Can Pakistan force Indian recoil?

December 29, 2019

Through 2019 much of Pakistan’s diplomatic, political and security calculations vis a vis India have been lacking in foresight

In 2019, a peace-seeking Pakistan was caught off-guard on the Indian front. Having seen itself as triumphantly concluding the Balakot episode, Islamabad mistakenly believed that the second-term Bharatiya Janata Party government would be ready to diplomatically engage with Pakistan. Instead, India had planned to throw the gauntlet. As the year unfolded, the bitter truth unraveled. India was facilitated in its aggressive and brash plans by many Pakistan had considered its friends.

India’s first move came within days of the mid-February Pulwama suicidal attack which left forty Indian soldiers dead. By all accounts a local Kashmiri, previously tortured by the Indian security forces, had planned and executed the attack. The Indians claimed Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) was also involved in the Pulwama planning.

India then acted to set a ‘new normal’ laced with hegemonic aggression. On February 27, the Modi government cleared an Indian Air Force attack on Pakistani territory crossing international borders. Indian jets hit at supposedly madrassa targets in Balakot. India’s claim of hitting madrassas killing dozens of ‘militants’ was proven to be false.

Pakistan promised to respond and in a measured way. Pakistani jets crossed the Line of Control (LoC) and hit at non-military targets in Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK). However, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) jets retaliated against the Indian jets which pursued the attacking PAF jets. They shot down an intruding Indian Air Force jet, captured its pilot, treated him well and released him in less than 24 hours. Pakistan believed that this would be seen as a peace offensive. Equally, the fact that Pakistan’s airborne air force jets had not caused any casualty, Pakistan believed would be appreciated by India and the international community. 

Hence, Pakistan stayed with its peace offensive. The prime minister had warned of the unthinkable in case of war – a nuclear war. Hence, as a peace-offering Pakistan had released the Indian pilot within twenty-four hours. Pakistan also responded to advice from some Western powers to de-escalate. The words of peace and wisdom from the Army spokesman were of no consequence as far as impact on foreign governments was concerned.

In Pakistan, the general readout within official circles was that come Modi-2, Delhi’s policy towards Pakistan would change – that the war rhetoric will subside. 

Pakistan PM’s congratulatory message to a victorious Modi came together with Imran Khan’s public acknowledgment that his telephone call to invite Modi for dialogue, had gone unattended. His government was proposing, through back-channels, dialogue with Narendra Modi’s government. Pakistan was hoping the Kartarpur opening, too, would earn it kudos in Delhi, among Sikhs and the international community.

But then came the August-shock for Pakistan. While Pakistan’s top security managers believed India would open dialogue with Pakistan after dealing with its media critics, Modi had different plans. Surreptitiously his government had been working on plans to ‘end’ the Kashmir issue. On August 4, the crackdown by Indian security forces enforced a total lockdown in Kashmir: widespread arrests of all Kashmiri politicians and civilians, including teenagers and civil rights activists; a media blackout; and internet or phone connections were severed. Indian Occupied Kashmir turned into hell. Within 24 hours on August 5, the Indian parliament passed a bill revoking special status of the IOK , bifurcated it and scraped Article 35-A opening up the IOK to non-Kashmiri Indians for possession and settlement. Unprecedented human rights violations were documented by some brave Indian journalists. International media reported on Indian state’s human rights violation of Kashmirs like never before.

Pakistan’s diplomatic protestations and warnings of threat to peace are good for home consumption, but fall on deaf ears on a global forum.

The governments world over, barring Turkey, Malaysia and Iran, remained largely unresponsive. Largely civil society including the non-governmental organisations, parliamentarians and UN rapporteurs were critical. Under Modi, a new India face – bold and ugly, rough and tough, uncaring and assertive – had been launched. The world largely accepted it.

Pakistan has combined its peace-talks offers aimed at India, with complaints and token steps including closing air space, downgrading yet retaining diplomatic links with India. Pakistan’s diplomatic offensive against India is in high gear. Led by the [Pakistani] PM’s UN General Assembly speech, Pakistan continues to raise India’s excesses and violations against the Kashmiris. Nevertheless, the impact on India’s policies is nil. 

The typical pattern of major Western powers following Indian aggression has been weighed-in on Pakistan, calling for “defusing tensions” and “avoiding escalation”. Yet, Modi government’s aggression both against Pakistan and the Kashmiris has gone unpunished and almost unnoticed.

Significantly, Pakistan has opted for soft power through 2019.The Pakistani PM entirely supported, if not guided by, all stakeholders dealing with Pakistan’s national security. For long, many in Pakistan including major national political parties, the PML-N and the PPP, have argued for the need to cultivate and deploy soft power as a key component in conducting inter-state relations and in positioning Pakistan in the global context.

However, while not denying the validity of ‘soft power’ generally, the question that surfaces from Pakistan’s 2019 experience with India is: is soft-power deployment as Pakistan’s lead policy instrument while engaging India a good fit? India is a country led by a man whose government, in engaging Pakistan, has mostly deployed ‘hard power’. Paradoxically, Modi’s ‘soft power’ too has led to hard power – his regime’s soft power, which has included ideology, culture, narratives, has flowed from hate, divisiveness, marginalisation, majoritarian dictatorship and peoples’ suppression has led towards the use of internally oppressive state power against Azaadi-pursuing Kashmiris and Indian minorities, especially Muslims.

India, in its hard power projection and deployment towards Pakistan and the Kashmiris, enjoys US support and Israel’s assistance. In the United Nations, Security Council permanent members like France are effectively protecting India from international censure on its brutal Kashmir policy, its refusal to diplomatically engage Pakistan and its utter disregard of the UNSC resolutions upholding Kashmiri right for self-determination.

Pakistan’s diplomatic protestations and warnings of threat to peace are good for home consumption, but fall on deaf ears in a global context of self-interest and big-power politics. In the battle for global ascendency, including economic and military, Western powers led by the US seek containment of China.

India is consistently viewed as the ideal counter-weight for containment of China. The strategic weakness of China’s key strategic ally, Pakistan, is a common goal shared by the US-led Western powers. This, among other factors, leads to clear convergence of the India-US policy of ‘containing’ and pressuring Pakistan. Hence, the steadfast and deepening support manifested during the recent 2+ 2 Indo-US dialogue – the censure of Pakistan over human rights while effectively overlooking the grave human rights excesses committed by the Modi-Amit Shah and Jaishankar’s India. Evidence of their deepening defence linkages lie in US and India jointly conducting in November Tiger Triumph, their first-ever land, sea and air exercise. India is viewed as the viable counterweight to China in Asia. Trump, who seems set to win a second term, shows preference of India as a security ally over its traditional yet relative to India non-paying allies, like Japan. India’s importance for the US as a multi-billion dollar market for US weapons systems is also on the increase.

Meanwhile, for Pakistan’s security especially vis a vis an abiding and increasing threat from its eastern neighbour, China remains Pakistan’s only reliable ally. And the US, meanwhile, remains Pakistan’s transactional interlocutor, willing to overlook all its concerns in a bid to deepen its security ties with Pakistan’s principal adversary, India.

Through 2019 much of Pakistan’s diplomatic, political and security calculations vis a vis India have been lacking in foresight.

The challenge from India is unprecedented. Is Pakistan prepared to deploy its diplomatic expertise, security apparatus and multiple leverages it enjoys over its traditional friends to deal with the India challenge and provide greater support to the Azaadi-seeking Kashmiris of the IOK?

Perhaps, not. The last-minute backing out from the Kuala Lumpur Summit suggests Pakistan needs to go back to the drawing board to fully appreciate its own strength and stature in the regional and international context.

The writer is a national security specialist and author of From Kargil to the Coup

Can Pakistan force Indian recoil?