India-Pakistan relations are at the nastiest since 1947. Media hype has created a sense amongst the general public that belligerence could be a normal way of life. In times like these, it is important to have greater clarity about the thinking on either side. Of course what complicates matters, especially when it comes to having the real feel of things, is the lack of dialogue and direct access.
Broadly speaking, three kinds of claims have resonance in New Delhi. First, post-Pulwama, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s popularity has gone down. The pressure from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), Pakistan’s poor economic capacity and having Nawaz Sharif in jail are burdens for the new prime minister. Nothing could be further from the truth. Pakistan, like the rest of South Asia, knows the art of cushioning national security decisions from economic and social pressures. The flow of money through borrowing seems to sustain Islamabad. Short of an economic crash, things will work for Khan.
Like all wars, the current hostility between the two countries has also strengthened right-wing and status-quo oriented political forces. It has boosted the popularity of Imran Khan and his generals. Like India, the crisis has brought the nation together. Even the PML-N supporters, irrespective of how they express themselves on social media or closed WhatsApp groups, were supportive of the military in Punjab. The people of the country’s largest — also the most important — province have been, for decades, exposed to a pro-military national security narrative. This narrative is too deeply ingrained in them to change their minds. The battle in Punjab is between Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan — and not the armed forces.
In any case, Islamabad’s public relations machinery has worked to garner domestic support for Khan. The ordinary people, who are generally unaware of state policies, bought into Khan’s carefully-crafted image of a “cooler” South Asian leader who is ready to reconcile and solve problems through dialogue. Pakistan’s media campaign has been much better in presenting this perspective. This was even conceded by the Indian delegation that came recently to London to present its perspective.
There are rumours of tension between Khan and the military’s top brass. But the differences, if any, do not portend that the military intends to remove Khan. Apparently, there are differences over the handling of Nawaz Sharif because of the interest in, certain quarters, of getting a share in the approximately $1 billion stashed away in a Southeast Asian bank. Interestingly, those negotiating these funds seem least interested in getting back the money for the country. Khan may not be part of that plan. Such rumours will increase as the day for appointing a new army chief — or extending the incumbent’s tenure — approaches. General Qamar Bajwa is due to retire in November.
Second, the FATF is a concern and has led to some arrests. Khan has also indicated his intent to clean up the country of jihadi elements. However, his control over the overall jihad policy remains questionable. The Pakistan-based jihadi groups are considered the first line of defence, more reliable and effective compared to the ordinary folk. This was the position taken during an interaction with the civil society organised by the then army chief, General Jahangir Karamat, in 1997.
Third, there will be no change in policy because Pulwama did not prove to be Kargil. If anything, it proved to be the reverse. In 1999, Pakistan’s temporary territorial gain was criticised, both nationally and internationally. There was even a division within the armed forces as the navy and the air force were not part of the plan. Internationally, there was condemnation, and no help came from Pakistan’s all-weather friend, China. The post-Pulwama situation in Pakistan can be compared with the 2002 military standoff. Notwithstanding the country’s numerous internal problems, the fear of intervention or a national crisis tends to transform Pakistan and bring together disparate elements in it — a strength that Delhi has not managed to ascertain.
Consequently, despite redefining the threshold for conflict, India did not carry the moment — the results did not impress people in Pakistan or those abroad. The photographs of the attack on Balakot or stories of shooting down of an F-16 fighter jet could not convince the world. Instead, the Pakistan Air Force managed to shoot down an Indian MiG-21. The recovery of the debris, including the aircraft’s entire arsenal, suggested that the pilot did not seek any target before going down. The subsequent capture of the pilot made for a better show of force from Pakistan.
Theoretically, it is harder for Delhi to link Pulwama with Pakistan compared to the 26/11 attack on Mumbai. During the Mumbai attack, calls between the attackers and their handlers across the border were picked up immediately by other intelligence and communication networks. The issue here is not whether Jaish-e-Mohammad operates in Pakistan or if it propagates the message of jihad, but if the outfit was involved in the attack without internal help — the attacker was from Kashmir.
The understanding in Pakistan is that the post-Pulwama situation has actually worked to its advantage — or is a stalemate. The situation today is comparable to the Rann of Kutch operation in 1965, or the 1965 war. As far as the diplomatic war is concerned, that will be long and protracted.
The fact that the European Union had a re-look at its report on the human rights atrocities in Kashmir — which was completed before Pulwama but got sidelined — means that conflict escalation could have benefits for Islamabad. Treating the situation in Kashmir primarily as an insurgency is likely to add to Delhi’s burden — not that of Islamabad’s. In any case, the one thing that could be gathered from an interaction with an Indian panel speaking on the crisis in London was that Delhi did not have a sustainable plan on Kashmir. Greater use of force may not be a solution. Kashmir cannot be treated like the Golan Heights or Gaza. Since nation-states value territory, it is equally essential to understand what makes the population tick.
This article first appeared in the print edition on April 2, 2019, under the title ‘Pulwama and them’. The writer is a research associate at SOAS, University of London and author of Military Inc