“Are not men strongest, who rule over land and sea and all that is in them,” reads the ancient apocalyptic text, The First Book of Esdras? “But the king is stronger; he is their lord and master, and whatever he says to them they obey. If he tells them to make war on one another, they do it; and if he sends them out against the enemy, they go, and conquer mountains, walls, and towers. They kill and are killed.”
On December 25, Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Lahore to attend the wedding of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s granddaughter. The grand gesture served an ambitious peace project: Prime Minister Modi aims, he recently told military commanders, “to turn the course of history”.
Esdras’ warning, however, ought counsel him of the perils that lie ahead: the power to make peace lies in the hands of the country’s real king, its Chief of Army Staff.
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The weekend’s attack on the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot has placed General Raheel Sharif’s intentions at centre stage. The group which carried out the attack, the Jaish-e-Mohammad, is closely linked to Pakistan’s intelligence services. In India’s intelligence community, many believe the attack was intended to send a message: that Pakistan’s military knows India has no retaliatory options, and can ratchet up the pain if it doesn’t get concessions on Kashmir.
For New Delhi, the attack thus poses a serious question: does Pakistan’s military want normalisation, or just a temporary peace on its eastern flank as it secures victory against internal enemies, and for its Taliban clients in Afghanistan?
PAKISTAN ARMY’S AMBITIONS
The simple truth in reply to the question is this: we don’t know. The question, however, needs to be read in its historical context. Inside months of its independence, the scholar-diplomat Husain Haqqani has noted, the Pakistan army was “moving in the direction of of adopting an Islamic ideological colouring”. In 1960, General Ayub Khan, often cast as a secularising modernist, argued that Pakistan was the site for an Islamic experiment in welding together the spiritual and temporal into a state.
For all the proclamations of fidelity to Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s vision for Pakistan, no chief of army staff has replaced General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s military slogan, ‘Iman, Taqwa, Jihad ( Faith, Piety and Jihad)’ with the founding father’s choice, ‘Faith, Unity and Discipline’.
This is because the Generals, the scholar C Christine Fair has noted, see India as an ideological, not military, problem: “to acquiesce (to India) is tantamount not only to defeating the Pakistan Army, but also… to eroding the legitimacy of the Pakistani state”.
Earlier this year, on a visit to Washington, DC, General Shareef made the point bluntly to US diplomats, saying normalisation with India meant surrender on Kashmir, something he was unwilling to acquiesce to. The brother of an officer killed in the 1971 war, Shareef’s dislike of India is intensely personal.
From an Indian optic, two steps would make clear Pakistan’s military has, indeed, committed to a new strategic vision. The first would be legal action against the perpetrators of violence against India; the second, dismantling the military infrastructure of terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad.
There’s some evidence that Pakistan has acted against terror, prodded by the US. Ever since 2003, violence in Kashmir has declined steadily — and, notwithstanding commentary in the media, official statistics demonstrate it stayed in line with the low levels seen in recent years through 2015. Even violence levels, which showed an uptick through 2013 and 2014, showed a marginal decline.
Ever since 26/11, moreover, there hasn’t been a major terrorist attack outside J&K that has traced back to Pakistan. Indian Mujahideen jihadist Muhammad Ahmad Zarar Siddibapa, arrested by the National Investigation Agency, told investigators the ISI Directorate has placed severe restraints on anti-India operations.
It is also clear, though, that the ISI hasn’t kicked its jihad habit: the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s attack in Gurdaspur earlier this year could have claimed hundreds of lives had landmines planted on a railway line exploded.
In discussions with Indian interlocutors, Pakistan has said it hopes, in the long term, to defang organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad by bringing them into political life.
This is, however, a post-dated cheque, one held out to prime ministers from Atal Behari Vajpayee onwards. Pushed hard by the United States, which is fearful of a regional crisis, Modi has decided to take the chance.
RHETORIC AND REALITY
Is India prepared to negotiate the minefields along the road to peace? If there’s some uncertainty about the Indian government’s seriousness of thought, ministers have no one to blame but themselves. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, just months ago, was vowing no talks could take place as long as 26/11 perpetrator Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi was out of jail. In December 2014, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar warned of “strong action” against Pakistan if it didn’t de-escalate within six months — and warned again, in January 2015, that Islamabad had not “learned its lesson”.
Prime Minister Modi’s own twists and turns are legion: having come to power attacking Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s efforts at detente, he invited Prime Minister Sharif to his oath-taking ceremony, then ordering a sharp escalation of retaliatory fire alone the Line of Control, called off Secretary-level talks, signed the Ufa declaration, then backtracked after Pakistan said it would meet the Hurriyat, only to talk again.
For years now, Indian politicians have drawn on the same rhetorical template. In the wake of the attack on Parliament House on December 13, 2001, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had promised an “aar paar ki ladai”, or all-out war. Inside days, he expressed happiness that Pervez Musharraf “had extended a hand of friendship to me”.
Such jalebi-shaped discourse points to a deeper malaise. In 2001-2002, Vajpayee’s military build-up did bring India gains in Kashmir, but at a military price unacceptable to both Pakistan and India. Pakistan’s generals know India’s search for economic growth has made it risk averse — and that this gives them opportunity.
Modi knows, moreover, that the exhortations of his hawks offer little in terms of policy responses. India’s armed forces, research by experts like Walter Ladwig has made clear, cannot win a decisive, short war. Air strikes or targeted assassinations wouldn’t degrade terror infrastructure, and invite retaliatory attacks — which India’s anaemic police and intelligence services are in no position to pre-empting.
Like his predecessors, the Prime Minister has gone out to bat against hostile bowling without a helmet or pads. He may graft a few runs, but will have to bear agonising pain. He’ll be tempted, often, to leave the game.
It didn’t have to be so. Si vis pacem, para bellum, the Roman author Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus’s taught in his treatise, De Re Militari: to ensure peace, prepare for war. Like his predecessors, Modi seems to have missed the second part of that lesson.