Change of scene in India-Pakistan theatre

Ashok Malik

It is now fairly apparent that Indian forces have retaliated so heavily along the troubled frontier that Pakistani troops are on the retreat. In the past two days, pressure from across the border has lessened. Whether this is temporary or this is an end to at least this phase of hostilities remains to be seen.
To some degree, this border face-off was expected. It happens every year and it involves a last effort by Pakistan to provide cover to jihadis entering into Jammu and Kashmir before winter sets in and snows make migration difficult. This year, the attack has been sharper. The most obvious reason for this is the upcoming Jammu and Kashmir election.
The election was scheduled to take place in October-November. The fact that devastating floods are still troubling large parts of the State will inevitably necessitate a postponement of the election to spring and about March 2015. This gives Pakistan a longer window to disrupt conditions in Jammu and Kashmir, particularly in the Valley. It enhances challenge for India before the election, and suggests that the winter may be anything but placid.
There are two other reasons for Pakistan to push ahead more aggressively. It is unlikely a weak and embattled civilian Government, led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is in control of the narrative or even knows what’s going on. The generals in Rawalpindi are forcing attention on external enemy – India – to unite Pakistani opinion, especially in the lower middle-class Punjabi family both Islamist militant groups and the Army recruit from.
Finally, the army is once more seeking to internationalise and sensationalise the Kashmir dispute hoping to attract global attention. This is a gambit that the Pakistani Army has tried more than once in the past. Unfortunately for it, the gambit is now yielding diminishing returns. As was seen from the recent Barack Obama-Narendra Modi joint statement, the Americans are today willing to place the jihadi groups targeting India – including the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba and the D Company, which traverses the space between organised crime and religious causes – and the jihad in Iraq-Syria, as represented by the Islamic State, on the same page.
This is a setback for Pakistan, which has previously tried to present jihad in Kashmir/South Asia as qualitatively different and sequestered from the jihad in West Asia. In its current mood, the Washington, DC, establishment is no longer buying that argument. Pakistan will do its utmost to make the Americans change their minds. Brinkmanship on the border with India, and along the Line of Control in Kashmir, is an attempt at this.
The Modi Government has responded to the challenge by giving the Army and the security forces a “free hand” – a phrase used several times in the past few days. The Indian counter-attack has been overwhelming. In terms of lives lost, both uniformed and civilian, Pakistan has suffered much greater damage than India. The loss of civilian lives is regrettable but unavoidable. After all, Pakistani shelling and weapons have killed Indian civilians as well. The idea of imposing “unaffordable” costs, to use Defence Minister Arun Jaitley’s expression, means some hard decisions have to be taken and like has to be matched with like.
Could the skirmish escalate into something bigger? At the moment, this is unlikely and it would seem that Pakistani shelling is being scaled down. However, only a fool would make a certain prediction. If Rawalpindi’s plan is to infiltrate more terrorists in Kashmir before the election, then a further round (or rounds) can be expected. Already, the ongoing exchange is the second such after the Modi Government took over.
There is a tendency in sections of the Pakistani security apparatus to “test” a new Indian leader. This had happened with VP Singh in 1990, when a nuclear crisis was threatened and it had brought the then United States Secretary of Defence rushing to the subcontinent. It had happened with Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1999, when Kargil was invaded. A similar “test” for Modi is always on the cards. What we are seeing is a conventional test – at the level of the Pakistani Army and security forces. The likelihood of an unconventional test – such as a big terrorist attack – cannot be ruled out.
This is not to suggest that there is any single command and control structure in Pakistan that has been tasked with so “testing” Modi. In reality, with various wings of the Army and the political class intersecting, with the Inter-Services Intelligence playing footsie with some jihadi groups even while its colleagues in the Army fight others, and with the jihadi groups themselves acquiring a quantum of functional autonomy, no doubt several balls have been rolled out.
It is obvious, the threat of violence from Pakistan – whether state, non-state or semi-state – will remain high in the near future, especially in 2015, when American-led forces go home from Afghanistan. It is also obvious that the Modi Government is determined to retaliate without seeking to second-guess international opinion. This is part of its political positioning and mandate; it is also indicative of its product differentiation from the UPA Government. There is no value judgement attached to such predictions. These are just an assessment of objective conditions.
Does this mean the threat of escalation will still be there even if there is a cessation in current hostilities? The blunt answer is yes. After a 12-year American presence and to that extent predictability, the Afghanistan-Pakistan theatre is entering a new phase. In India, a new Government is putting in place ground rules for engagement with Pakistan that are still in a formative stage but decidedly different from the pattern of the past 15 years. The cancellation of foreign secretary level talks after the Pakistani ambassador in New Delhi met Hurriyat representatives was a sign of this.
All this means the prism through which the India-Pakistan equation has been analysed for the past few years no longer holds. It is a moment of transition, at least tactical, if not strategic. This week, Pakistani troops learnt it the hard way.

Ashok Malikeditorial articleIndia-Pakistan theatre
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