25 September 2023 09:51 AM



India-Pakistan: Politics Stumps Strategy

Another about-turn

An earlier contribution to The Citizen very rightly brings out the political rationale for the government calling off the meeting of the foreign minister with her Pakistani counterpart set to have taken place on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York this month. Here his point is reinforced by showing up the strategic rationale given – that terrorism continues – as a false one.

Indeed, the situation in Kashmir is such that the government could instead well have yelled ‘Victory!’ and turned the tide. That would have been sound strategy in the circumstances, and with political dividend including with its core Hindutva constituency.

Within Kashmir, the promising factors that could have been capitalised on included the appointment at long last of a political governor, who just made the sensible point that assembly elections, not horse trading, is how the next government in Srinagar would be formed. There continues to be a special representative in place, appointed about a year back, whose mandate of dialogue could be taken to its logical conclusion.

The ongoing military operation, Operation All Out, has accounted for some 360 terrorists killed in the last two years. The potential of the short-lived Ramzan ceasefire was undercut by its hasty termination. In short the military and political prongs of strategy of could have culminated with the military prong having done its bit being superseded by the political prong getting into high gear.

On the India-Pakistan front, the Pakistanis have sent out feelers for resuming talks over the past two years. Its army chief has weighed in in favour of talks and an economic opening. Taking the cue, so has the new government in Islamabad, promising two steps to India’s one. Since, as India’s minister of state for external affairs points out, it is a creature of the army it appears that the Pakistanis – speaking with one voice – could have proven a credible interlocutor. India could well have chosen to keep the talks about terrorism, as Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj intended, and continued with its line that this was a meeting and not talks or the resumption of dialogue.

At the regional level, US President Donald Trump’s policy has panned out over the past year. He set it rolling last August by promising a military conditioning of the Taliban, but with no dates of departure thrown in. Over the year, the Americans have opened a direct channel of talks with the Taliban, alongside the twice-proclaimed ceasefire initiative of the Afghan government. They have rapped Pakistan on the knuckles for not doing its part to bring the Taliban to the table by withholding USD 300 million in military subsidy and cutting off access to military education programs in the United States. The Russians and Iranians, who interface intimately in Syria, also have a line to the Taliban in the region. In short, there is little more that Americans could be doing to turn the screws on Pakistan.

In any case, the day-long working visit of the Afghan president to New Delhi preceded the acceptance of the meeting by India at Pakistan's request. Thus, the meeting was not called off owing to the wider situation. It therefore – as India admitted, citing the three policemen killed there – had to do with Kashmir.

The calling-off of the meeting is not the first about-turn in the Modi-Doval stewardship of India’s Pakistan policy. The first was the infamous one in which India overreacted to the Hurriyat's meeting with the Pakistani high commissioner, disregarding the precedence amounting to normality of such interaction. The second was after Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a flying visit to the Raiwind farm house of Nawaz Sharif, when the Pathankot airfield terror attack aborted the process.

Whereas the Pathankot episode had the magnitude to affect talks, to use the killings of three policemen in Kashmir – when some 20 policemen have been killed over the year – calls into question the rationale given, particularly when the policemen were irregulars called special police officers, and not constabulary.

Perhaps the intention is to highlight at the UN General Assembly – where no doubt the tradition of an India-Pakistan war of words is set to continue this year – the Pakistani hand in support of terrorism. But the international community will be difficult to persuade.

A fourth of some 250 terrorists in Kashmir are estimated to be Pakistani. Of the list of 22 ‘most wanted’, only three are Pakistani. The leader most active is indigenous, Riyaz Naikoo of the Hizb and of the six A++ terrorists, four are Kashmiri. Even the casualty figures released by India talk of local militants mostly, with the disaggregated data for Pakistani terrorists not available even on the meticulously compiled satp.org datasheet.

As for infiltration, had Pakistan been at its mischievous best, a hardline government would hardly have gone in for a renewed ceasefire along the Line of Control.

Besides, the deterioration in Kashmir owes much to India’s hardline. The report of the UN human rights watchdog has drawn blood, finding mention yet again in the taking-over briefing of the new high commissioner for human rights. Terrorists have for the most part in the recent past restricted themselves to military targets, thereby undercutting India’s case that it is subject to terrorism and a proxy war, not insurgency.

It is largely over the course of this year that a certain brutalisation appears to have crept in. Families have been targeted by both sides, making it irrelevant to point out who started both sides down the slippery slope. The targeting of special police officers may indicate a spike in the intelligence game in which the terrorists are out to stanch intelligence sources, even as intelligence is used to get to more of them. The resumption of large-scale operations, the high-handed nature of searches leaving behind a trail of complaints by house owners, the continuing killings of up to a score a month of local lads who have taken to insurgency out of desperation and anger and lack of hope absent political initiative have contributed.

The upshot is that India cannot blame Pakistan credibly for the mess in Kashmir. It cannot rehearse its earlier line on terrorism with any plausibility. The army chief has gone on record saying that a three-tier counter infiltration grid has been reinforced this year, and some 100 terrorists killed astride it over last year. It is thus not terrorism India faces, it is insurgency. India cannot believably play the Pakistan card any more to bail itself out of the need to switch to the political track.

India must recognise that it is at what its army chief called its Neeraj Chopra moment, referring to the sportsmanship of the Asiad gold medalist, who reached out to his Pakistani bronze medalist compatriot on the podium. India could well have likewise climbed the podium and extended a hand both externally to Pakistan and internally to Kashmiris.

That such a circumstance has not been seized after four years in the saddle by the present government indicates that the circumstance is fortuitous. It is not of India’s making as much it is of Pakistan largely divesting itself of the terrorism tag. Continuing force application indefinitely is not strategy; it marks the absence of one.

Further, India’s strategy minders are ideologically blinded to see the juncture to be seized. This suggests that politics has trumped strategy, and in the process national interest.

(Cover photograph: Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, now Prime Minister of India, meets Imran Khan, now Prime Minister of Pakistan.)