NOT surprisingly after the death of 40 Indian paramilitary soldiers in the Pulwama terror attack, the already tense relations between India and Pakistan have gone from bad to worse, once again. There was some forward movement visible in ties after Pakistan decided to open up the holy Sikh sites on its territory for religious tourism. Prime Minister Imran Khan has been batting for better relations between the two countries since taking office. But with the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) immediately claiming responsibility for the suicide attack, the most horrific witnessed in the Kashmir valley until now, Pakistan has been caught on the back foot diplomatically.
The Indian government has been claiming for many years that the group, which is officially proscribed in Pakistan and which figures on the list of international terror groups, is being tacitly encouraged by the deep state in Pakistan. The JeM launched a deadly attack in 2016 in which it infiltrated an army base in Uri and killed 19 soldiers. The Indian government has been alleging that Masood Azhar, the JeM chief, though officially under house arrest, is being allowed to freely communicate with his supporters. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quick to issue a strong warning to Islamabad after the attack. After meeting his top security advisers, he stated that Pakistan should expect a “befitting reply” and that India had “incontrovertible evidence” of Pakistan’s involvement in the terror strike. One of the first steps the Indian government took was to remove Pakistan from the most favoured nation trading list. It was mostly a symbolic step as bilateral trade between the two countries does not exceed $2 billion annually. India also recalled its High Commissioner in Pakistan for consultations. Pakistan has done likewise and recalled its envoy from New Delhi for consultations.
The international community was quick to commiserate with India. Foreign governments did not, however, echo the Indian government’s accusations that Pakistan was directly complicit in the attack. The strongest diplomatic support India received was from the United States. The White House in a statement urged Pakistan “to end immediately the support and safe haven provided to all terrorist groups operating on its soil”. The statement emphasised that the Kashmir terror attack “only strengthens our resolve to bolster counterterrorism cooperation and coordination between the United States and India”. Privately, Western diplomats are urging the two nuclear-armed countries to show restraint and tone down the rhetoric.
The Donald Trump administration said that it supported India’s right “to defend itself against cross-border attacks”. The National Security Advisers (NSAs) of the two countries, John Bolton and Ajit Doval, were on the phone immediately after the Pulwama attack. “The two NSAs vowed to work together to ensure that Pakistan ceases to be a safe haven for the JeM and terrorist groups that target India, the U.S. and others in the region,” the Indian External Affairs Ministry said. “They resolved to hold Pakistan to account for its obligations under U.N. resolutions,” the statement added.
Similar attack in Iran
On February 13, the day before the Pulwama terror strike, a similar incident occurred in Iran: a lone suicide bomber attacked a bus carrying soldiers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), killing 27 of them. The attack took place in the south-east region near Iran’s border with Pakistan. Iran has blamed Pakistan and its allies, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, for the attack. Brigadier General Mohammad Pakpour, the head of the IRGC, said that three Pakistani citizens, including the suicide bomber, were directly involved in the attack.
There was no statement from the U.S. government condemning the attack. A Sunni terrorist group called the Jaish-e-Adl that has close links to Al Qaeda and operates from within Pakistan claimed responsibility for it. Iran has alleged that Jaish-e-Adl militants had all passed out from Saudi-funded madrasas in Pakistan. Islamabad has strongly denied that Jaish-e-Adl militants operate from its soil. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman threatened nine months ago to launch a battle inside Iran. There have been several cross-border attacks along the 1,000-kilometre-long border between the two countries. There was a suicide attack in Chabahar Port in December 2018. In the same month, 12 IRGC troops were abducted by militants. The Trump administration is on record stating that regime change was the U.S.’ goal in Iran.
In the joint statement issued during the Crown Prince’s visit to Pakistan, the Saudis supported Pakistan’s position regarding the listing of Masood Azhar as a terrorist by the United Nations. The joint statement said “that there was a need to avoid the politicisation of the U.N. listing regime”. The Indian External Affairs Ministry, meanwhile, has been insisting that the Saudis have shown “greater understanding” of the government’s concerns regarding terrorism and that the kingdom has agreed to work with India to counter the menace. Modi broke with protocol and went personally to receive the Saudi Crown Prince and give him the trademark hug reserved for special guests when he landed in New Delhi following his trip to Pakistan. In the mainstream media of both Pakistan and India, there was no mention of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi or the merciless bombing of Yemeni civilians, both terrorist acts. If Crown Prince Salman had been visiting Western capitals, he would have been met with protests. In India and Pakistan, he was given a hero’s welcome. The young prince has promised billions of dollars in investments in both countries. The Saudis have made similar promises to many other governments, but these have yet to materialise.
While rolling out the red carpet, the Indian government conveniently forgot the role of the Saudis in fostering extremism on the subcontinent. The Saudis and the Americans were the ones responsible for the initial spawning of jehadi groups in their fight against the socialist government in Afghanistan in the late 1970s. “In Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia matched the United States, dollar for dollar, and together they spawned a multinational jehad complex that still haunts the world,” wrote Mohammed Hanif, the celebrated Pakistani author in a recent column in The New YorkTimes .
While in Islamabad, the Crown Prince had offered his government’s help in “de-escalating tensions” between India and Pakistan. India signalled that it was not happy with the soft Saudi stance, which stiffened a little when the Crown Prince reached New Delhi. The joint statement issued by India and Saudi Arabia described extremism and terrorism as a “common concern” for both countries. Riyadh has also expressed its willingness to share terrorism-related intelligence with New Delhi.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani government has labelled the Indian accusations that it was involved in the Pulwama terror attack as “baseless”. In a televised address delivered a couple of days after the Pulwama attack, Imran Khan said that Pakistan was ready to investigate the allegations about the involvement of militant groups based on its soil in the deadly terror attack. At the same time, he warned India against resorting to a military option. “Today I would like to make the Indian government an offer,” he said in his speech, “Any sort of investigation you wish carried out regarding this incident about the involvement of any Pakistani, we are ready.”
The Indian External Affairs Ministry responded immediately by stating that it was “a well-known fact” that the JeM was based in Pakistan and demanded that Pakistan take “visible action against the perpetrators”. The External Affairs Ministry criticised the Pakistani Prime Minister’s speech, calling it “a lame excuse” for inaction. “In the horrific attack in Mumbai on 26/11, proof was provided to Pakistan,” the Ministry’s statement said. “Despite this, the case has not proceeded for the last more than 10 years. Likewise, on the terror attack on Pathankot airbase, there has been no progress.”
In an interview with The Washington Post in December, Imran Khan said that he wanted the Mumbai terror attack case to be resolved soon and had asked his government to look into it. Pakistan claims that it is India that is impeding the investigations into the Pathankot terror attack. On February 20, the Pakistan government announced that it had decided “to accelerate action against proscribed organisations”. The decision came two days after Imran Khan authorised the Pakistan Army to “respond decisively and comprehensively to any aggression or misadventure” by India. He reiterated that the Pakistani state was in no way involved in the Pulwama terror attack, claiming that the “incident was conceived, planned and executed indigenously”.
The Indian government’s efforts to “diplomatically isolate” Pakistan have not gained much traction. It had requested the international community to issue strong statements condemning Pakistan and to put the country on the blacklist of the international Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Pakistan was put on the FATF grey list last year and was given time until October 2019 to curb money laundering and financing of terrorists.
China’s official line
China was not opposed to putting Pakistan on the grey list but is so far refusing to relent on the Masood Azhar issue. China’s official line continues to be that there is not enough evidence to sanction Masood Azhar under U.N. rules, although the JeM has been designated a terrorist organisation by the U.N. since 2001. “The 1267 Committee for the Security Council has a clear stipulation on the listing and procedure of terrorist organisations,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said in a press briefing after the Pulwama incident. “China will continue to handle the issue in a constructive and relevant manner.” China, which is a permanent member of the Security Council, is of the view that U.N. Resolution 1267 was drawn up specifically to target individuals with links to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi wrote a personal letter to his Indian counterpart, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, expressing his “deep sympathy” on behalf of the Chinese government to the families of the victims of the Pulwama massacre. He stressed that terrorism was the common enemy of mankind. “The Chinese side resolutely opposes and strongly condemns all forms of terrorism. Countries in the region should enhance cooperation, jointly address the threat of terrorism and maintain regional peace and security,” the letter said. Sushma Swaraj will be meeting with Wang Yi in late February when she visits Beijing to attend the annual Russia, India, China (RIC) meet. She will once again try to convince the Chinese government to change its stance on Masood Azhar. The U.N. Security Council has already “strongly condemned” the “heinous and cowardly suicide bombing” in Pulwama and wants the perpetrators of the act and their sponsors to be brought to speedy justice.
The Kashmir terror attack could even have an impact on the ongoing talks between the Americans and the Taliban. The Trump administration’s initial show of full solidarity with India has not gone down well with the Pakistani government and the security establishment there. The new round of talks scheduled in the third week of February was postponed at the eleventh hour at the request of the Taliban. It is now rescheduled for late February. Pakistan’s Ambassador to Kabul, Zahid Nasrullah, kicked up a minor storm when he said that if India resorted to military action “it would affect the stability of the entire region and impact the momentum of the Afghan peace talks”.
The Trump administration needs Pakistan’s help to extricate U.S. troops from Afghanistan. And the very fact that the U.S. government is talking to the Taliban, a group responsible for the death of thousands of civilians and hundreds of American soldiers, should be an eye-opener for the Indian authorities. The U.S. is the second biggest arms supplier to Pakistan after China.
The Indian government had talked to the G20 ambassadors in New Delhi. Saudi Arabia is a G20 member as is Turkey. Many of these countries will never openly condemn Pakistan on the terrorism issue, especially in relation to the Kashmir dispute. There is a growing international perception that the majority of the insurgents in the Kashmir valley are home-grown and that the Indian government’s heavy-handed response to public protests is a key factor fuelling the insurgency.
Since coming to power, the Modi government has undermined the dialogue process with Pakistan. In his speeches following the Pulwama incident, Modi has been saying that all options, including the military one, are open. There is talk of the Indian government unilaterally withdrawing from the Indus Water Treaty, which it signed with Pakistan in 1960. Nitin Gadkari, who is in charge of the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation, among other portfolios, announced on February 21 that the Indian government had decided to stop the flow of water from three Indian rivers to Pakistan. Gadkari said that the water that is now flowing into Pakistan would in the future be diverted to the Indian States of Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir. The Minister announced that a dam was being built for the purpose. Gadkari may have been playing to the gallery. The spokesman for the Ministry said that Gadkari was only reiterating the Indian government’s stated position of diverting India’s share of the Indus basin waters that were going to Pakistan and was not in violation of the Indus Water Treaty. The decision to make full use of India’s entitlement of the Indus waters was taken after the Uri terror attack in 2016.
Bilateral relations are expected to witness turbulent times before they improve. Only a change in government in New Delhi will see the revival of the dialogue process and sanity in the subcontinent.