The Bold Voice of J&K

Using electoral gains for new policy

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Ashok K Mehta
The landmark State elections are over. It is a stunning victory for the ruling BJP. While there was no Pakistan-bashing, surgical strikes were the crème de la crème of the election campaign. Like his predecessor, Gen Raheel Sharif, new Pakistan Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa rejected “the self-defeating claims about the so-called surgical strikes”.
So, what will the Modi Government do in addressing one of its stark foreign policy failures: The flip-flop over Pakistan. The appetite for “engagement” has diminished spectacularly following the Uri attack mirroring the suspension of dialogue with Pakistan after the beheading of an Indian soldier in January 2013. Four years is the longest hiatus in the history of the dialogue process. Even after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, the conversation was resumed at Sharm-el-Sheikh a year later. Neighbourhood first being the centrepiece of the Modi policy, talks with Pakistan need to resume.
When it comes to Pakistan, Indian opinion is represented by two extremes: From the Wagah candle-lighters to the Dismember Pakistan brigade; from seekers of uninterrupted and uninterruptible dialogue to the votaries of ‘no dialogue’ (including ‘who do you talk to any way’). And now, last week’s discussion in Parliament on a Bill declaring Pakistan a state-sponsor of terrorism, which was rejected by the Government. Peace with Pakistan is the rarest of brief interregnums between two periods of hostility. But then, one is dealing with many Pakistans, which calls for strategic patience. Changing the narrative requires resetting the behaviour of the Pakistan Army. Being hemmed in by two adversaries who are avowedly conjointed twins, India’s challenge is to de-couple Pakistan from China or vice versa. New Delhi has realised more than once that it is not easy to isolate a nuclear armed Pakistan even less to undo geography. Still, resuming dialogue with Pakistan is a sovereign choice for India. Happily, recent developments in both countries point to a thaw in relations?
Islamabad has belatedly realised that addressing terrorism selectively – making a distinction between good and bad terrorists – is giving Pakistan a bad name. In a recent civil-military meeting, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was asked to rein in the Punjabi Taliban – Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) – and act against them as besides besmirching the image of Pakistan, Uri had allowed India to shift the focus from the uprising in Kashmir to Pakistan’s cross-border terrorism.
Further, intelligence and military officials were told that Pakistan risked international isolation for failure to implement its 20-point National Action Plan to counter terrorism. It appears, the new military team of Gen Bajwa and ISI chief Lt Gen Naveed Mukhtar are going along with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in defusing tension with India and reportedly quietly acting against the Punjabi Taliban.
Keeping the Line of Control (LoC) quiet is part of the new Army Chief’s plan. The eight suicide attacks in seven days last month gave the green signal for Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad to indiscriminately eliminate remnants of terrorism. Whether the operation will actually target India-centric groups like LeT and JeM is not clear. But the Army-backed arrest of Hafiz Saeed earlier, described by Defence Minister Khwaja Asif at the prestigious Munich Security Conference last month as ‘done in national interest since Saeed posed a serious threat to society’ was his fourth detention and as yet without any FIR. Most observers have dismissed Saeed’s arrest and counter-terrorism operations in Punjab as window dressing. This time around, the counter-terrorism campaign may be more than just image building.
Never to be left out in the cold, last month, Gen Pervez Musharraf, ensconced in Dubai, reminded interlocutors astride the border of how ‘he managed freedom fighters in Kashmir’ but ‘realised later that a political process is needed to negotiate the issue with India’. He was referring to the back-channel dialogue which resulted in the five-point Kashmir formula. This is clear signal for Sharif and Modi to look for a political solution.
Pakistan is also under pressure from the Trump Administration and US officials to fight terrorism across the board. US Commander of Resolute Force in Afghanistan, Lt Gen John W Nicholson, in his testimony to the US Armed Services Committee last month said that 20 of 98 designated US terrorist groups and three violent extremist organisations operate in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is the highest concentration of terrorist groups in the world. He added that the Afghan Taliban cannot be defeated while it has sanctuaries in Pakistan. Congressman Ted Poe, who heads the House of Representatives Committee on Terrorism and non-proliferation, has called for a radical reset of ties with Pakistan demanding Pakistan be disciplined for being an appalling ally and quasi adversary and be named as a state sponsor of terrorism. Ten US think-tanks have recommended levying costs on Pakistan and making US aid conditional upon transparent action against all terrorist groups and individuals.
The International Crisis Group, in its latest report, has condemned Pakistan for its selective approach to countering terrorism. That is why many Americans call Pakistan Frenemy for pocketing $33 billion and orchestrating the killing of 3,770 US soldiers in Afghanistan. The last nail in the coffin was provided by Pakistani former National Security Advisor, Mohammad Ali Durrani last week at New Delhi when he called 26/11 a classic cross border event emanating from Pakistan and said that Hafiz Saeed should be punished as he is of no use to Pakistan.
For most Indians, Pakistan is the implacable enemy whom it has failed to contain politically, militarily and diplomatically. Therefore, it seems Prime Minister Narendra Modi is keen to give the dialogue process another chance. Already, the Uri heat is cooling off and a number of conciliatory steps have been taken like accepting the appointment of Amjad Sial as the new Pakistan South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) Secretary General, attending the Indus Water Treaty Commission at Lahore and releasing fishermen.
The decision to start the dialogue process will be made once the passes open in May-June in Jammu & Kashmir, enabling validation of Gen Bajwa’s commitment to keep the LoC quiet. But for this gesture to survive, it has to be matched by an Indian political response to prevent another summer of discontent in the valley. India and Pakistan have worked out a sound two-strand mechanism for dialogue – NSAs addressing terrorism and Foreign Secretaries the Kashmir issue. The two steps recommended to kick start the dialogue process are: a) restoration and institutionalisation of 2003 CFA on LoC; and b) resumption of dialogue with simultaneous discourse on Kashmir and terrorism, both tracks being back channel. After the surgical strikes and electoral victories, Modi stands a better chance of making peace with Pakistan.

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