Economic Times magazine on February 24, 2018.
On Friday, the UN Security Council (UNSC) issued a strong statement on the suicide bombing in Pulwama, which identified Jaish-e-Mohammed as the party claiming responsibility, described the act as unjustified terrorism and reminded states of their obligations under international law to combat terrorism and cooperate with India. The statement fell short of naming Pakistan, reportedly at the insistence of China, a permanent UNSC member. Nonetheless, it reflects a gradual shift in international opinion, and begins to call into question the viability of Pakistan’s traditional approach to competition with India. From 1947 onwards, Pakistan has used a rather consistent game plan.
The first step involves provoking India with unconventional military action while ensuring a degree of plausible deniability. Second, Pakistan projects India as the belligerent actor. And, third, it leverages the results to invite third-party mediation to tip the scales in its favour. The fact that the power disparity between India and Pakistan has increased — first after the bifurcation of Pakistan following the 1971 Bangladesh War and subsequently after the economic rise of India after liberalisation in 1991 — has made Pakistan all the more reliant on this three-step formula. But with time, the play-book has started to unwind.
Consider the first step: after each major provocation Pakistan has pleaded innocence. In 1947, tribal militia were used to invade Jammu and Kashmir before the Pakistan Army became formally involved. Operation Gibraltar — the August 1965 infiltration of guerrilla forces into J&K to stage an uprising — failed before Operation Grand Slam marked the widening of war. In 1999, Pakistan denied the role of its military in the Kargil incursion until India released a voice recording of Pakistan Army chief General Pervez Musharraf demonstrating his full involvement. While Pakistan denied any role in the 1993 Mumbai bombings, the 2001 Parliament attack, and the 26/11 attacks in 2008, the prime perpetrators — Dawood Ibrahim, Masood Azhar, and Hafiz Saeed — made Pakistan their home. It is little wonder that Pakistan’s plausible deniability is becoming increasingly implausible.
The second step is to portray India as the belligerent actor. But India did not initiate conflict in 1947, 1965, or 1999, nor in the series of terrorist attacks that resulted in crises in the 1990s and 2000s. The one partial exception, the 1971 Bangladesh War, was a consequence of Pakistan’s unwillingness to recognise the election results of 1970, the resulting mass killings in East Pakistan and a man-made refugee crisis, of which India took advantage. Moreover, it was Pakistan that pre-emptively widened that conflict and initiated war with air strikes in the western sector.
The notion of Indian belligerence is questionable for other reasons. In January 1948, the Indian government released central bank funds it owed Pakistan as part of Partition, despite the ongoing Kashmir war. In 1960, as part of the Indus Waters Treaty, India paid Pakistan a sizeable sum for replacement irrigation works, despite objections by several Indian cabinet ministers. In 1965, India returned the Haji Pir Pass, captured after having been used by Pakistan for infiltration. In the 1970s, India repatriated 90,000 Pakistani prisoners of war without achieving a resolution to Jammu and Kashmir at Shimla. In 1996, India recognised Most Favoured Nation status for Pakistan, despite a lack of reciprocity.
India has continued its attempts at engagement under successive recent governments. Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s bus trip and the Lahore Declaration of 1999 was met with the Kargil incursion. Manmohan Singh’s resolve in continuing the Composite Dialogue was tested by regular terrorist attacks culminating in 26/11. Between 2014 and 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted his former Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif in New Delhi, resumed National Security Adviser talks, visited Lahore, and invited a Joint Investigative Team from Pakistan. Pakistan responded to these initiatives with, respectively, intensified firing on the Line of Control, scheduling meetings with the Hurriyat, the Pathankot attack, and the detention and kangaroo court trial of Kulbhushan Jadhav. Flimsy claims of water wars, Afghan consulates and nuclear and military aggression have been made to exaggerate Indian assertiveness.
All of this has justifiably increased frustration in India with Pakistan, but engagement has helped minimise the need for the third element of Pakistan’s approach: external mediation. Whether the United Nations in 1947-48, the Soviet Union in 1965, or the United States in the 1990s, Pakistan has long believed that international diplomatic intervention would play in its favour.
India, by contrast, has been insistent on resolving issues bilaterally, as the power disparity would play to its advantage. It is for this reason that India bristles at talk of mediation, however tentative or well-intentioned, whether by US diplomats, the Saudi foreign minister, the Norwegian prime minister, or Russia via the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Furthermore, such offers inadvertently justify Pakistan’s support for terrorism: if India concedes to mediation by a third party, Pakistan-backed terrorism will have served its purpose.