On February 6, 2011, India and Pakistan agreed to resume a comprehensive bilateral dialogue at a meeting of their foreign secretaries in Thimpu, Bhutan. There was much talk of a “Thimpu spirit” emerging from behind the dark clouds hanging over India-Pakistan relations since the terrorist outrage in Mumbai on November 26, 2008. In my column titled “A different dialogue this time round?” (Business Standard, February 16, 2011), I had posed the question of whether we were ready to break out of the predictable pattern of “dialogue-disruption-dialogue”, which had characterised India-Pakistan relations for the past two decades and more. The events of the past few days appear to suggest that the answer may well be “no”.
The past year and a half witnessed several positive developments in India-Pakistan relations, including liberalisation of trade and travel. Cross-border terrorism saw a decline, even though major terrorist outfits like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed continue to operate freely in Pakistan, spewing hatred against India. The ceasefire along the border and the Line of Control (LoC) remained in place even though stray incidents did occur. What explains this relatively benign phase in our relations? And what could have led Pakistan to risk another “disruption” by resorting to such patently provocative and deeply reprehensible behaviour at the LoC last week?
It is important to understand that over the past 60 years and more, Pakistan’s anti-India strategy has been anchored in its two parallel alliances, one with the United States and the other with China. These alliances have provided Pakistan with a shield behind which it could pursue its hostile policies against India without fear of major retribution. This changed after the US raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad on May 1, 2011, exposing Pakistan’s duplicity. The alliance with America was badly shaken. China’s reluctance to supplant the US as Pakistan’s main benefactor weakened its confidence in the other alliance. Pakistan’s international standing, even among Islamic countries, plummeted. These adverse external events took place during a period of rising domestic violence, thereby adding to the sense of vulnerability and isolation.
In such circumstances, it was only prudent to keep the India front as tranquil as possible and even encourage greater engagement and détente. It has all along been apparent that this change in posture was tactical in nature and did not represent any fundamental shift in Pakistan’s perceptions about India. It was understood as such in the government, but it was nevertheless decided to leverage this opening to advance relations wherever possible. This was in India’s own interest. It is clear that unless Pakistan abandons its use of cross-border terrorism as an instrument of state policy, there will be no credibility to its protestations of peace and friendship.
Pakistan now believes that the tide is turning in its favour thanks to US compulsions arising out of the planned withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Pakistan has released several second-order Taliban leaders and voiced support for a negotiated peace in Afghanistan that could allow the US to claim an honourable exit. Pakistan would also emerge as the transit country of choice for the transportation of US and International Security Assistance Force heavy armaments, equipment and supplies back to US bases. The US has restored the annual $1 billion in coalition support funds, and another similar amount in counter-insurgency support, to Pakistan. It is almost certain that the US will support a Pakistani request for another financial infusion from the International Monetary Fund later this year, even though Pakistan is unable to meet even the minimum conditions required.
It is no surprise that Pakistan believes that it can play the Afghan card to deal itself back into a position of strategic relevance. Given its reclaimed value to the US, Pakistan believes it can safely revert to its traditional posture of confronting India.
India should expect the US to lean on India to offer assurance to Pakistan and exercise restraint so that its Afghan game plan is not threatened in any way. Pakistan can be expected to price its co-operation with the US in terms of concessions to be extracted from India. Any such tendency in the US must be firmly and categorically resisted — particularly since an incoming foreign policy and security team in the second Obama administration may be tempted to revert to familiar patterns from the past. That is just what Pakistan seems to anticipate.
Pakistan’s provocation and the brutality exhibited by its forces deserve a well-considered response, but disrupting India-Pakistan dialogue once again is not the answer. A sustained engagement is necessary precisely because we need to manage an adversarial relationship between two nuclear weapon states. Dialogue should be the platform on which we should lay down our red lines and exercise such leverage as we can. Potential pressure points are a more proactive posture in Afghanistan with a clear objective of frustrating Pakistan’s strategy in that country. There should be a more consistent and forceful assertion of our claims on Gilgit and Baltistan in line with our stated position that the entire erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India. This has remained muted in view of expectations of reaching some understanding with Pakistan on J&K. The situation is now different. Finally, India should raise its voice against the Pakistan army’s human rights violations in Balochistan, where the brutality we have witnessed at the LoC is a daily and persistent scourge against a hapless people.
There is understandably a sense of outrage in the country against the perpetrators of this horrific and cruel act against an Indian soldier. Our response needs to go beyond notions of revenge and matching violence. The aim should not be confined to responding to this one act of provocation; we need to work towards changing the calculus in Islamabad that leads to such a pattern of behaviour. This requires a strategy that avoids a binary choice between going to war and taking actions that lack credibility such as refusal to talk or refusal to play cricket.
The writer, a former foreign secretary, is currently chairman, RIS, and senior fellow, CPR