Pakistan’s internal dynamics strain subcontinental peace

Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times, October 18, 2014

terrorist-pakIndia is a confident and vibrant nation, while Pakistan — created in 194 — remains a country that is adrift and still searching for a national identity. So, the India-Pakistan “peace process” has produced a lot of process over the decades but no peace.

In fact, every time a Pakistani leader moves to build better ties with India, the step is undermined by Pakistan’s politically strong military masterminding a serious cross-border attack or terrorist strike. In recent months, the Pakistani military establishment — which includes the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) — has actively sought to undercut Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and derail any prospect of a rapprochement with India.

It is not an accident that this month’s border tensions and artillery duels have followed a power struggle in Pakistan that culminated with Sharif’s wings being clipped and the military reasserting authority in foreign policy.

Sharif has emerged as a diminished figure and the main loser from a crisis triggered by street protests that were tacitly backed by the army and the ISI, the rogue agency that has been accused of seeking to pull down the elected government and of orchestrating the abortive assassination of a senior journalist, Hamid Mir.

The military has allowed Sharif to stay on in power, at least for the time being, but only after politically castrating him. With the military back in the driving seat without staging an overt coup, Pakistan’s democratic transition has again been disrupted.

Such has been Sharif’s weakening that he had little say in last month’s appointment of the new ISI chief, even though the spy agency, theoretically, answers to the prime minister. Indeed, it was the military that announced Lt. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar’s appointment as ISI chief, as if to highlight the true line of authority in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s internal dynamics have a direct bearing on its relations with India.

Sharif and India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, come from the political right and enjoy parliamentary majority. Both are business-oriented and eager to revive flagging economic growth at home. Yet the expectations aroused by Sharif’s presence at Modi’s inauguration five months ago proved false because they failed to factor in the role of a powerful, meddling third party — the Pakistani military, which holds virtual veto power over any fundamental change to the India-Pakistan dynamic.

This party is simply not ready to allow better bilateral relations because peaceful cooperation with India will undermine its extraordinary power and privilege in Pakistan.

Indeed, it was during Sharif’s previous term in office that a major Indian peace initiative — as symbolized by then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 1999 bus diplomacy — collapsed spectacularly, with the bus itself getting hijacked allegorically. A war flared over the Pakistani military’s surreptitious encroachment into Indian Ladakh’s Kargil region.

This has served as a cautionary lesson on how the pursuit of peace can lead to war when one side’s military is not answerable to the civilian government.

The Pakistani military, seeking to test the resolve of India’s new government, has again escalated border tensions with India through artillery exchanges. In fact, it sought to test Modi soon after he won the national election.

On the eve of Modi’s inauguration, ISI-backed militants stormed the Indian consulate in Afghanistan’s western city of Herat. The Pakistani plan was to take some Indians hostage and execute them one by one, bringing India under siege just as Modi took office. The plan, however, went awry as the consulate’s Indian security guards heroically killed all the attackers.

The U.S. blamed the Herat attack on the same ISI front organization that it held responsible for the highly deadly 2008 Mumbai terrorist strikes — Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). LeT’s leader, Hafiz Saeed, remains the Pakistani military’s darling, with his public life in Pakistan mocking America’s $10-million bounty on his head and the U.N.’s inclusion of him on a terrorist list.

The daring attack in Herat, 1,000 kilometers from Pakistan, must have had ISI’s nod. The ISI’s “S” branch — tasked specifically with aiding and abetting acts of terrorism in India and Afghanistan — handles LeT, the Jalaluddin Haqqani network and other terror organizations. This shows the ISI is itself a terrorist entity.

The war by terror is a reminder that the scourge of cross-border terrorism emanates more from Pakistan’s whiskey-sipping generals than its rosary-holding mullahs. The real jihadists are the self-styled secular generals, who have reared the forces of jihad and fathered the LeT, the Taliban and other terror groups.

Another reminder is that India-Pakistan relations will be shaped largely by Pakistan’s internal dynamics. Pakistan’s civil society remains too weak to influence the direction of ties with India. In the absence of a structural correction to Pakistan’s historically skewed civil-military power equation, a peace dialogue with India only encourages the Pakistani military to carry out cross-border shootings, ambushes and acts of terror.

With the Pakistani army and intelligence services still using terrorist proxies as an instrument of the country’s foreign policy, India’s dilemma is compounded by its own situation, which is diametrically opposite to that in Pakistan: India continues to shut out its military from the policymaking loop in a way unmatched in any other established democracy. This exclusion also puts pressure on India’s China policy, given that the Communist Party and the military shape Chinese foreign policy.

Modi’s cautious, measured start has masked his discreet gradualism. Border and other provocations are molding his policy approach, founded on the premise that preventing hostile actions hinges on India’s capacity and political will to impose deterrent costs in response to any aggression. In Modi’s policy of graduated escalation, pressure on the adversary begins at low levels and then progressively increases in response to the target’s continued provocations and aggression.

There was no Indian reprisal to the Herat attack, and India’s response to summertime Pakistani border shootings was circumspect. But, in keeping with the doctrine of graduated escalation, this month’s Pakistani machine-gun fire along the Kashmir frontier brought a heavy response, including retaliation with 81-mm mortars, which have a range of up to five kilometers.

The mortar-for-bullet response showed Modi is different from his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, whose peace-at-any-price approach was founded on the naïve belief that the only alternative to do nothing in response to terror is to go to war. So, whether it was the Mumbai attacks or a border savagery, such as a captured Indian soldier’s beheading, Singh responded by doing nothing.

The real choice was never between persisting with a weak-kneed policy and risking an all-out war. Indeed, that was a false, immoral choice that undermined the credibility of India’s own nuclear deterrent and emboldened the foe to step up aggression.

The Modi government, by building a range of options, including to neuter Pakistani military’s nuclear blackmail, is indicating that aggression will attract increasing costs. It is clearly signaling that India’s response to the Pakistani military’s strategy to inflict death by a thousand cuts will no longer be survival by a thousand bandages; the response will be punitive so as to bolster deterrence and mend conduct.

Brahma Chellaney is a New Delhi-based geostrategist, author, and professor.

© The Japan Times, 2014.