A rogue neighbour’s new rogue act

BRAHMA CHELLANEY | DNA, April 17, 2017

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Periodically, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) offers fresh evidence that it remains a rogue agency. This includes the year-long saga involving its abduction from Iran of a former Indian naval officer, Kulbhushan Jadhav, who was recently sentenced to death by a secret military court in Pakistan for being an Indian “spy”. The case indeed stands out as a symbol of the thuggish conduct of an irredeemably scofflaw state.

Just because Pakistan alleges that Jadhav was engaged in espionage against it cannot justify the ISI’s kidnapping of him from Iran or his secret, mock trial in a military court. Under the extra-constitutional military court system — established after the late 2014 Peshawar school attack — judicial proceedings are secret, civilian defendants are barred from engaging their own lawyers, and the “judges” (not necessarily possessing law degrees) render verdicts without being required to provide reasons.

The military courts show, if any evidence were needed, that decisive power still rests with the military generals, with the army and ISI immune to civilian oversight. In fact, the announcement that Jadhav had been sentenced to death with the Pakistani army chief’s approval was made by the military, not the government, despite its major implications for Pakistan’s relations with India.

Add to the picture the Pakistani military’s ongoing state-sponsored terrorism against India, Afghanistan and even Bangladesh. Jadhav’s sentencing was a deliberate — but just the latest — provocation against India by the military, which has orchestrated a series of terrorist attacks on Indian security bases since the beginning of last year.  It is clear that Pakistan is in standing violation of every canon of international law.

The right of self-defence is embedded as an “inherent right” in the UN Charter. India is entitled to defend its interests against the terrorism onslaught by imposing deterrent costs on the Pakistani state and its terrorist agents, including the ISI.

Unfortunately, successive Indian governments have failed to pursue a consistent and coherent Pakistan policy. As a result, the Pakistani military feels emboldened to persist with its roguish conduct.

Like his predecessors, Manmohan Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pursued a meandering policy toward the congenitally hostile Pakistan. Modi has played the Pakistan card politically at home but not lived up to his statements on matters ranging from Balochistan to the Indus Waters Treaty. Indeed, there has been visible backsliding on his stated positions. For example, the suspended Permanent Indus Commission has been revived.

The Modi government talks tough in public but, on policy, acts too cautiously. For example, it persuaded Rajeev Chandrasekhar to withdraw his private member’s bill in the Rajya Sabha for India to declare Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism. India has shied away from imposing any kind of sanctions on Pakistan or even downgrading the diplomatic relations.

When history is written, Modi’s unannounced Lahore visit on Christmas Day in 2015 will be viewed as a watershed. If the visit was intended to be a peace overture, its effect was counterproductive. Modi’s olive branch helped transform his image in Pakistani military circles from a tough-minded, no-nonsense leader that Pakistan must not mess with to someone whose bark is worse than his bite.

Within days of his return to New Delhi, the ISI scripted twin terrorist attacks on India’s forward air base at Pathankot and the Indian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, as New Year’s gifts to Modi. Worse was India’s response: It shared intelligence with Pakistan about the Pakistani origins of the Pathankot attackers while the four-day siege of the base was still on and then hosted a Pakistani inquiry team — all in the naïve hope of winning Pakistan’s anti-terrorism cooperation. In effect, India shared intelligence with an agency that it should have branded a terrorist entity long ago — the ISI.

An emboldened Pakistani military went on to orchestrate more attacks, with the Indian inaction further damaging Modi’s strongman image. Subsequently, the deadly Uri army-base attack, by claiming the lives of 19 Indian soldiers, became Modi’s defining moment. It was the deadliest assault on an Indian military facility in more than a decade and a half. Sensing the danger of being seen as little more than a paper tiger, Modi responded with a limited but much-hyped cross-border military operation by para commandos against terrorist bases.

The Indian public, whose frustration with Pakistan had reached a tipping point, widely welcomed the surgical strike as a catharsis. The one-off strike, however, did not deter the Pakistani military, which later staged the attack on India’s Nagrota army base. Modi’s response to that attack was conspicuous silence.

Recurrent cross-border terror attacks by ISI have failed to galvanize India into devising a credible counterterrorism strategy. Employing drug traffickers, the ISI is also responsible for the cross-border flow of narcotics, which is destroying public health in India’s Punjab. In fact, the Pathankot killers — like the Gurdaspur attackers — came dressed in Indian army uniforms through a drug-trafficking route.

In reality, the Pakistani military is waging an undeclared war against an India that remains adrift and reluctant to avenge even the killing of its military personnel. There are several things India can do, short of a full-fledged war, to halt the proxy war. But India must first have clear strategic objectives and display political will.

Reforming the Pakistani military’s behaviour holds the key to regional peace. After all, all the critical issues — border peace, trans-boundary infiltration and terrorism, and nuclear stability — are matters over which the civilian government in Islamabad has no real authority because these are preserves of the Pakistani military.

The Jadhav case illustrates that, as long as New Delhi recoils from imposing deterrent costs on Pakistan, the military there will continue to up the ante against India. Indeed, it has turned Jadhav into a bargaining chip to use against India. The battle to reform against Pakistan’s roguish conduct is a fight India has to wage on its own by translating its talk into action.

The author is a strategic thinker and commentator.

© DNA, 2017.

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