India and the hidden hand

Implosion of NSA-level talks underlines that Delhi needs to find language to speak to Pak generals. It won't be easy.

Written by Praveen Swami | Updated: August 24, 2015 12:00:18 am
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Late in the autumn of 2002, as Pakistan’s military emerged from a bruising 10-month standoff with India, Brigadier Muhammad Zia was among a small group of officers tasked with rethinking how an increasingly powerful adversary could be contained. “India is highly volatile on its internal front,” he wrote, “due to numerous vulnerabilities, which, if agitated, could yield results out of proportion to the efforts put in”. Faultlines in Kashmir, the Northeast and Punjab, he suggested, could be employed as an “offensive option against India”.

Last week’s implosion of national security advisor-level talks has demonstrated that there is indeed a hidden hand that guides India-Pakistan engagement — the hand of the generals. Published in The Green Book, a collection of essays that, as scholar C. Christine Fair puts it, allows us to listen in to the Pakistan army talking to itself, Zia’s essay and others published with it offer us important insights into how the country’s generals see their strategic situation.

The collapse of the talks, clearly, had something to do with Delhi’s petulant insistence that there be no meeting with Kashmiri secessionists. It also had something to do with Islamabad’s efforts to drag Kashmir into the negotiations through the back door. However, it had far more to do with a core dynamic in Pakistan’s politics; with an army for which the jihad against India is, as scholar-diplomat Husain Haqqani puts it, “an existential imperative”. Indian policymakers have battered their heads against this stark fact for two generations now — and it will confront Prime Minister Narendra Modi, irrespective of the course his Pakistan policy takes now.

To illustrate the problem, it is worth revisiting 2008, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s search for detente was in full flower, and peace seemed destined to break out. “India has never been a threat to Pakistan”, then President Asif Ali Zardari told the Wall Street Journal in his midtown Manhattan suite, “I, for one, and our democratic government is not scared of Indian influence abroad”. Yet, as we now know from investigations, Ajmal Kasab and nine other Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorists were at exactly that time making their preparations for 26/11. This is part of a pattern. In February 1999, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee signed the Lahore Declaration, committing both countries “to implementing the Simla Agreement in letter and spirit”. Even as the Lahore agreement was being drafted, Pakistani troops were being trained to push their way across the Line of Control. For those seeking further historical evidence, there’s no shortage of examples: Pakistan talked peace on the eve of the 1965 war, and flatly denied its now well-documented sponsorship of irregulars who fought in 1947-48.

General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s subversion of the 2008 peace process, though, wasn’t some kind of mindless perfidy. Faced with an insurgency that threatened to overwhelm the Pakistani state, he saw anti-India jihadists, as well as political Islamists, as valuable allies. General Pervez Musharraf’s historic rupture with these groups had ended up stripping the Pakistan army of legitimacy.

The obstacle to the resolution of this problem is that India and Pakistan seek very different things from dialogue — and can’t agree on a fair price for what they seek. India sees talks as an instrument to secure stabilisation; that is, to push Pakistan to ensure an end to terrorism and border tensions. It isn’t, however, willing to make the kinds of political concessions that Islamabad wants on Kashmir. Islamabad, conversely, needs the support of anti-India jihadists — and believes that Delhi should make concessions on Kashmir in return for them being reined-in.

Ever since Modi took power last year, Pakistan has demanded negotiations, seeing them as a cushion against possible Indian strikes in the face of a major terrorist attack. Large swathes of its troops tied down in counter-insurgency duties, the Pakistan army would be hard pressed to resist even a limited Indian push in areas like Kashmir’s Neelam Valley. Though Pakistan often threatens nuclear reprisal, it knows it would be hard pressed to deliver on this threat in all but the most catastrophic scenarios, for the simple reason that annihilation would follow in short order. The truth is nuclear-armed adversaries have engaged in small conventional wars: China and Russia clashed on the Ussuri river in the 1950s, and India and Pakistan themselves in 1999.

In Ufa, Modi essentially agreed to give Pakistan the cushion it sought — but only if the dialogue excluded the wider political problems in the relationship, like Kashmir. The Ufa joint statement spoke only of “a meeting in New Delhi between the two NSAs to discuss all issues connected to terrorism”, as well as early contacts between the chiefs of the border security forces. This halfway house, however, collapsed in the face of pressures on the Pakistan army, as well as government, from Islamists hostile to peace with India — a force both need to ensure their struggle against anti-Pakistan jihadists has ideological legitimacy.

It makes sense, now, for the Pakistan army to test Modi’s resolve. It will, more likely than not, escalate tensions on the LoC — hitting India’s border-fencing repair work in the spring of 2016, leaving Kashmir more vulnerable to infiltration. Terror strikes, of the kind seen in Gurdaspur and Udhampur, will likely be more frequent. Modi will then need to speak to the hidden hand in a language it understands, but his options aren’t good. Even though a limited war would have high costs for Pakistan, a crisis would frighten away the investors he needs to realise his economic vision. Firing across the LoC has been demonstrated not to deter the Pakistan army. Targeting jihadist leaders across the LoC is an option, but India just doesn’t have the capacities for it at present.

For years now, India-Pakistan engagement has had little but cliché to guide its course: “no talks with terror”, “core issue”, “uninterrupted and uninterruptible”. This is time to pause and reflect. There are many paths ahead — and at least some of them, after all, lead straight to perdition.

praveen.swami@expressindia.com

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