Imran Khan was in no hurry to respond to India’s allegations on Pakistan’s role in the Pulwama incident. He delivered a speech on February 19 — five days after the incident and after the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia left Pakistan. While it is true that he didn’t want Pakistani and Saudi attention diverted from Mohammad bin Salman, that may not have been the only reason for the delaying tactics. Perhaps, he wanted Narendra Modi to feel the pain of having his back to the wall, which was compounded with the anger of not being able to react at will against a country that the Indian prime minister had claimed he would isolate internationally.
In delivering his message on February 19, Khan appeared calmer than his predecessor, Nawaz Sharif. Sharif belongs to a generation of politicians of the 1990s who understood the domestic political value of peace. In his last term, he was at odds with his military commanders over how to handle New Delhi.
Khan, on the other hand, is a first-time head of government, who may have spoken in the past about the need to have peace in the region or criticised the military. But in his new re-incarnation as head of “Naya” Pakistan, he seems to be a mix of Modi and Pervez Musharraf. Like them, he understands where power lies, knows how to play to the gallery to gain legitimacy and shoots from the hip. In any case, he has the benefit of being on the same page as his army chief. The one problem is that folks in Delhi tend to see the better relations Khan has with the army from one perspective — he will deliver to India when others could not. This is an ambitious thought.
In his speech, Khan was eager to cut to the chase and suggest that cracking down on the Jaish-e-Mohammad or Lashkar-e-Taiba was not going to happen just because India wants it. His insistence on actionable intelligence means that the matter will drag on inconclusively.
In the 10 years since the 26/11 Mumbai attack, the ordinary Pakistani have been made to almost forget Ajmal Kasab as their own or that his whereabouts were ferreted out by both the Pakistani and international media. They now believe that he was an Indian national and the entire incident was part of a project to malign Pakistan. Khan is both the maker and part of the “Naya” Pakistan, which has moved on from Mumbai and wants India to do the same. However, the exchange of actionable intelligence, on which both states agree, is not likely to happen. Therefore, if New Delhi is in a hurry to solve the terrorism problem, then it would do well to attend to the core issue — Kashmir. It is the only context in which violent extremism is likely to be discussed bilaterally with the intention of solving the problem permanently.
Khan’s message seems to be padded with consciousness of the region’s political and geopolitical realities. The first reality is the nuclear-weapons deterrence that imposes limits on how far India can go in responding to Pakistan. Notwithstanding India’s anger and a view in certain circles in Delhi that Pakistan could be easily pushed down the escalation spiral, the likelihood of both sides blinking first remains a possibility. India’s conventional military superiority is questionable. In the past, major escalation was contained by smaller reactive actions such as the shooting down of Pakistan Navy’s Breguet Atlantic-91 with 16 people on board. Both sides also conduct attacks across the LoC. What Khan tried to say was that any Indian action beyond the LoC would provoke a reaction. Striking the Jaish’s headquarters, 200 miles inside the international border, could result in unmanageable escalation.
Militarily and diplomatically, Islamabad finds itself in a comparable position to India, which is different from the late 1990s. The moment is different from the Kargil crisis when Pakistan was taken to task by the entire world. There was also discomfort in the military regarding Kargil, as the smaller services did not agree with the venture. An incursion inside Pakistan, however, is a different ballgame. In 1999, Pakistan’s sole benefactor at that time, the US, was so upset that the then US President Bill Clinton gave Nawaz Sharif a hard time, when the latter went to seek help for conflict management. During a tour of South Asia, Clinton only stopped at Islamabad for a few hours to address the people of Pakistan.
But now Pakistan is engaged with multiple international players. In the words of the chief of Inter-Services Public Relations, “India could not isolate Pakistan. Everyone wants to talk to Islamabad. Western countries that can’t talk to China or Russia use us (Pakistan) as an interlocutor.” Pakistan’s centrality in the BRI plan has made it a country of interest for many, especially China. Though relations between Pakistan and China are not perfect in so far as the CPEC is concerned, Beijing’s stakes in the corridor may compel it to resist pressure for blocking the resolution against JeM again. As for the US, would Donald Trump be eager to go beyond issuing reprimands when he is eagerly engaged in discussions with the Taliban with Pakistan’s assistance? The Taliban talks also indicate a strategic shift in American thinking, from the position of using its resources to battle violent non-state actors to considering these militias as having a political role. Even while guarantees are being sought from the Taliban to not allow its territory for violence elsewhere, organisations like the Jaish and LeT and their affiliates may be useful in keeping Iran troubled — that is why Saudi Arabia has invested in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s military is extremely conscious of not crossing the red-line with Iran which Tehran wouldn’t want either, at least at this point in time for sake of domestic stability. There is also the question of how much the West would want to commit itself to the ongoing South Asian crisis. Pakistan finds its military-to-military relations with the UK in particular and number of other European countries satisfactory. Even domestically, unlike during Kargil, civil society and media are comfortably controlled. The Pashtun Movement, PTM could get a push back due to bilateral tension. This is possibly the first time after going overtly nuclear that Islamabad is confident during a crisis.
With the two neighbours standing eyeball-to-eyeball, the choice is now between de-escalation for talks and escalation for war. Trying to call each other’s nuclear bluff is a temptation fraught with risks. But talks also do not hold promise if their purpose would mainly be conflict management. Can an arbiter be created?
This article first appeared in the print edition on February 25 under the title ‘Staring at a stalemate’. The writer is a research associate at CISD, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.