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January 12, 2015

Pakistan to Kerry: We are worried about India

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January 12, 2015

ISLAMABAD: The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, will be wrapping up his second visit to India in the last six months as he lands in Pakistan on Monday (today). By the time he would have left that country, America’s top diplomat would have spent a good amount of time with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, first at an investor summit and then during an advance meeting for the upcoming trip of President Barack Obama to New Delhi on India’s Republic Day, scheduled for later this month.

Surely, those interactions will grant Kerry critical content to communicate with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and National Security Adviser Sartaj Aziz as they meet bilaterally and then for dinner on Monday, even as the CENTCOM commander, General Lloyd Austin, Kerry’s military wingman, accompanies him to conduct the yet unannounced meeting with Pakistan’s new ‘military diplomat’ and army chief General Raheel Sharif.

However, an appraisal of the mood of Pakistan’s defence and foreign policy regimes indicates serious concerns both about New Delhi as well Washington’s role in the region, as Islamabad is forced to move from its policy of a “strategic pause” with India to a more productive effort to balance its eastern neighbour.

For once, Pakistan’s soldiers and diplomats seem to be on the same page about the India issue: Modi’s RSS-centric right-wing posturing, the declaredly hawkish policies of his tough National Security Adviser, the former Intelligence Bureau director Ajeet Doval, and the clear escalation of tensions on the border, as engagements moved from the Line of Control to the Working Boundary during 2014 (with the Pakistani military claiming 49 violations in 2013 versus 81 violations in 2014 by India on the Working Boundary, compared to over 350 violations on the LoC in 2013 versus around 250 in 2014 which, when matched against India’s counterclaims of violations, clearly show an alarming trend to fight it out on the mainland while

decreasing engagements in Kashmir).

In fact, the recent trip to Washington by top Ministry of Defence officials was not just about settling on a mechanism for post Kerry-Lugar-Berman Bill financial arrangements and arrears management of the Coalition Support Funds, but also about measuring the mood inside the Beltway for Islamabad’s growing concerns about New Delhi.

One idea that has been discussed informally with Washington has been about some kind of a non-aggression pact with India, underwritten by the US, which lets Pakistan focus on the anti-terror campaign in the frontier regions and, increasingly, in its urban areas. Otherwise, a senior MoD official assessed, given India’s conventional military advantage and posturing on the Working Boundary, less the Line of Control, as well as the Pakistani military’s increasing commitments out west, “we fight India the only way we know how…by hook or by crook.”

It’s highly unlikely that Washington would push for such an arrangement, even though the noises out of the State Department of late have been more nuanced when it comes to the Indo-Pak narrative, obviously to balance the US’s own strategic interests in the region.

As for the visit itself, the stated positions and agenda are not remarkably new; the Americans say they want to discuss counterterror operations following the Peshawar attack, the broader effort against all militant/terror groups (not just Al Qaeda and the Haqqanis, but also Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Quetta Shura) based in Pakistan, Afghanistan-Pakistan security and trade and the broader regional environment with India and Pakistan.

The Pakistanis have been officially bland about describing the purpose of the meeting, labeling the huddle as bureaucrat-centric, focused on the five working groups going through yet another round of the grinding bilateral strategic dialogue.

But privately, Pakistani officials in and out of uniform are deeply worried about India, and in particular, Narendra Modi. A senior official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the government is especially concerned about India’s recent letter-writing campaign at the United Nations, where documentation and clippings are being shared with the UN officials about Pakistan’s allegedly active role in protecting terrorists who are a threat to Indian stability. The move, in the context of the Peshawar school attack and the subsequent global sympathy for Pakistan being a victim of terrorism, as described by the Pentagon spokesperson recently, is being seen with clear skepticism in Islamabad.

While “the terrorist state narrative of the 1990s and 2000s is not being pursued” by New Delhi, said the official, this is a “diplomatic offensive meant to taint Pakistan’s recent gains in Waziristan against terrorism.”

The presence of the UN Secretary General during the Vibrant Gujarat investor conference this last weekend in Ahmadabad didn’t help restore the Pakistani confidence, even though the official claimed that “if the Americans don’t, China, and maybe even Russia, see the light when it comes to curbing India at the UN.”

Alarmingly, the official assessed, “a probable failure of the diplomatic offensive at the UN would still be counted as a win by India to make another, aggressive case…perhaps for a limited ground or air incursion by, say, targeting Muridke [the headquarters of the LeT/Jamaat-ud-Dawa]”, which would clearly embarrass Pakistan. This argument is a buildup from MOFA on the recent statement by Minister of Defence Khawaja Asif, when he claimed that India wants to engage Pakistan “in a low-intensity war”. Thus, Pakistan’s diplomats are asking: Could Modi’s India establish grounds, both for itself and the world, for a limited war if its moves at the UN to hurt Pakistan fail?

Also, if India strikes Pakistan, on the above listed premise of failed diplomacy, or even a much war-gamed Mumbai-like terrorist attack, what happens? Given Pakistan’s infamous civil-military divide, it’s not entirely clear to Pakistan’s civilian administrators what Pakistan’s official and military responses would be. “Escalation? The nuclear option? Tit for tat responses? India is playing with fire with an increasingly tied down Pakistani military,” said the senior diplomat.

Kerry’s visit also comes at the heels of the recent ‘Terror Boat’ episode in which the Indian Coast Guard claimed to have apprehended a Pakistani boat near the coast of Indian State of Gujarat. The Indian media initially speculated that the boat was on its way to conduct another Mumbai-like terror attack. Even after conflicting reports on the nature of the dramatic incident – the boat either caught fire or exploded – as it appeared in the Indian media, the Indian Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar has continued to insist that people on the boat were terrorists and not smugglers.

A Pakistani Foreign Ministry official drew parallels between the strange ‘Terror Boat’ incident and the Chattisinghpura, Kashmir massacre of 2000 in which 34 Sikhs were killed. The massacre occurred on the same day when the then US President Bill Clinton was visiting India. The Indian government blamed Pakistan for the butchery but an official investigation by the [Indian] Punjab Human Rights Organization and the [Indian] Movement Against State Repression later indicated that “Pakistan had nothing to gain by ordering militants/mercenaries to massacre Sikhs in the Kashmir Valley”.

It further noted that the “Indian leaders however, gained substantial mileage from this incident as a spate of international sympathy was forthcoming.”

Noting that the Indian media as well as the government officials were quick to point fingers at Pakistan even then, the Foreign Ministry official suggested that the Indian media’s coverage as well as the official statements on the ‘Terror Boat’ incident may show a “similar attempt to malign Pakistan just when an important US dignitary is visiting the region”.