International Reverberations

Diplomatic slugfest

Print edition : March 29, 2019

Prime Minister Narendra Modi chairs a high-level meeting on security at his residence in New Delhi on February 28. Among those present are Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, the IAF chief Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, the Army Chief Gen Bipin Rawat and the Navy Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba. Photo: PTI

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. Photo: AFP

Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. Photo: B.K. Bangash/AP

As war clouds gather over Kashmir post Pulwama, India achieves some of its diplomatic goals but Pakistan is far from being ostracised by the international community.

After the military strike and counter-strikes in the last week of February, India and Pakistan have decided to scale down tensions. The decision by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to release the captured Indian Air Force pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman, without delay was an important first step. The Pakistan government has taken action on a “dossier” provided by the Indian government. In the first week of March, a number of militants identified with the insurgency in Kashmir have been arrested and some radical organisations banned. One of the banned outfits is Hafiz Saeed’s Jamaat ud-Dawa (JuD). Mufti Abdul Raouf and Hamad Azhar, the brother and son respectively of Masood Azhar, were among those placed under preventive detention. On March 6, the provincial government in Punjab took control of the JuD headquarters and the hospitals and schools run by it, and barred Hafiz Saeed from leading Friday prayers at the Jamia Masjid Qadsia mosque.

The Paris-based intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which has put Pakistan on its “grey list” of countries that have not fulfilled their obligations to fight terrorism, had stated just after the Pulwama terror attack that the government in Islamabad was not doing enough to curb the flow of illicit funds to terror groups. The FATF said that Pakistan was at risk of being blacklisted if it did not immediately act against money laundering by terrorist groups.

Islamabad heeded the warning and announced in early March that it would take new steps to seize and freeze the assets of people and militant groups that were on the United Nations’ list of designated terrorists. The FATF will undertake its next review of Pakistan’s progress in September. The crackdown on militant groups and individuals are part of the efforts of the Pakistan government to escape blacklisting by the FATF. The Pakistan Army spokesman, however, claimed that the detentions of over 40 members of banned organisations was not done under Indian or international pressure. All the same, steps taken by the Pakistan government address the concerns of the international community.

Senior Indian officials indicated in early March that the military phase of the campaign was over for the time being. They, however, emphasised that “all options are open” if another terror attack occurred in the country. The Indian political establishment has, however, decided to keep the war of words going, mainly for the benefit of domestic consumption in an election year. However, the Indian military has publicly stated that it remains “committed to maintaining peace and stability in the region”. An official delegation from Pakistan is scheduled to visit New Delhi on March 14 for discussions relating to the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor for Sikh pilgrims. Pakistan has also announced that High Commissioner Sohail Mahmood, who was called back for consultations immediately after the Pulwama attack, will be returning to New Delhi.

The international community has been urging both sides to exercise maximum restraint after the brief military flare-up in late February. The United States, which had virtually encouraged the Indian side to retaliate after the Pulwama terror attack, changed tack and urged both sides to calm down. The U.S. National Security Adviser, John Bolton, had initially conveyed to his Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval, that Washington supported India’s right to self-defence against cross-border terrorism. The Donald Trump administration suspended $300 million in security assistance to Pakistan last September because of its lack of “decisive action” against terrorist groups on its territory. The U.S. does not have an Ambassador in Islamabad, nor has it appointed an Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia.

The air strike deep into Pakistan territory was the first such action undertaken by the IAF since the 1971 Bangladesh War. The target chosen by the IAF was described as the “principal terror base” of the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale told the media that India had struck “the biggest training camp of the JeM in Balakot” and that “a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jehadis who were trained for fidayeen action (suicide bombing) were eliminated”. No precise figures of casualties were given by Indian officials. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders and Ministers were the ones who quickly claimed that 250-300 terrorists were eliminated.

The JeM claimed responsibility for the Pulwama attack, in which more than 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel were killed. Pakistan said that the claim was made by the JeM based in Kashmir and that the individual involved in the suicide bombing was an Indian citizen. But this claim has raised another troubling question. Has the Pakistani state apparatus lost control of the militant groups it once nurtured?

From available information, the IAF either failed or deliberately avoided hitting the buildings in which the JeM “terrorists” were staying. High-resolution satellite imagery released for the first time in the first week of March clearly show that six structures targeted by the IAF remain intact. India had used Israeli-manufactured Raphael Spice-2000 precision munitions “smart bombs” to attack the target. “If the strikes had been successful, given the information that we have about what kind of munitions were used, I would expect to see signs that the buildings were damaged,” said Jefferey Lewis, Director of East Asia Non-Proliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Relations.

Pakistan, in fact, has lodged a complaint against India at the U.N., accusing it of committing “eco terrorism”, claiming that the Indian air strikes destroyed pine trees in “a forest reserve”. The Pakistan Minister holding the Climate Change portfolio, Malik Amin Aslam, said that the bombing caused “serious environmental damage”.

Pakistani officials said that the failure of the Trump administration to condemn the February 25 Indian air strikes was construed as support and endorsement and had emboldened the government in New Delhi to continue adopting an aggressive posture. Imran Khan told the National Assembly and conveyed to the international community that if India resorted to a military strike inside its borders, his government would have no option but to retaliate “at a time and place” of its choosing.

The Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) response to the IAF attack on a “terrorist training camp” in Balakot, which is located in the Khyber Paktunwa province of Pakistan, was swift. The PAF crossed the Line of Control (LoC) and dropped munitions on a “non-military target”. The Indian side had said that its targeting of an alleged terrorist camp in Balakot was a “non-military” operation.

The PAF’s incursion into the Indian airspace further escalated tensions. One of the Indian MiG-21 fighter planes that had scrambled to intercept the Pakistani planes and had gone in hot pursuit was shot down. The pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, had to bail out and, unfortunately, landed on the Pakistan-controlled side of the LoC. India lost one MiG-21 in the dogfight. The IAF initially claimed that its vintage MiG-21 had shot down a Pakistani F-16 fighter. Pakistan continues to deny that F-16s were used in the operation, but that may be a ploy to keep the U.S. in the dark. The U.S. had decreed that the F-16s could be used only for defensive purposes. The Pentagon anyway is launching its own investigations into the Indian allegation that F-16 fighters were used by the PAF in its brief bombing sortie across the LoC. The PAF is sticking to its story that the planes used were Chinese designed JF-17 jets that are jointly co-produced in Pakistan. The U.S. is also refusing to support the IAF’s claims that it shot down an F-16 in the dogfight.

Indian Army officials had said immediately after the attack on Balakot that the rules of military engagement against Pakistan had changed. India, taking a page from the pre-emptive military doctrine adopted by the U.S. and Israel, would henceforth make retaliatory strikes on Pakistan territory in response to terror strikes in India and not confine itself to the disputed part of Kashmir. Pakistan’s immediate response to the IAF attack is an indication that it will not allow pre-emptive or retaliatory strikes to go unanswered. India had advertised its use of Israeli “smart bombs” in the attack on Balakot. The counter-insurgency tactics it has been adopting in Kashmir are similar to the ones used by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel has been sharing its expertise in counter-insurgency warfare with India for a long time. Israel has been bombing neighbouring countries at will with encouragement from the U.S. The BJP-led government wants India to have the same freedom, but the facts on the ground in South Asia are different from those in West Asia.

The current crisis is the most serious one that has erupted between the two countries since 2001-2. At the time, the Indian Army had massed around a million troops along the border with Pakistan for more than nine months following the attack on the Indian Parliament building in December 2001. Since then both countries have developed “hair-trigger” strategies. India’s “cold-start” strategy envisages a rapid mobilisation of troops that can invade Pakistan from many fronts at short notice. In response, Pakistan has deployed tactical battlefield nuclear weapons to counter the superior firepower of the Indian armed forces.

Indian military planners have warned that any use of tactical nuclear weapons by Pakistan would free India from its “no first use” pledge. New Delhi or Islamabad can be subjected to nuclear attacks within minutes. Lahore and Amritsar are virtual twin cities. Both countries reportedly have more than 100 nuclear weapons in their arsenals. Even limited nuclear warfare will have devastating consequences for both countries. The international community had reason to be worried as tensions started spiralling between the two nuclear armed neighbours in late February. As it is, it was for the first time that two nuclear powers have chosen to use air power against each other. India’s decision to strike at a target in undisputed territory in effect removes constraints on the other side in future conflict scenarios.

The Pakistan Prime Minister, in a bid to defuse tensions and occupy the moral high ground, made the decision to quickly release the Indian pilot as a “peace gesture”. Meanwhile, world leaders were furiously working the phone lines to calm the volatile situation in the subcontinent. Trump told the media in Hanoi after his failed meeting with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, that the U.S. was “involved” in the efforts to de-escalate the tensions between India and Pakistan. “We’ve been in the middle trying to help both out to see if we can get some organisation and peace,” he said.

The U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, made urgent phone calls to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. He urged both the countries “to prioritise direct communication”. The Pentagon said that the acting U.S. Defence Secretary, Pat Shanahan, was focussed on “de-escalating tensions and urging both the nations to avoid further military action”. The Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, spoke to his Pakistani counterpart, Gen. Zubair Mahmood Hayat. The U.S. State Department spokesperson claimed that Pompeo played a direct and “essential role in de-escalating tensions” between India and Pakistan. Qureshi specifically thanked Pompeo and his use of “private diplomacy” in bringing about a de-escalation of tensions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had a long telephonic conversation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on February 28. The Russian side once again offered its good offices to mediate between the two sides if requested. Pakistan was quick to accept the offer and the Indian side was quick to reject it. The Indian government has been consistently opposed to third-party mediation on the Kashmir issue. The Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that Moscow “is concerned about the escalation of tensions between India and Pakistan and the dangerous manoeuvring of the armies of the two countries along the LoC, which risks direct military clashes”. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke to Sushma Swaraj on the sidelines of the Russia, India, China (RIC) Foreign Ministers meeting in Zhejiang in late February.

Sushma Swaraj had talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Yi during her trip to China after the flare-up along the LoC. China has also taken a tougher line on Pakistan’s tolerance of some terror groups, especially those active in the Afghan and Kashmir theatre. China signed the U.N. Security Council statement “condemning in the strongest terms” the Pulwama terror attack. The statement blamed the JeM for “the heinous and cowardly bombing”. The joint statement put out by the RIC Foreign Ministers after their meeting in China stressed “that those committing, orchestrating, inciting or supporting terrorist acts must be held accountable and brought to justice in acordance with international commitments on countering terrorism---”.

Since assuming office, Imran Khan has been urging India to resume the dialogue process and present “actionable evidence” so that action can be taken against those behind the Pulwama attack. The Modi government has rejected the proposal of resuming talks reiterating that the dialogue process could be re-started if Pakistan stopped supporting the groups India has deemed to be terrorist. The present Indian government wants Pakistan to stop all logistical support for the separatist groups fighting the Indian Army in Kashmir. The Indian government had stopped talking to the overground separatist groups such as the Hurriyat Conference a long time back.

The recent events have shifted the focus of the international community back on Kashmir. At the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Foreign Ministers meeting held in Abu Dhabi on March 1, which was, for the first time, attended by the Indian External Affairs Minister as a “guest of honour”, two resolutions critical of India’s policies were passed. The resolution on Kashmir referred to Indian “terrorism” in the Valley and urged Islamic countries to mobilise funds for humanitarian relief in the Kashmir valley. The resolution on the India-Pakistan peace process praised Islamabad’s efforts. A statement issued by the OIC Foreign Ministers on the problems faced by Muslim minorities in India called for the rebuilding of the Babri Masjid mosque.

Qureshi did not attend the OIC meeting in protest against the invitation extended to his Indian counterpart. Pakistan had requested the OIC to withdraw the invitation after the hostilities post Pulwama. Opposition parties have criticised the Indian government for sending the External Affairs Minister to the OIC conference. The Kashmir issue has been a priority for the OIC. It has always called for the implementation of all the Security Council resolutions on Kashmir.

After Pulwama, India achieved some of its diplomatic goals but Pakistan is far from being ostracised by the international community. The Indian government’s bid to persuade countries into boycotting Pakistan has not succeeded. In fact, its efforts to equate Pakistan with apartheid South Africa have boomeranged. The Olympic Committee has warned India that it could be debarred from participating in the next Games if it does not allow Pakistani sportspersons to compete on its soil. Even the International Cricket Council (ICC), in which India has tremendous clout, has frowned on the efforts to isolate Pakistan.

The crisis has also highlighted the urgent need for dialogue to resolve the Kashmir problem. The need for talks has become all the more important in view of the fast-moving events in Afghanistan. With the Taliban all set to return to power, the jehadi focus in all probability will turn to Kashmir as it did in the early 1990s after the fall of the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan. Improving ties with Pakistan and demilitarising Kashmir is the only way forward.

President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had almost clinched an agreement when there was relative tranquillity in the Valley in the middle of the last decade. The two sides had envisaged the free movement of people and trade across the LoC. The two sides had also agreed to establish a “joint mechanism” comprising Kashmiris along with Indian and Pakistani officials to safeguard the political and economic rights of Kashmiris on both sides of the border. Better sense can still prevail in the subcontinent if all the parties to the dispute sincerely resume the dialogue process.

But some countries may have a vested interest in keeping the conflict festering. Immediately after the Indian MiG 21 fighter was shot down, U.S. officials started speaking about the need for the IAF to replenish its fleet with more modern jet fighters, preferably American ones. Officials and experts from U.S. think tanks have started saying that the Indian military budget should be increased substantially to meet the challenge posed by China. Even as India and Pakistan were on the verge of a full-scale war, the U.S. was busy encouraging an arms race in the region.

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