27/09/2016 8:13 AM IST | Updated 23/01/2017 11:04 PM IST

The Powerplay Between Raheel And Nawaz Is Key To Reading Uri Attack

Nawaz Sharif and Raheel Sharif are vying with each other to appoint the next army chief.

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Why did the Uri attack happen when it did? For over two months, Indian repression of a popular uprising in Kashmir was giving Pakistan a lot to attack India on. The Pakistani government was issuing regular statements expressing concern on Kashmir, and had even raised it before the United Nations.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was on a flight to New York when the Uri attack took place on the morning of 18 September. The timing couldn't have been worse. The attack shifted the focus away from human rights in Indian Kashmir or the use of terrorism by Pakistan. Not even the Pakistani army and intelligence services would want that. Why would they, when they have been given a fresh Kashmir case on a platter?

Some Pakistanis have used this logic to say that Pakistan couldn't have been behind it. Some commentators, including this one, have argued that the Uri attack was meant to "internationalise" the Kashmir issue, forcing the world to pressurize India on Kashmir to prevent a war between nuclear-armed neighbours.

Stealing Nawaz's Thunder

Yet there is a third possibility, one that has to do with civil military relations in Pakistan.

Nawaz Sharif going to the United Nations General Assembly, raising human rights violations in Kashmir, would have earned him strong brownie points in Pakistan. Since Sharif has always been known to pursue peace with India, even inviting a Hindutva hardliner like Narendra Modi to his Lahore home, it was his time to prove before Pakistanis that he wasn't soft on Kashmir, a key litmus test before the Pakistani right-wing.

By using the Uri attack and shifting focus away from human rights in Kashmir to terrorism and the spectre of war, the Pakistani "establishment" managed to take limelight away from Nawaz Sharif. Human rights in Kashmir was no longer the main headline, it was the apparent threat of war from a belligerent India.

READ: Why The Indian Government Doesn't Really Care About Terrorism

"Thank You Raheel Sharif"

The threat of a war with India, a much larger country with a much larger army, one that dismembered Pakistan in 1971, is the unbeatable rationale for the Pakistani army to dominate all defence and foreign policy decision-making in Pakistan. And a big defence policy decision is soon to be made: choosing the successor of the chief of army staff, General Raheel Sharif.

The threat of war gives Raheel Sharif greater say in getting an extension, or deciding the next army chief, a privilege Nawaz Sharif is trying to own.

In two decades, no army chief in Pakistan has retired on time. As part of his efforts to assert civilian dominance over the army, Nawaz Sharif is reluctant to give an extension to Raheel Sharif when his tenure ends in November. Raheel Sharif publicly said in January this year that he did not desire an extension, but rumours are rife in Pakistan that he would like one.

Raheel Sharif was appointed army chief by Nawaz Sharif in 2013. Since then, Nawaz Sharif has been weakened politically by Imran Khan's protests in Islamabad in 2014, and by the Panama Papers leak earlier this year. The Panama Papers showed Nawaz Sharif's family owned unaccounted property abroad.

Meanwhile, Raheel Sharif's stock has gone up. Credited with successful count-terrorism operations against anti-Pakistan militant groups. These have brought down incidents of terrorism, not just in the tribal areas but also the business capital of Karachi.

These successes have been accompanied by a massive online and offline campaign to build a personality cult around Raheel Sharif. The campaign even has a social media hashtag - #ThankYouRaheelSharif. Many in Pakistan believe this campaign has been orchestrated by the army itself. Using his image as a savior of Pakistan, Raheel Sahrif has increased his intervention in Pakistani domestic and foreign affairs, affecting Nawaz Sharif's powers.

Nawaz Sharif would especially like to pick a "safe" general who gives the civilian leadership more room to manouevre in both domestic politics and foreign relations. More importantly, he will be up for re-election in 2018, and would not want a hostile army chief at the time.

There has been pressure, especially by the #ThankYouRaheelSharif campaign, on Nawaz Sharif to give Raheel an extension. Even if that does not happen, Raheel would want to choose his own successor. There are top four generals in the race, and Nawaz Sharif wants to be able to make his own choice. The power play over the army chief's succession could now, with the threat of Indian military aggression, shift in favour of Raheel Sharif.

When a journalist asked Nawaz Sharif in London about the issue, just after his address at the UNGA, the prime minister evaded the question. Ask anything else, he said.

READ: In A Masterstroke, Modi Is Selling Strategic Restraint To The Masses

November Rain

Raheel Sharif's tenure expires on 29 November. The SAARC head of states are to meet in Islamabad on 9 and 10 November. In light of Pakistan's activism over Kashmir, New Delhi had hinted it could boycott the summit, but a final decisions had not been made. Even if one of eight countries decides to stay away, the SAARC charter says the summit cannot be held.

Since political activity in Kashmir begins to freeze by October-end, there could have been a winter thaw in India-Pakistan relations. Prime Minister Narendra Modi could have gone to Islamabad, Nawaz Sharif could have toned down his rhetoric on Kashmir, and there could have been promise of resuming dialogue.

As was clear with the Pathankot incident, which took place just a week after Modi's visit to the Nawaz Sharif home in Lahore, the Pakistani establishment does not desire Nawaz taking peace initiative with Modi. Especially given that the issue of the army chief's succession may not be resolved by 9-10 November, a Nawaz-Modi handshake at the time may have been imprudent from the Pakistani establishment's perspective.

The heightened tensions after the Uri attack have made it virtually impossible for Modi to attend the SAARC summit. On the contrary, New Delhi is mobilizing support with Afghanistan and Bangladesh to boycott the summit, to embarrass Islamabad.

This is an outcome the planners of the Uri attack would have calculated, again explaining the timing of the attack.

The future of India-Pakistan relations now rests heavily on how the succession battle of the Pakistani army plays out. It's a movie we have seen before. When Nawaz Sharif picked General Musharraf over the senior-most general in 1998, Musharraf proved to be a bad choice. He surprised Nawaz Sharif with his adventurism in Kargil, the next year. When Nawaz Sharif tried to sack Musharraf, he responded with a coup. Will the movie end differently this time? And how much more the India bogey will be used as a prop on the sets?

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