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March 13, 2019

Losing a victory in an abyss of incompetence


March 13, 2019

After nearly two weeks of a phenomenal display of competence and confidence, Pakistan is beginning to regress to mean. This should alarm Prime Minister Imran Khan, Leader of the Opposition Shahbaz Sharif, PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

Let’s rewind, once again, just to remind ourselves of the very significant events that have taken place since the morning of February 26, 2019 when India attacked Pakistan by sending Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft across the Line of Control, and dropping at least four bombs in the Balakot district. With this act of aggression, India’s claims of strategic restraint are now buried in a small pile of trees in Balakot.

Pakistan then responded by dropping six bombs of its own, on non-target targets. In the process, it demonstrated capability and established a new doctrine of defensive retaliation. By deliberately and demonstrably hitting nothing, Pakistan also signalled non-escalatory intent.

In the ensuing melee, the fog of almost-war, a dogfight broke out in the skies above Pakistan. Pakistan downed at least one Indian plane. Brave and honourable Pakistani soldiers rescued the pilot from a crowd of angry Pakistanis. Their brave and honourable leaders decided to go one step further: the Indian pilot was returned to India.

All this took place in less than four weeks. Since the pilot’s return, Pakistanis have been quite right to bask in the glory of a rare showing of quick, competent and dignified collective national action. This is the sort of thing a wider and more sustained positive national wave can be built on.

But all through the post-Balakot crisis, some fundamentals were inescapable. Pakistan made videos of the Indian pilot. Video one was probably ok. Video two was typical overkill. Within 48 hours of the crisis settling down, instead of building on a phenomenal moment of national cohesion, the finance minister let loose on an opposition leader in parliament – ruining the feel-good vibe across party lines. Perhaps most worryingly, even at the very height of the crisis, it was not difficult to find people defending Pakistan’s continued tolerance for groups like the LeT and JeM.

The post-Balakot events of February 26, 27 and 28 demonstrate a long-acknowledged fact about Pakistani state capacity. It is great when it comes to tactics. But events since the beginning of March also lend credence to perhaps an ever more widely believed notion about the Pakistani state: it has no strategy, period.

What does this mean? What explains the divergence between Pakistan’s ability to generate tactical wins but often end up in strategic cul de sacs? Winning the odd round of sparring is easy. Brute force, some luck, and in Pakistan’s case, real talent or operational skill make it easy to win the odd round. But winning consistently, over a long arc of time, and securing the specific things that you seek? That takes clarity of purpose, sustained effort, cross-sectional competence, and perhaps most of all, patience.

Three examples since Balakot offer stark demonstrations of how badly placed Pakistan is from a strategic standpoint. First, consider the so-called crackdown on banned groups. Consider the various statements about the JeM. In a media interaction, the foreign minister spoke about the JeM leader’s ill health. Then the spokesperson for the military spoke of a crackdown. And then the foreign minister, in yet another press engagement, spoke again. Incoherent, inconsistent and clearly lacking preparation.

Second, consider the foreign minister’s effusive praise for the US in helping de-escalate the situation between Pakistan and India – as if there were two equal parties, both having escalated, and therefore both needing the intervention of a third party to de-escalate. Of course, as we already know, there was only one escalatory actor in the post-Pulwama scenario in South Asia, and that was India. Moreover, the US was not a neutral party. It openly endorsed the Indian attack on the very day of the attack, through a statement by FM Qureshi’s opposite number in Washington DC, Secretary Mike Pompeo. Having endorsed an attack on Pakistan, and then watched Pakistan resolutely respond, and in a magnificent gesture of maturity and statecraft hand back a captured pilot: how is there even any talk of de-escalation with respect to Pakistan? More importantly, how is such talk being propagated by FM Qureshi?

Third, and perhaps most obviously, consider the varying interpretations of a conversation between FM Qureshi and US National Security Adviser John Bolton. The press readout issued by the Pakistani foreign ministry and Bolton’s tweet seem like they were drafted by people who took part in two distinct conversations. Screen-caps of John Bolton’s tweet and the readout issued by the ministry are available widely on the internet, but the summary of the disparity is rather simple.

John Bolton is essentially continuing the thread that began, (if that is where one wishes to begin), with Mike Pompeo’s endorsement of India’s attack in Balakot. His exact words? “Spoke with Pakistani FM Qureshi to encourage meaningful steps against JeM and other terrorist groups operating from Pakistan. The FM assured me that Pakistan would deal firmly with all terrorists and will continue steps to deescalate tensions with India.” In stark contrast, the Pakistani readout suggests that Bolton was praiseworthy about Pakistan. He may well have been. But unless you are playing amateur hour as a freshman at a third-tier university, you don’t exit a critical conversation with a major partner without a broad agreement about how the phone call will be presented in the public domain. And you certainly don’t allow such amateur displays repeatedly. This is at least the third such incident under FM Qureshi’s watch when it comes to how differently Pakistan and key partners like the US signal the outcomes of phone calls or meetings.

The problem in all three cases is that the Pakistani state has no conception of what it is trying to achieve – or why.

Why is Pakistan cracking down on the JeM? Is it to satisfy India? Or is it to ensure salience and operability in the international financial markets? Or is it to secure praise from Mike Pompeo? Those are all materially different objectives that merit different tactics. Having clarity about immediate purpose helps lend wider purpose to one’s actions. So far, in terms of the JeM, we don’t know why it was not cracked down upon prior to Balakot, and why it is now being cracked down on. We also don’t know what the crackdown means, and how it will be managed, in terms of risk mitigation. Without this coherence, what is the likelihood of longer-term success for this crackdown?

Why did the US (and for that matter France, Germany and the UK) endorse the Indian attack in Balakot? Why was such a flagrant violation of international law, and the territorial sovereignty of a nuclear-powered nation allowed by these great powers? What is Pakistan doing to protest such blatant favouritism by these countries? What is the plan to renew and restore improved relations with these countries – which clearly prefer India, and turn a blind eye to the plight of Kashmiris? How could any answers be forthcoming when the foreign minister is explicitly thanking the US for its so-called de-escalatory help?

What is John Bolton’s view about Pakistan? A simple Google search could have helped the Foreign Office prepare the foreign minister for his call. FM Qureshi has a habit of showboating and ad-libbing. But how many times can a country absorb the carelessness of responsible and mature senior leaders in key positions? The answer? Infinity. When you have no idea where you are going, and why you are going there, who cares if you keep getting it wrong.

Less than two weeks since Balakot, Pakistan’s moment of victory and potential advantage is slipping away into the abyss that is the incompetence of the Pakistani state. As usual, performing well during crisis seems to have blinded us to our realities – the very realities that helped manufacture the crisis in the first place. The bravery and skill of our soldiers and pilots should not be wasted like this. They and the people of Pakistan deserve much better.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

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