Why the Modi government must ignore Pakistan

High level engagement of Pakistan is a waste of diplomatic capacity and political capital

Pakistan’s decision to ‘suspend’ the peace process with India along with the ‘co-operation’ on investigating the terrorist attack on Pathankot air station came suddenly. It should, however, come as a surprise only to those who believe that Pakistan is a normal nation-state where the elected government is in charge of state policy. In reality, Pakistan’s government and the military-jihadi complex are two separate entities vying for control, with the latter usually having the upper hand and the last say, especially on foreign policy. [See Understanding the military-jihadi complex]

Here’s a deconstruction of the events since before Narendra Modi’s surprise visit to Pakistan to attend Nawaz Sharif’s family function.

The Pakistani military establishment was clearly not in favour of the Nawaz Sharif’s overtures to India, and authorised attacks on the Pathankot air station in view of Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Pakistan in December 2015. Why would the military establishment do this? Because any reductions of tensions with India would not only reduce damage the military-jihadi complex’s interests but also strengthen Nawaz Sharif’s vis-a-vis the military establishment. A spanner had to be thrown into the works. This is not dissimilar to 26/11, which had the effect of halting President Asif Zardari’s conciliatory engagement of India.

However, what complicated matters for the army was Nawaz Sharif’s decision to ‘co-operate’ with India on the investigation of the Pathankot attack, and further getting Pakistani investigators to visit India to collect evidence. By this time, the Jaish-e-Mohammed and it’s leader Masood Azhar had already been identified as prime suspects in the case. If events were to take their course, in due course, Azhar or his close associates would find themselves under arrest, with the Pakistani authorities compelled to curb their movements (much like in the case of the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi after 26/11). Such a move would tilt the domestic balance of power in favour of Nawaz, and Gen Raheel Sharif would have none of that.

So we had the drama of the ‘capture’ of an Indian spy in Balochistan and China’s blocking of international action against Masood Azhar at the United Nations. The claim that Kulbhushan Jadhav’s capture is cause to ‘suspend’ the peace process and halt the investigations into Pathankot is laughable: the Pakistani establishment has long been claiming that India is stirring the pot in Balochistan and has even presented ‘evidence’ to foreign officials of this. Whatever the facts of the Jadhav case, they do not present any compelling new information to cause Pakistan to walk out of the peace process. The drama only makes sense when seen as providing an excuse for the military establishment to move to protect its jihadi assets from scrutiny, investigation and punishment.

Much of this drama is Pakistan’s domestic politics. The military-jihadi complex put the civilian government in place and restored its own supremacy. New Delhi’s fault was to walk into these murky waters and end up with a terrorist attack and a red face after being played out by the Pakistani establishment. Mr Modi did well to try engaging Pakistan positively from the beginning of this term — where he erred was in believing that he could force the pace of relations. Unless New Delhi realises that there are two Pakistans, the civilian government and the military-jihadi complex, and has a policy sophisticated enough to engage both simultaneously, it will come a cropper.

But why bother? Pakistan is irrelevant to India’s development agenda. It is a distraction (See this article in OPEN). Instead of wasting limited diplomatic capacity and political capacity on the Pakistan project, it would be much more prudent for Mr Modi to ignore Pakistan, and let it sort itself out. New Delhi ought to invest in protecting the homeland from terrorist attacks, creating political conditions that will minimise its impact and cranking up the economic engines to achieve rapid growth. Mr Modi should practice the necessary art of ignoring Pakistan.

Related Link: Takshashila’s discussion document on the dynamics of engaging Pakistan.

Terrorists, veto and the peace process

Terrorists should not be allowed to force us into talks either

After a terrorist attack on India in response to an Indian overture to resume dialogue with Pakistan, we often hear the argument that “terrorists should not be allowed a veto over the India-Pakistan peace process”. The assumption here is that the jihadi terrorists prefer a state of hostility and tension between the two countries, and that their objectives are different from those of the Pakistani government, which seeks peace. Ergo, New Delhi should announce that it will pursue “uninterrupted and uninterruptible” dialogue in order to frustrate the designs of the jihadis.

Now, there is some merit in signalling that terrorist attacks will not prevent the dialogue process, but for a different reason. A valid ground for continuing dialogue is if such a move will disincentivise the terrorists from attacking. Terrorists are likely to be so disincentivised if the assumption that their goal is to disrupt dialogue is valid. There is, however, little evidence for this.

Here’s an alternative assumption: that the jihadi groups are instruments of Pakistani policy, in a coordinated routine of good cop/bad cop. The military establishment uses the terrorists as “bad cops” so that New Delhi is pushed to engage and make concessions to the good cop, the Pakistani government. Under this assumption, a terrorist attack works to make New Delhi set aside previous Pakistani transgressions in the interests of the future, in order to “not allow the terrorists to succeed”.

This week’s Takshashila discussion document by Rohan Joshi and Pranay Kotasthane debunks the assumption that “terrorist groups are only loosely associated to some handlers in the Pakistan Army while a large section of the army wants peace with India”. Jihadi groups and the Pakistani military establishment are joined at the hip, and are against the existence of India. In the presence of clear links between the Pakistani army and the anti-India jihadi groups, the argument that the army favours dialogue while the jihadis don’t just doesn’t stand to reason. In the current case, Praveen Swami reports that the ISI revived the Jaish-e-Mohammed in the last few years.

So it is important not to pursue dialogue just because we assume that the jihadis are against it.

Related Link: What the Narendra Modi government ought to do about Pakistan in the light of the terrorist attack on Pathankot IAF base (in OPEN magazine).

Here we go again

Dialogue with Pakistan should be part of an overall strategy.

“What was being done as composite dialogue, and was later called the resumed dialogue, will now be called the comprehensive bilateral dialogue.” Sushma Swaraj, External Affairs Minister [IE]

Given the history of the last fifteen years, it is hard to not be cynical about the re-initiation of the dialogue process with Pakistan. Governments engage, the Pakistani military and/or their jihadi proxies escalate violence in India and New Delhi is compelled to disengage. Time passes. Labels change. And the cycle repeats. The odds are that this round too will go the way of the previous ones. [See a previous post on the problem of talking to Pakistan]

What’s different this time? Well, this is perhaps the first time that the Indian government is indirectly engaging the Pakistani military leadership through, and alongside the Pakistani civilian government. Vajpayee engaged a Nawaz Sharif who was at loggerheads with the army, and a Musharraf who was a military dictator. Manmohan Singh engaged the same dictator and then Asif Zardari, a civilian president, who was out of the loop with the military establishment. When Narendra Modi first engaged Nawaz Sharif, the latter had already lost his hold on the military establishment. Now, with a recently retired general, Naseer Khan Janjua representing the army chief within the official setup as National Security Advisor, the Modi government will be talking to both the civilian and the military power centres at the same time.

If New Delhi could engage the Pakistani army directly, it would have been able to engage both power centres separately. Like the United States and China have shown, this has some tactical and transactional advantages. However, since New Delhi will not engage the Pakistan army, the current setup, with the army more involved in the process is better than it being not involved at all. What outcomes this will bring depends to a large extent on what the Pakistani military establishment chooses: it could replay the old records–which is what we should expect–and take us back to a new phase of the engagement-disengagement cycle.

The Modi government, like its predecessors, has decided to take the chance that “maybe, this time it will be different.” The only risk of this process is that Pakistan gets a little more rehabilitated in the international system, and take the pressure off its rulers on the issue of containing domestic and international terrorism. Also, the malevolent quarters of the Pakistani establishment might get emboldened to seize the opportunity and trigger violence in India. That is a risk that New Delhi must manage.

Of course, it is possible that the Pakistani military establishment might try a new routine and decide to lower tensions, both along the Line of Control and in terms of their jihadi proxies. This is unlikely because doing so would not only reduce its political salience, but put it along a path where its raison d’etre will be in question.

From New Delhi’s perspective, resuming dialogue — even the all-new comprehensive bilateral one — should be part of a overall strategy of its own desired outcome for Pakistan. [See an old post on talks and action bias]. This blog has argued that the containment and the eventual destruction of the military-jihadi complex is an essential part of that desired outcome. If dialogue can help achieve that, it is useful (as in February 2010). If not, well, we’ve seen this movie before.

Pakistans and talks

The problem with talking to Pakistan is that there are two of them

It’s happened again to yet another Indian prime minister. He’s decided to resume talks with the Pakistani government after the process had been halted due to Pakistani transgressions and bad faith. 

Now, there is sense in talking to the Pakistani government because that’s exactly what that country’s military-jihadi complex — and India’s irreconcilable adversary — does not want. In normal course of events denying the adversary the response he desires is good strategy. However, the problem in the case of Pakistan is that there are two ‘Pakistans’: the putative state (represented now by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif) and the military-jihadi complex that dominates the former.

Denying the military-jihadi complex what it desires means India sends a signal that it cannot punish transgressions, and allows Pakistan’s civilian government to raise its bottom lines. This risks India making incremental concessions each time without gaining anything in return. In other words, Pakistan has the ability to take by salami-slicing what it cannot achieve through war or negotiations.

What about not talking? This plays into the military-jihadi complex’s hands, which derives its own legitimacy and power by rallying all anti-India forces. In Pakistan’s domestic context, the army and the jihadi groups become more popular vis-a-vis the civilian government. Since the military-jihadi complex is irreconcilable and there is a chance that the civilian state is not, this is bad news from the Indian perspective. No surprises then, that the army and the Islamists will do whatever is possible to scuttle diplomacy.

In other words, India risks losing out on substantive issues by pursuing talks with Pakistan despite the latter’s hostility. If it does not do this, India risks strengthening its worst adversary on the other side. Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. 

So how should New Delhi deal with this situation? Ignore it. Focus on economic growth.

What Pakistan does or doesn’t do is a minor variable in India’s growth story. Growth, on the other hand, is a major factor in India’s foreign and security policies. Putting Pakistan on the back burner (actually, keeping it in the refrigerator) is not only possible, but is necessary at this time. Just half-a-decade of high economic growth will transform the geopolitical context around Pakistan, enough to swing the negotiating environment in India’s favour. The more we wait, the better it will be for us.

Let Pakistan undergo its internal transformation. New Delhi can deal with the outcomes rather than engaging in a game where it loses out, no matter what it does.

The Pakistan stop of the SAARC yatra

Dispute management, not resolution

This is the gist of the points I made in a brief interview on Channel NewsAsia at 6:40pm IST yesterday. This was in the context of Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar’s visit to Pakistan as part of his SAARC Yaatra.

Q. Amid an aggressive growth agenda, how much of a priority is being placed by Mr Modi on resolving disputes with Pakistan, according to you?

Mr Modi has been keen on improving relations with India’s neighbours right from the word go. I think it reveals something about his mindset — the need for India to carry along its neighbours and its region — because strictly speaking, the neighbourhood does not matter a lot for India’s growth and development.

India’s linkages are to the West to the US and Europe and to East Asia. The subcontinental neighbourhood does not matter much for now. A lot of constraints to growth are domestic.

Q. There have been over 600 ceasefire violations in the past eight months. How much of an impact can high-level talks have on ground reality and actions?

The ceasefire has held for over a decade, so there is abundant evidence that the armed forces can hold their fire if there are top level instructions. A ceasefire is in the interests of both countries: Pakistan can focus on managing its own domestic violence. So too for India.

Q. This is all ostensibly a part of the ‘SAARC Yatra’ by the Indian government. How much has the India-Pakistan problem impaired SAARC’s development?

The problem with SAARC is not merely India-Pakistan relations, although they share part of the blame. The ethos of SAARC is more a collective bargaining forum for India’s neighbours against New Delhi. So countries focus more on what they can achieve vis-a-vis India, than what they can achieve as a group.

India’s growth and development will propel SAARC by presenting an opportunity to neighbours to benefit from the process.

Osama bin Laden, the ISI and the USA

The ISI might have known about bin Laden. What did the United States know?

For the first time, a person close enough to the Pakistani military establishment—and often its unofficial mouthpiece—has suggested that the ISI might have known about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts, and might have traded him in for US concessions in Afghanistan. Asad Durrani, retired ISI chief and regular television talking-head, said this in an interview to Al Jazeera at Oxford recently.

“I cannot say exactly what happened but my assessment […] was it is quite possible that they [the ISI] did not know but it was more probable that they did. And the idea was that at the right time, his location would be revealed. And the right time would have been, when you can get the necessary quid pro quo – if you have someone like Osama bin Laden, you are not going to simply hand him over to the United States.

He asserted that Bin Laden was, in his opinion, handed over in exchange for an agreement on “how to bring the Afghan problem to an end”. Asked by Hasan whether Bin Laden’s compound was an ISI safe house, Durrani responded:

“If ISI was doing that, than I would say they were doing a good job. And if they revealed his location, they again probably did what was required to be done.” [Al Jazeera PR]

This is exactly what The Acorn had argued in May 2011.

His death also means that the Pakistani military-jihadi complex gave him up. This will allow Barack Obama to declare victory and pull US troops out of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Pakistani army can then orchestrate an post-US dispensation wherein its proxies first share power with the Karzai regime. And then, sometime in the near future, take over power. [The Osama card has been played]

In an INILive discussion analysing the possibilities around bin Laden’s killing, I had argued that the most likely explanation was that:

The Pakistani military leadership was on board. In fact, they might have given up Osama as it suits their interests at this time. President Obama can declare victory and pull US troops out of Afghanistan. The Americans will have to rely on Pakistan to ensure that the withdrawal is bloodless during an election year in the United States.

This is plausible. Contrary to popular imagination, it might have been done subtly. A gentle lowering of guard around Osama, a little clue here and there, and the US intelligence would catch up…it would only be a matter of time. The US would even believe that they did it on their own.[Bin Laden’s killing and implications for India]

My May 2011 Pax Indica column discussed this in more detail, linking the event to US domestic politics and the cost-benefit calculations of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex. In March 2014, the New York Times magazine published a report by Carlotta Gall, quoting unnamed Pakistani officials as saying that Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the ISI chief in 2011, was in the know.

Now, given his background and connections, Gen Durrani is by no means a Pakistani who is seeking exile in a Western country. His revelations raise an important question: why has the Pakistani military establishment decided to reveal that it (probably) knew about bin Laden all along? There are some indications to the effect that this might be an attempt to pre-empt more explicit revelations about the Pakistani army’s role. Whatever be the case, it is highly unlikely that Gen Durrani’s comments were on-the-fly. There has to be a purpose behind them.

Gen Durrani’s admission raises another question about the Obama administration’s role in the affair. What did the United States know and when?

Jamaat-ud-Dawa, an assessment

What New Delhi should do about the threat

Here is an assessment following an email discussion with my colleagues Rohan Joshi & Pranay Kotasthane on the Jamaat-ud-Dawa. See Rohan’s post for context.

1. The Pakistani state and the Pakistani society have neither the intention nor the capability (if they have the intention) to take down the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD). It has crossed the line from being a merely extremist terrorist group to a provider of public goods. It acquired the characteristics of a para-state with obvious popularity and social legitimacy.

2. The Pakistani army, on the other hand, does retain the capability to degrade the Jamaat-ud-Dawa. For instance, they could get a hothead loyal to Hafiz Saeed to assassinate Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi or another competing top-rung leader, engineer a rift, cause clashes while promoting propaganda against them. However, given that the Jamaat-ud-Dawa is a key instrument of the Pakistani army’s existential anti-India posture, the army is unlikely to want to damage the JuD.

3. So the best the civilian government will do is play the Schrödinger-Hiesenberg quantum game, where the JuD is banned but not banned. If another party takes over, the JuD will be not banned but banned. It is unrealistic to expect democratically elected civilian governments to act against JuD especially to satisfy India or the United States.

4. Therefore, India’s short-term options should be

  • to prevent JuD from acquiring greater capabilities. At this moment it is an irregular light infantry. It should not be permitted to acquire more advanced weapons and capabilities.
  • to prevent JuD from acquiring territory. ‘Non-state actors’ getting hold of swathes of territory from which they can carry out conspiracies and attacks on Indian soil will complicate New Delhi’s national security strategy.
  • to prevent JuD from acquiring followers in India. In contrast to the 1990s, it is possible today for followers to ‘train’ with the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) without actually having to go to PoK via Karachi via Dubai.
  • to prevent the JuD from launching terrorist attacks in India.

5. India’s longer term option remains clear: dismantle and destroy the military-jihadi complex.

6. There is a convergence of interests between India and the United States, and to a lesser extent with China too, on the short-term options. New Delhi’s outreach to these states should be to arrive at a consensus on preventing the strengthening of JuD. It is unclear if other countries share interests on the longer-term issue of destroying the military-jihadi complex. It might be some time before the United States comes around to this view. For now, the focus on short-term goals will be good enough.

Welcoming Putin

New Delhi should treat the Russian president with the usual respect

Samanth Subramanian of The National asked me to comment on Vladimir Putin’s visit to India. My response:

Putin’s visit is part of a longstanding tradition of bilateral visits. It comes at a time when there is greater convergence of interests between India and the United States, than between India and Russia. That said, Russia bears greater responsibility for the divergence in relations with India, for it has almost gratuitously pursued an arms-sale relationship with Pakistan. Those sales have little utility other than sending unwelcome signals to New Delhi.

New Delhi should welcome Mr Putin with great warmth and the traditional respect, despite his recent actions. Russia has been and can be a useful partner for India. For his part, Mr Putin would do well to reflect on how Russian industry can take advantage of Mr Modi’s “Make in India” initiative, especially in the defence and technology sectors.

Samanth’s article is up on The National’s website.

The Saudi bomb

Made in Pakistan, Supported by China, but still Saudi Arabia’s nuclear weapon

This week, a major Western media house discovered that the Saudi Arabia has already paid Pakistan for the bomb and can have it home-delivered pretty quickly. This is perhaps the first time that news of the Saudi-Pakistan nuclear arrangement is getting media coverage. This topic was something that Western mediapersons and analysts would determinedly avoid discussing in public. Even the most committed advocates of the nuclear non-proliferation regime still do not write or talk about the relationship, which makes their advocacy and intent a lot less credible than it otherwise might have been.

Regular readers of this blog will recall analysis suggesting that Pakistan’s rapid stockpiling of fissile material is linked to Saudi Arabia’s needs in correlation with Iran’s nuclear advancements. China’s grandfatherly nuclear largesse makes Beijing an accomplice in this nuclear weapons manufacturing and transfer business. This is plain and simple nuclear proliferation, no matter if the self-appointed guardians of that term choose to ignore it.

Given this background, the fact that BBC’s Newsnight is now revealing that the Pakistanis might transfer the bomb to Saudi Arabia on demand suggests that the Saudi Arabian government wants it to be revealed. This is understandable: with chances of a Iran’s rapprochement with the West increasing this year, the likelihood that the world will eventually accept a nuclear Iran is also rising. Letting it be known that Saudi Arabia also has nuclear capacity—albeit in an outsourced model—serves to reinforce Riyadh’s prestige, proto-deterrence and adds pressure on its Western allies to not cut deals with the Iranians. It also helps prepare the ground for an eventual coming out of the nuclear closet.

What Western analysts of nuclear proliferation have to answer for is when exactly did the Saudi-Pakistan-China nuclear arrangement start? If it predates Tehran’s own decision to develop nuclear weapons capacity, then shouldn’t part of the responsibility for Iran’s move accrue to Riyadh, Islamabad and Beijing? Recriminations of the intellectual kind are futile in geopolitics, but to the extent that the United States recognises Iran’s security challenges, it might be able to negotiate for better outcomes with Iran, for the international community.

The emerging problem in the Middle East is one of shaping a stable nuclear deterrence relationship primarily involving Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the United States, Pakistan and China as actors in a supporting role. Getting facts out into the open is the good way to begin addressing it.

A little less conversation, a little more action

Nawaz Sharif must provide credible proof of his intent before New Delhi resumes dialogue with his government

While India’s response to the killing of Indian soldiers in the Poonch region along the Line of Control must be calculated and cold-blooded (see an earlier post), it is untenable to contend, as some commentators have done, that dialogue with the Pakistani government must continue regardless of the provocation.

There is no case for New Delhi to engage the Nawaz Sharif government in serious dialogue at this time. While Prime Minister Sharif has made verbal overtures to the need for better relations with India, he has demonstrated little by way of putting this sentiment into action. Talk is cheap. It is action that matters.

We have seen nothing by way of tightening the pressure on outfits like the Lashkar-e-Taiba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the prosecution of the 26/11 accused has run aground and the Pakistani military establishment has raised the temperature by attacking Indian diplomats in Afghanistan. On Mr Sharif’s side of the equation, “it’s only words…”. His predecessor, Asif Ali Zardari, did try to match words with actions. Although he didn’t go far enough, although his party colleagues undermined the effort, and some of his associates paid a heavy price for those actions, it made some sense in pursuing dialogue with his government. Mr Sharif’s party, on the other hand, relies on political support from Islamist militants in his home province and has shown no sign of taking on either the military or the jihadis so far.

Maybe it’s too early for Mr Sharif to act in ways that make his words credible. Maybe he needs more time. That’s both reasonable and fair to him. In the meantime, what’s the hurry for New Delhi to pursue dialogue with his government, even if there had been no attacks in Jalalabad and gunfights along the Line of Control? Why not wait to see credible signals that Mr Sharif has the intentions and the wherewithal to deliver on the pre-requisites for a serious dialogue?

There is no case for resuming dialogue—leave alone for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to visit Pakistan—until that time. As even simple people know, it is foolish to make an advance payment to a person who might not actually have the goods he’s promising to sell.

Related Link: Why Pakistan is really two distinct entities—the military-jihadi complex and the putative Pakistani state. The former holds all the cards as far as peace is concerned. The latter is feeble.