decide to continue, those who hope to take over from Sharif are all expected to be set on increasing hostilities across the Line of Control. This expected change in Pakistan’s army leadership, say analysts, is what is driving the narrative of competitive kills. Post-September 28/29, when Indian Special Forces carried out surgical strikes in five sectors across the Line of Control, ceasefire violations have spiralled out of control.
While the Indian government is keen on putting up a muscular front after the Uri killings, the Pakistani military also needs to show kills to justify its hegemony over the country’s political processes. Therefore, their claim of killing 11 Indian soldiers last week fits into a convenient narrative.
Four Pakistani generals are waiting in the wings to take over from Sharif on November 29. Lieutenant Generals Javed Iqbal Ramday, Qamar Javed Bajwa, Zubair Mehmood Hayat and Ishfaq Nadeem Ahmad are the front-runners for the post. As per protocol, the decision on the next chief will be taken by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, but it is well known that the Pakistan Army will be the real decision maker.
Ramday, who commands the Bahawalpur Corps, and Bajwa, the inspector general (training and evaluation), are reported to be the prime minister’s top picks. But the Army is firmly behind the two senior-most generals – Hayat, the current chief of general staff, and Ahmad, who commands the Multan Corps.
So far, reports indicate that Ahmad is likely to be the next chief of the Pakistan Army, though bets are still out. Known for planning the ambitious Operation Zarb-e-Azb in 2014 to take on militancy in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, Ahmad enjoys the current chief’s trust. He is a known hawk on India-Pakistan relations, and a blunt man who speaks his mind. His relationship with the prime minister is considered rocky at best and is expected to continue in a similar vein, if he is elevated to the top position.
Hayat, the current chief of general staff, is likely to be elevated as chairman, joint chiefs of staff.
These are the two most powerful positions in the Pakistan Army, and both are expected to go to the current chief’s preferred generals. Worryingly, both have a reputation of being hawkish towards India.
In comparison, Indian security analysts feel the incumbent chief, General Raheel Sharif, is a steady hand during crises and has the tacit backing of the United States, should he choose to continue.
But for now, the general conviction is that hostilities with India will escalate as the Pakistani generals ratchet up tensions along the Line of Control.
While the jockeying for the most powerful post in Pakistan unfolds in the coming weeks, a far more disturbing move is taking place inside Pakistan. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), banks heavily on a lesser known group that it has used in the past to win elections. The Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat – earlier known as the Sipah-e-Sahaba, a Deobandi extremist organisation – has been quietly flexing its muscle with tacit support from the ruling party, leading to further tension between the Army and the civilian leadership.
The Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat is suspected to be linked to the militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which, in turn, had close relations with the Al Qaeda. The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has been in battle with the Pakistani Army on occasion, and the relationship between the two remains frosty, if not hostile. The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, along with Hafiz Sayeed’s Jamaat-ud-Daawa – a front for the Lashkar-e-Taiba – has been championing the Difa-e-Pakistan Council, a body created ostensibly for the “defence of Pakistan”. This organisation managed to hold a massive rally in Islamabad on October 28, at a time when the authorities had declared a lockdown of the capital.
What this means is that while the Pakistani civilian government is supporting one set of militant organisations to bolster its clout against the Army, the military supports another set of militant outfits to use against India. Either way, militants continue to play an inordinately powerful role in Pakistan’s internal politics, at the cost of encouraging hostilities against India.
While the narrative in New Delhi continues to be high on rhetoric against Pakistan, Islamabad is also keen on actively supporting groups that have threatened and executed acts of terror against India in the past. The end result is expected to be a sharp rise in hostilities, both overt and covert, as a new leadership in the Pakistan Army prepares to take over.