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The LoC Incident

Manmohan Singh must meet with Nawaz Sharif in New York.

Even as we begin to fully understand the circumstances that led to the killing of five Indian jawans by Pakistani troops last week, we are informed of yet another Indian soldier succumbing to injuries today from a Pakistani attack on August 5 in J&K’s Samba district.

In New Delhi, Dr. Manmohan Singh has maintained a steely silence (as is his wont) on both incidents.  His defense minister made a dog’s meal of the incident in Parliament for which he was so thoroughly pilloried by the opposition that he had to recant his statement the very next day.  Meanwhile, opposition parties are engaged in hyperbole and political theatrics with May 2014 in mind.  What should have been dealt with at more tactical military level has now morphed into something larger, and unnecessarily so.  There are now even ludicrous demands that India recall its high commissioner from Islamabad.

As mentioned in the previous blogpost, LoC attacks by Pakistan are nothing new.  Cross-border attacks have continued to increased year-on-year over the past five years, from 31 in 2008 to 108 in 2012.  These sorts of attacks are both routine and expected and should have been dealt with as such.  The Indian army has a demonstrable track record of being able to deal with these sorts of transgressions.  Had the prime minister condemned the attack and issued a timely statement to the effect that the army was on alert to respond to Pakistan’s provocations, he would have ensured that the incident would have been dealt with through appropriate channels.  And as long as the Indian army’s mandate to respond in kind to Pakistan’s aggressions along the LoC was not curtailed, an appropriate punitive response would have assuredly been delivered to Pakistan.

Instead, the UPA has bungled badly in its dealing of what should have been a tactical military issue and allowed it to get commingled with the larger, political issue of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.  The prime minister’s over-enthusiastic commitment to a so-called “peace process” with Pakistan (which possibly explains his silence on the killing of Indian troops and the defense minister’s statements) has left him with yet another political mess on his hands.  The Pakistanis, themselves, are always happy to oblige in any endeavor that publicizes and promotes visibility of India-Pakistan issues on the world stage, so a latent upping of the ante with Pakistan is of no real value to India.  It should be of no surprise to us, then, that Pakistan is behaving the way it is.

The BJP now wants the PM not to meet with Nawaz Sharif in New York on the sidelines of the UNGA in September, but it must realize that its position is untenable.  If India wants to see progress on the 26/11 trial in Pakistan and those responsible for it brought to book, is cutting off communication with a man who has, ostensibly, promised to work towards improving ties with India a wise course of action?  The question for India isn’t so much whether or not it must talk to Pakistan, but what it should be talking to Pakistan about.  On 26/11, some measure of justice was delivered to the victims and their families with the sentencing and hanging of Ajmal Kasab in India, and by the sentencing of David Headley and Tahawwur Rana in the U.S.

Yet, Lashkar-e-Taiba’s leaders and their state-supported backers who financed and supported the attacks in Mumbai continue to evade justice in Pakistan.  It is no secret that Nawaz Sharif’s ability to deliver on promises has always been questionable.  The last time he attempted to defy the Pakistani army, he was lucky to find himself with a one-way ticket to Jeddah. But India’s options with regard to the 26/11 trial in Pakistan are few and far between.

Therefore, it is appropriate that Dr. Manmohan Singh meet Nawaz Sharif in New York.  His message to his Pakistani counterpart should be clear: deliver on the 26/11 trial and we’ll have something to talk about.  No progress on the 26/11 trial means no composite dialog, no discussions on J&K and no visit to Pakistan.  How Nawaz Sharif elects to go about to the process to bring the 26/11 trial in Pakistan to a satisfactory conclusion is up to him.  Potentially, there are fissures between Zaki ur-Rehman Lakhvi, the LeT operational chief who is already in “custody,” and Hafiz Saeed that could be exploited to deliver a result that India will appreciate.

Nawaz Sharif says he wants to improve ties with India.  Let’s see if he can translate intent into action.

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Business as usual

The paralysis in decision making in New Delhi is adversely affecting India’s national security.

Pakistani troops ambushed and killed five Indian soldiers belonging to the 21 Bihar regiment and 14 Maratha Light Infantry on Tuesday.  The Pakistani troops crossed the Line of Control into Poonch to carry out the attack.

Several theories have been put forward to explain the attack on the Indian patrol.  Was this retaliation to news reports in Pakistan which claimed that Indian troops kidnapped four men from PoK?  Is this just another manifestation of Pakistan’s escalating hostilities towards India in Afghanistan?  Are hardline elements in Pakistan’s armed forces attempting to discredit and derail Nawaz Sharif’s alleged attempts to make peace with India?  Interesting questions, and maybe they will be answered in time and as more facts pertaining to the attack are revealed.  But reactions to Tuesday’s incident, like those during the January 2013 incident, point to a larger crisis in national security management in India.

A quick word first about Nawaz Sharif.  Whatever his intentions are with regard to India, India must judge Pakistan by its actions and not by warm and fuzzy notions of a trans-Punjab lovefest.  The problem with Pakistan’s peace brigade is that there is a significant gap between purported intentions and their ability to deliver on them.

The net result to India is that its neighboring environment continues to remain hostile and threats to its internal security persist. In this regard, it would be silly for India to get entangled in a debate over whether Nawaz Sharif wants peace with India or not.  Instead, India must judge Pakistan by its actions and not by the supposed intentions of some of its leaders.  As my colleague Nitin Pai argues, there is no case for India to engage the Nawaz Sharif government in dialog until there is credible proof of intent.

But to return to the August 6 attack on Indian troops, such incidents along the LoC are hardly new, regrettable though the loss of life is.  The Pakistanis have always attempted to stir up tensions long the LoC to aid in the infiltration of terrorists across the LoC or to elevate the visibility of tensions with India on the global stage.  Tuesday’s attack wasn’t the first of its kind and will not be the last.  There will surely be a tactical Indian military response to the provocation, and the Pakistanis are well aware that the response will come sooner than later.  This isn’t war mongering but merely a reflection of the realities of the situation along the LoC.

However, what should be of concern to us is the manner in which Indian leadership has chosen to respond to the attack.  Browse through statements issued by representatives of India’s political parties and it becomes apparent very quickly that objective number one was to either blame or deflect blame (depending on who you were) for the attack.

BJP MP and former External Affairs minister Yashwant Sinha asked whether the Congress was with Pakistan or India (I mean, really?), while Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi affirmed that “the entire Congress party, as indeed the entire country” stood with the families of those killed. As ever, party first, country second.

In fact, further reading into statements issued in response to the attack tells us that there isn’t much consensus of opinion even within the UPA, much less between the UPA and other parties.  Defense Minister AK Antony, whose indifference to defending anything beyond his own reputation is now a thing of legend, alleged that the attackers were in fact terrorists masquerading as Pakistan army regulars, which contradicted the positions of almost every other UPA leader to have spoken on the subject.  It also happened to contradict the position of the army.  What is the Indian citizen supposed to make of the political theatrics that get played out with each bomb blast or border incident?

Confidence in India’s political leadership and national security institutions is eroding.  There has been systematic atrophy of existing institutions charged with managing India’s national security.  Worse, vested parties, both political and otherwise, have effectively stonewalled urgent reforms needed to our national security apparatus.  This includes the implementation of a recommendation first made  14 years ago in the Kargil Review Committee report that would allow the prime minister of the country to receive direct and timely military input.

The acute paralysis in consensus-building and decision making in New Delhi is now affecting India’s national security.  This cannot continue to be swept under the carpet.  If India’s leaders can’t even evolve political consensus on an expected and routine Pakistani provocation along the LoC, what sort of response do we imagine we can expect when we are faced with more serious challenges to our national security?

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Phyrrhic peace

My response to Najam Sethi’s article on India and Pakistan.

In this weekend’s The Friday Times, Najam Sethi urges the governments of India and Pakistan not to derail relations in response to the recent skirmishes along the LoC.  In so doing, he alleges that the Indian army built bunkers in Haji Pir sector, which violated a 2005 India-Pakistan agreement, ultimately provoking the Pakistani army to shell Indian positions in a bid to stop the construction.  Incidentally, the position that India triggered the recent skirmish was also put forward by columnist and former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., Maleeha Lodhi.

To Mr. Sethi, the alleged construction of bunkers by India was the “original sin” that triggered the skirmishes.  But Mr. Sethi is economizing on the truth here.  He may be right when he says that the 2005 agreement between India and Pakistan prohibits new military construction along the LoC.  But he conveniently forgets the very first CBM of that 2005 agreement, where both India and Pakistan committed to “uphold the ongoing ceasefire.”

This is important because Pakistan has violated the ceasefire almost every year since 2003; there were 28 ceasefire violations by Pakistan in 2009, 44 in 2010, 60 in 2011 and 117 in 2011.  If India has violated the 2005 agreement, Pakistan has done likewise, and with greater frequency.  But here’s another inconvenient truth: Pakistan itself has been busy building several bunkers and posts (1, 2, 3) along the LoC since the 2003 ceasefire.  Does that not violate the 2005 agreement?  If it does, why is India alone guilty of committing the “original sin,” and how does this justify Pakistan’s shelling of  Indian positions?  Is it that what constitutes a material breach of the 2005 agreement gets decided at the sole discretion of Pakistan?

To be sure, ceasefire violations happen routinely, by both India and Pakistan.  That these violations happen less frequently than prior to the 2003 ceasefire is a positive trend and of importance to the stability of the LoC.  However, pinning the responsibility of military altercations between the two countries on any one such ceasefire violation is a losing proposition.

But there are bigger issues with Mr. Sethi’s article.  Although he begins by accusing the Indian army of triggering the recent skirmishes, he proceeds to commingle India’s responses to the skirmishes with the broader bilateral discussions between India and Pakistan on border disputes.  On the latter, he accuses India’s news media of “sabotaging” the peace process.  Now, the Indian media’s response to the killing of two Indian troops was undoubtedly over the top.  And if Indian news media reaction was over the top, comments from some of India’s politicians were abominable.

But let us not conflate reaction to the skirmishes with internal dialog in India on the implications of the “peace process” on India.  Mr. Sethi alleges that India’s media scuttled alleged attempts by New Delhi to withdraw from Siachen Glacier and the possibility of prime minister Manmohan Singh visiting Pakistan.  However, what Mr. Sethi saw were not machinations of India’s media to sabotage the peace process, but India’s citizens questioning the actions of their democratically-elected government.  That some of these questions are conveyed through the medium of acutely hyperventilating TV news channels does not invalidate the questions themselves.

India’s citizens have a right to question the government they’ve put into office, when reports emerge of unilateral withdrawals from Siachen that many feel are not in India’s interests.  India’s citizens also have a right to know what Pakistan has done by way of bringing to book those responsible for the 26/11 carnage to warrant an official visit from the prime minister of the India.  These questions aren’t only posed by the Indian news media, but by Indian commentators of all walks of life (1, 2, 3, 4).  It would be wrong on the part of anyone to dismiss these legitimate questions as media propaganda.  It would be equally wrong to believe that Indian citizens registering their dissent frustrates and impedes attempts to promote someone’s version of what constitutes “peace” from across the border.

The fact is, Pakistan has done absolutely nothing to convince a large constituent of India’s electorate of the noble intentions it says it has (no, MFN does not count).   Hafiz Saeed lives large in Pakistan, delivering keynote addresses at Lahore High Court, while infiltrations from Pakistan into J&K continue.  Mr. Sethi’s version of “peace” requires India to unilaterally withdraw from a strategic position it has held unchallenged since 1984, and requires the Indian prime minister to visit Pakistan, while not making any demands of Pakistan on issues of interest to India.  Peace is great, but cannot be implemented at the cost of India’s national interests.  If this is Mr. Sethi’s vision of “peace,” then thank you, India is better off without it.

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Pakistan’s resurgent hardline narrative

India needs options to counter looming threats beyond current LoC skirmishes.

On January 8, Pakistani soldiers affiliated with 29 Baloch regiment infiltrated across the Line of Control (LoC) at Mendhar sector in Poonch, ambushed 4 Indian soldiers, and according to news sources, “mutilated” the bodies of two jawans.  Defense Minister AK Antony termed the act “highly objectionable,” while MEA’s official spokesman, Syed Akbaruddin, called it “ghastly and unacceptable.”

Some reports indicate that at least one of the soldiers was beheaded.  If true, this would not be the first of such an occurrence.  Historically, beheadings of Indian troops were carried out by terror groups affiliated with the Pakistani army and by members of Pakistan Army’s Special Services Group (SSG).  In one such incident in 1999 2000, Ilyas Kashmiri, a member of the SSG (as well as future leader of HuJI’s 313 Brigade, and the “operational commander” behind 26/11) killed an Indian soldier, beheaded him, and allegedly presented the head as “trophy” to his then-COAS, Parvez Musharraf, for which he was highly commended.

In the face of such provocation, India’s response has been measured.  External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid promised a “proportionate” response.  Foreign Secretary Mathai summoned Pakistani High Commissioner Salman Bashir  to protest the incident, who in turn, flatly denied that it ever occurred (as is Pakistan’s m.o.).  To be sure, it is in India’s interests not to escalate the situation along the LoC and to ensure that the ceasefire remains in place.  Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex has never been a big fan of the 2003 ceasefire, as it poses certain challenges to its well-known bad habits.

It is therefore in India’s national security interests to ensure that these bad habits remain curtailed.  Military escalation, over an incident — heinous though the killings were — having little tactical or strategic significance (purely from a military standpoint) to India would not be wise.  Of course, non-military options are available at the government’s disposal, which can be used at a time and place of its choosing.

The Big Picture

But more broadly, what should concern India is the increasing assertiveness in Pakistan’s discourse of a more hardline narrative towards India.  Over the past several days and weeks, there has been disproportionate anti-India coverage in Pakistan’s Urdu press. (1, 2, 3).  This increasing assertiveness could have implications beyond the current skirmishes across the LoC.  The reasons for a more hardline stance towards India could be many.

First, there could be a realization in Rawalpindi that territorial negotiations with the UPA have reached a point of no success for Pakistan. Whatever faith the generals in Rawalpindi initially placed in prime minister Manmohan Singh to deliver magnanimous, Pakistan-friendly solutions to territorial disputes appears to have dissipated with the realization that negotiations have reached a cul-de-sac.  Trade talks, discussions on negative- and positive-lists may continue, but we are effectively back to square-one on issues of any real significance to Pakistan.

Second, while sections of our media misread recent updates to Pakistan’s “Green Book,” the inclusion of a section on “sub-conventional warfare” is interesting.  Pakistan is faced with a serious challenge to its internal security from well-armed militants.  It can seek to counter this challenge by [a] appealing to the militants to lay down their arms (ineffective), [b] military confrontation (costly), [c] absorbing those willing into Pakistan’s security forces, or [d] re-orienting them towards another target (i.e., India).

Indeed, recent statements from the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has no direct quarrel with India, nor any capacity today to attack it, must be seen in this light.  This could pose a bigger challenge to India when hundreds of thousands of well-armed, but unemployed “mujahideen” return from Afghanistan to Pakistan in 2014.

The third is the Kayani angle.  Gen. Kayani, no doubt, did not endear himself to his Corps Commanders when he sought, and was given, an unprecedented extension as COAS in July 2010.  Now, while we can never be sure if he favored PPP’s on-going dialog with India, we know that he didn’t try to actively undermine it.  The big question mark is who will replace Gen. Kayani in November 2013, and what will his successor’s views be on India and the U.S.

There’s growing unease in Rawalpindi in the way Gen. Kayani handled the bin Laden raid, the Salala incident, the unrelenting U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan, or peace talks with India.  What better way, then, for an aspiring COAS to present his credentials and ingratiate himself with the rank and file of the armed forces than by towing a harder line towards the neighbor on the east?

Lastly, Pakistan’s generals feel they are now in a position to affect a Pakistan-favorable solution to Afghanistan after the U.S. leaves in 2014, while continuing to be ensured of U.S. financial largesse in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism funds (this is a bad assumption for Pakistan to make, by the way.  Remember the Pressler Amendment)?

Securing an advantageous position in Afghanistan and continued economic assistance from the U.S. renders the need to play nice with India moot; or so the thinking of the military-jihadi complex goes.  The increasingly assertive hardline stance could mean increased attacks, both in J&K, and in “mainland” India in the months and years ahead.  New Delhi ought to be considering options to deal with threats emanating from the resurgent hardline narrative, beyond the current skirmishes at the LoC.

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