Wages of Mishandling Pakistan

  Brahma Chellaney, The Economic Times, October 9, 2013

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent state visit to Washington generated a lot of media coverage, not in the U.S. (where the media literally took no note of it) but in India, thanks to the planeload of journalists that Singh took with him. Rarely before had an Indian prime minister’s state visit to U.S. been so invisible to Americans.

If the American media did notice Singh, it was only at the fag end of his trip when he met with his Pakistani counterpart in New York. That put the spotlight, however briefly, on the India-Pakistan equation rather than on the Indo-U.S. relationship. New Delhi doesn’t like the India-Pakistan hyphenation, yet its own actions can be counterproductive. Singh defiantly met Nawaz Sharif, disregarding both public opinion at home and the Pakistani military’s increased hostility.

But before meeting Sharif, Singh complained to US President Barack Obama about Pakistan’s continuing export of terrorism — a complaint that prompted Sharif to purportedly compare Singh with a whining “dehati aurat.” By grumbling to Obama, Singh implicitly expressed his government’s helplessness in countering Pakistani terrorism, besides signalling that his meeting with Sharif was at the U.S. request. In fact, the state department welcomed his discussion with Sharif, saying “dialogue is a positive step forward and we’ll continue to encourage that.”

If Singh believed that holding political dialogue with Pakistan’s new civilian government was important, a New York meeting at the foreign minister level would have sufficed at this stage, especially since no one expected a meeting between the two PMs to break new ground.

Yet the extent to which Singh went to save his September 29 meeting with Sharif can be gauged from one troubling fact: news about the September 24 Pakistani cross-border raid into the Keran sector — which triggered a two-week gunbattle between Indian army troops and the intruders — was not released by the government until after the Singh-Sharif meeting. It is unfortunate the government allowed the political exigencies of a meeting in New York to take precedence over the imperative to inform the nation about a major intrusion involving Pakistani special forces.

It is crystal clear that India’s Pakistan policy has lost all sense of direction. Indeed, it is so adrift that it has emboldened the Pakistan army to carry out multiple acts of aggression across the line of control this year without fear of Indian retribution — from the decapitation of two Indian soldiers and the separate killing of five troops to the Samba raid and the Keran incursion. Sadly, the government has also sowed factionalism in the army’s senior hierarchy by playing favourites and targeting the ex-chief, Gen. V.K. Singh, through media plants.

Worse still, the government has restrained the army both from responding appropriately and effectively to cross-border aggression and from giving out any information to the media on Pakistani (or Chinese) border violations. The restraint order has crimped the army’s traditional leeway to act preemptively against an impending aggression and to inflict a just retribution for any cross-border attack.

Can any force be turned into a veritable sitting duck struggling to fend off repeated aggression? By allowing the army’s operational imperatives to be trumped by the government’s meandering and clueless foreign policy, army chief Gen. Bikram Singh faces an unflattering reality on his record: His stint as chief has coincided with a pattern of rising cross-border aggression by Pakistan (and China).

Let’s be clear: Battling repeated cross-border encroachments on terms dictated by the enemy — a tradition India set in 1999 when it fought the entire Kargil War on Indian territory on Pakistan’s terms — is anything but sound strategy. Indeed, it is an invitation to bringing the country’s border security under siege.

More fundamentally, why has it become a virtual custom since the late 1990s for an Indian prime minister’s meeting with Pakistan’s leader to invariably spell trouble for India? Atal Bihari Vajpayee publicly bemoaned that his peace bus to Lahore in February 1999 was “hijacked and taken to Kargil.” Still, he went to Pakistan in early 2004 for a second time as PM — a trip that sowed the seeds of Pakistan’s stepped-up export of terrorism in the subsequent years.

With his blow-hot-blow-cold approach, the sphinx-like Vajpayee executed several U-turns in his Pakistan policy, which traversed through Lahore, Kargil, Kandahar, Agra, and Parliament House, before culminating in Islamabad on his second trip to Pakistan.

The scandal-tainted Singh has brought a nasty “gift” for his nation from each meeting with a Pakistani counterpart.

Apart from the latest Keran surprise, Singh came back from Sharm el-Sheikh after arming Pakistan with the Baluchistan card against India, while he returned from Havana earlier after declaring that the exporter of terrorism is actually a “victim of terrorism” like India.

In the absence of a long-term strategic blueprint, coupled with the marginalization of the ministry of external affairs and other professional bodies, Indian foreign policy increasingly is being driven by ad hoc, personal interventions of the prime minister — with serious costs to national interest.

Brahma Chellaney is a strategic affairs expert.

(c) The Economic Times, 2013.