ISI’s change of course and other stories

Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex will need more then the prospect of diplomatic isolation to change its policies.

Cyril Almeida’s report reads too good to be true.

Facing international isolation—read lack of support from the United States and even China—Pakistan’s civilian leaders confronted the ISI chiefand got him to permit action against the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed, and their respective leaders. Not only did they say this to the general’s face, but even more surprisingly, the general tacitly consented to law enforcement action against the groups. That’s not all, he agreed to visit every province, meet the local political, military and ISI leaders there, and persuade them to change course.

The appropriate reaction to this report is: yes, and teenage hippos rollerblade.

Yet, the fact that such a report made it to the press is interesting. Taken at face value, it does suggest that the strategy of persuading Pakistan’s supporters might be working. [I have argued for this before, on Yahoo! and WSJ]

However, it would be credulous to believe that the Pakistani military establishment has decided to change course merely on account of the prospect of international diplomatic isolation. Rawalpindi & Islamabad are masters are exploiting fissures in the world order to survive and promote their interests, and at a time when there are so many growing fissures in the international system, they shouldn’t find it hard to do so. The isolation explanation, by itself, is not convincing enough.

What is more likely is that the military establishment is playing for time ahead of a leadership transition as Gen Raheel Sharif retires next month. All his potential successors need all potential allies within the political system, and at this time, it is unlikely that any of them would want to antagonise their nominal political leaders. Gen Raheel himself might calculate that he needs friends to ensure that he enjoys his retired life.

Ergo, Mr Almeida’s report should not rouse great hopes in India. In any case, what matters are results on the ground; not official statements or unofficials leaks to the media. Worse, if the Pakistani army wishes to retalitate to an Indian surgical strike (that it says did not happen) with a similar strike of its own, for the sake of pyschological parity, then a report like this is just the kind of thing to leak.

The reaction from the other side

Post-surgical matters

Last night, militants attacked a Border Security Force-Rashtriya Rifles camp in Baramulla, killing one trooper and injuring another. Coming a few days after India announced that it had carried out surgical strikes across the Line of Control, the attack on Baramulla will be seen through the prism of ‘retaliation’ from the Pakistani side.

There are two broad ways of looking at this attack: First, the jihadi components of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex (MJC) are retaliating after last week’s strike by the Indian Army.

Second, that this is part of a larger campaign by the MJC to use militants to target Indian military/security installations along the Indian-Pakistan frontier: Gurdaspur, Pathankot, Uri and now Baramulla, fit the pattern. The intention of such discriminating attacks could be to unsettle the Indian government as it attempts to manage the political turmoil in the Kashmir valley. It could also be to provoke the Indian armed forces to an extent to make the 2004 ceasefire defunct, to undermine political overtures like the one Narendra Modi engaged in late last year and to escalate the conflict to a level that will re-attract international attraction.

Given the timeline, the latter explanation is more likely: it does not exclude the first explanation that this is Pakistani retaliation, but rather, that this Pakistani retaliation is part of its overall strategy. However, if in the days to come, the number, scale and scope of jihadi attacks on Indian targets intensify then we can conclude that the MJC is escalating the conflict using jihadis (rather than the military) as instruments.

What to make of India’s surgical strike?

India’s punitive strike across the Line of Control could set a new norm

Whatever might be the consequences, it is clear that the Indian Army’s operation across the Line of Control in retaliation to a militant attack on its Uri camp is a landmark development. Now, it is common knowledge that both the Indian and Pakistani armies cross the LoC for tactical operations, and have been doing so for a long time.

Such operations, usually, have three characteristics: limitations in the depth of incursion, the extent of damage they cause and the level at which they are officially admitted. While we do not have all the details as of now, last night’s operation appears to have been deeper and more damaging. What distinguishes it from other tactical incursions along the LoC is the level at which they have been admitted: perhaps for the first time, New Delhi has officially announced that Indian troops carried out an attack authorised by the highest political authority.

This is significant because it changes the norm to one where India will use military force across its frontiers to respond to aggression by Pakistan’s proxies. Depending on the Pakistani reaction, the act might vindicate the arguments made by some strategists that India does have space for such punitive operations, within the escalation framework. If so, an important Pakistani bluff — that nuclear weapons will shield its terrorist proxies — will be called. [Related: See this detailed analysis of the India-Pakistan conflict escalation framework]

This, however, is only the story so far. The ball now is in Pakistan’s court. If the Pakistani military establishment continues to hold the position that there was no ‘surgical strike’ at all, and just the usual cross-border firing, then New Delhi would have succeeded in setting a new norm. However, if the Pakistani army decides that it cannot let this insult go unpunished, and responds tit-for-tat — operationally and in public posturing — then it will be up to the Modi government whether it wants to up the ante. There are good reasons for either course of action.

The Pakistani army’s initial reaction is what it is, an initial reaction. It could be used to obfuscate matters to cover a retaliatory attack. Or it could be a signal of not wanting to escalate the situation. At this time, therefore, it would be prudent for the Indian government and media to hold off excessive triumphalism.

Leave the Indus treaty alone

It is unwise for New Delhi to play up the water threat

Last week CNN-IBN called me while I was driving back home, and asked if they could put me on live television to comment on what the producer said was “India’s threat to cut off Pakistan’s water supply under the Indus River Water treaty”. Had I not been stationary at the traffic signal when I heard this, my reaction might have harmed innocent motorists on the road. Despite my reluctance—as I had not familiarised with the facts—the producer patched me to the programme. I made three points.

First, the threat of cutting off water targets the Pakistani people and not the military-jihadi complex that is India’s irreconcilable adversary. Further, this mis-targeting strengthens the military-jihadi complex because it strengthens the latter’s position as the defender of the Pakistani people, who will unite around it.

Second, cutting off water is tantamount to an act of war and India will be seen as the aggressor. Even then, it would be unwise for New Delhi to go to war in response to a terrorist attack on a military camp near the Line of Control.

Third, the best that can be said about the hints of cutting off water is if it were “deliberate irrationalism”, calculated to persuade the adversary that New Delhi is not rational and can respond in grossly disproportionate ways.

Upon reaching home, I found out that the producer had taken an almost mischievous hint by the MEA spokesman and framed it into one of New Delhi actually threatening to cut off water to Pakistan. Even so, New Delhi seems to be weighing this option enough to warrant a briefing to the Prime Minister today.

It would be unwise for New Delhi to proceed in the direction of holding out reneging on the Indus Water Treaty as a coercive threat. Mainly because such talk is superfluous. A person holding a gun to your head does not have to declare that he has a gun pointed towards your head.

While the Pakistani people benefit from the Indus Waters Treaty—and India’s scrupulous observance of its terms even during major wars—the Pakistani military establishment and jihadi groups would love for New Delhi to dangle this threat. The establishment would lose no time to play up the threat that India poses to the survival of Pakistan and quickly find a way to turn “differences” into “disputes” (these terms have specific meanings under the Treaty) and take it to the Court of Arbitration. If the Court rules against India—and it is likely to, if India were to “cut off water”—then a reference to the UN Security Council will be the next step. Now, the UNSC might lack enough power to compel India to keep to terms New Delhi does not wish to, but to do all this in the current circumstances would be an overkill (self-overkill, that is).

While all this is happening, the jihadi groups would lose no time in openly mobilising, with official support, and engaging in collecting funds, minds and warm bodies. It makes little sense for New Delhi to energise an industry that is not doing too well in Pakistan.

All this is even before considering the possibility of what might the Pakistani military establishment do should India threaten to cut off water supplies. There is no doubt that India is military prepared to dominate Pakistan at all levels of escalation. The question is: can this be done with relatively lower cost to itself?

Narendra Modi’s words over the weekend inject wisdom into the hysterical jingoism that dominated the public discourse last week. He suggested that India can defeat Pakistan by winning the development race. He also drew the distinction between the Pakistani leadership and the Pakistani people. Readers of this blog will know that this is what I have long advocated. Of course, this must be accompanied by defensive measures, political overtures to close the affective divide in Jammu & Kashmir and tactical military sort of things that are best not spoken about.

As for the Indus treaty, it is in India’s interests to hold out a model where difficult issues can be sorted out as technical matters rather than highly emotive political ones. It is one of the best examples of India’s bona fides. It is not in the national interest to throw away this wicket.

From the archives: Sharing the Indus (January 2005) and the Dam difference is over (February 2007).

Foreign policy and social media jingoism

Statesmanship is about rescuing policy from being hostage to mass hysteria

My response to a request for comment from the Times of India:

The role of social media in spreading both revolutionary dissent and ultra-rightwing sentiment has now been seen across the global. Even in non-democratic China, the political leadership has to contend with online ultra-nationalist sentiment that constrains its options. It shouldn’t surprise us that the effect is far greater in a democracy like ours. Social media acts both as a lightning rod and an amplifier: whether for protests against government, or to compel government to act against internal and external enemies.

In India at least, social media is no indicator of considered public opinion. Neither are aggressive television anchors and studio guests. However, to the extent that they prime citizens what to think about, and how to think about it, they are important to our public discourse. Now unlike intellectuals, political leaders have been elected by the people and have democratic legitimacy — it is incumbent on ministers not to be overly compelled by social media sentiment or television studios. Good statesmanship demands that leaders make calm, well-considered decisions and explain them to the people, using social media and television studios.

Social media and some television studios have enabled people to express their subconscious fears and desires: it is not only today that people of India have been angry with Pakistan for fomenting terrorism in our country. It is only now that they have ways to express this anger; unfortunately social media dynamics amplify this anger in a grotesque, distorted manner, allowing the ugly and the less-sensible views to rise up to the top of the public discourse. In fact, this very phenomenon can be used against us by our adversaries, giving them a inexpensive way to throw policy off the rails. If a provocation is a guaranteed to evoke a hysteric public reaction and put our political leaders in a spot, then our adversaries can easily exploit it.

See Manju VI’s report in the Sunday Times of India

Related Link: A recent op-ed in The Hindu on the do’s and don’ts for a digital sarkar.