India’s Kartarpur Headache

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New Delhi must proactively thwart Pakistan’s effort to revive Sikh militancy in Punjab

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Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India, December 14, 2018

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently raked up the issue as to why Kartarpur today is in Pakistan, not India. At Simla in 1972, for example, India could have traded the return of captured territories and 93,000 prisoners of war for a Kashmir settlement and border adjustments to secure Kartarpur — and more. Yet, despite holding all the cards, Indira Gandhi surrendered at the negotiating table India’s major gains from martyrs’ sacrifices.

In effect, Indira pardoned Pakistan in the style of Prithviraj Chauhan, who routed invader Mahmud Ghori on the battlefield, only to set him free — an action that encouraged Ghori to return later to wage the Second Battle of Tarain, where he defeated and executed the Rajput ruler. Just like Prithviraj Chauhan, Indira paid with her life for her blunder. Left free to avenge 1971, Pakistan, before focussing on the Kashmir Valley, engineered a bloody Sikh militancy that ultimately spawned Indira’s assassination.

Against this background, Modi must pay heed to Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh’s warning that the Pakistan army and Inter-Services Intelligence, with the aim of reviving Sikh militancy, planned the Kartarpur corridor even before Imran Khan took office. Pakistan’s army chief has taken a keen interest in the corridor plan, which explains his presence at the Kartarpur ceremony. The corridor, if it opens, will likely become a major security headache for India.

India, unfortunately, chose the 10th anniversary period of the four-day Mumbai terrorist attacks for the corridor’s cornerstone-laying ceremonies in India and Pakistan. This not only conveyed a regrettable message that India lacked a sense of remembrance, but also handed the 26/11 perpetrator, Pakistan, a propaganda coup.

Indeed, Pakistan used the occasion to ominously greet the Indian delegation with Sikh separatist posters and an in-house Sikh militant. The ill-timed ceremonies apparently were intended to let Modi take a positive message to the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires.

Over seven decades, India has bent over backwards to make peace with Pakistan, only to be repeatedly kicked in the face. Consider, for example, India’s globally unparalleled water generosity in the form of the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty. Or its big-heartedness at Tashkent and Simla.

Or India’s initiation of “composite dialogue” in the 1990s, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s bus journey to Lahore, his Agra summit with General Pervez Musharraf, his second Pakistan visit in the twilight of his rule and, just months after 26/11, Manmohan Singh’s Chamberlainian appeasement at Sharm el-Sheikh.

Or take the olive branches Modi has extended — from inviting Nawaz Sharif  to his 2014 inauguration and opening an unpublicized dialogue at the national security adviser-level to making a surprise Lahore visit and later sending his foreign minister to Islamabad. Nothing has worked.

Indeed, India’s peace initiatives and magnanimity have had the opposite effect of emboldening Pakistan’s scofflaw actions. Modi’s Lahore visit, for example, led to the Pakistan military’s scripting of terrorist attacks on a raft of Indian security bases, from Pathankot to Uri. Yet, on the 26/11 anniversary eve, Modi oddly voiced hope that the Kartarpur corridor would have the same momentous impact in uniting two societies that the Berlin Wall’s fall had.

The 10th anniversary of 26/11 should have been a sombre occasion to remember the victims of one of modern history’s worst terrorist carnages and to spotlight Pakistan’s continued protection of the masterminds. India ought to have reminded Pakistan that its day of reckoning will come before long.

Unfortunately, amid the corridor-related fervour, India did not remember even the martyrs, such as the cop Tukaram Omble, who, by ensuring Ajmal Kasab’s capture alive, provided the clinching evidence of Pakistan’s involvement in 26/11.

India laid the corridor cornerstone on its side of the border on the opening day of the 26/11 anniversary period, with an oblivious Indian vice president calling it a “historic day”! Indeed, such was the oozing zeal that India sent not one but two ministers to the Pakistan-side ceremony.

Make no mistake: Pakistan may be isolated and cash-strapped, yet it gladly remains a terrorist state. Lest we forget, the Nirankari sect guru’s 1980 assassination paved the way for Pakistan to script terrorism in India. To incite tensions and militancy in Punjab, Pakistan, as the first line of attack, targeted Nirankaris, who are at odds with mainstream Sikhs as they believe in a living guru and reject the militant brotherhood of the Khalsa.

Just when Pakistan has laid bare its designs to use the Kartarpur corridor to indoctrinate and radicalize Sikh pilgrims from India, a recent attack on Nirankari worshippers outside Amritsar with a Pakistan-origin grenade suggests the ISI may be reviving its old strategy.

Sikh militancy cost India dearly, triggering the disastrous Operation Bluestar and a PM’s killing. Its potential resurgence at a time when illicit drugs from Pakistan have become a scourge in Punjab could possibly tear India apart. India, with its ostrich-like approach and perennial preoccupation with electoral politics, would do well to remember the old adage, “a stitch in time saves nine”, lest history — to quote Karl Marx — repeat itself, “first as tragedy, then as farce”.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Times of India, 2018.

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Pakistan’s double game stymies Trump’s Afghan peace effort

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

The US war in Afghanistan has already lasted more than twice as long as World War II, exacting a staggering cost in blood and treasure. With the longest war in American history completing 17 years this month, US patience appears to be wearing thin. Recent American moves — from renewing efforts for a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban to changing the combat strategy — indicate that President Donald Trump’s administration is desperate to end the war.

downloadThe newly appointed US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad blindsided the Afghan government by holding unannounced face-to-face talks recently with the Taliban in Qatar. Khalilzad’s negotiations — just ahead of Afghanistan’s Oct. 20 parliamentary elections that the Taliban sought to disrupt — constituted the second round of US-Taliban direct talks in about three months.

The revived “Great Game”, however, is clouding the renewed US peace effort. US foreign policy, through punitive sanctions and tariffs, is driving Russia, China and Iran to support the Taliban in a bid to tie down American forces in Afghanistan. And Pakistan, which provides cross-border safe havens to the Taliban, continues running with the hare and hunting with the hounds — pretending to be a US ally while harbouring the Taliban’s network structure.

To make matters worse, an ascendant Taliban is expanding its territorial control and killing government forces in such record numbers that authorities in Kabul no longer disclose fatality tolls. Afghan military casualties have been rising since 2014, after US forces transferred responsibility for most security to the Afghans. Still, almost 15,000 American troops remain, while some 26,000 US military contractors in Afghanistan continue doing many jobs that soldiers would normally do.

Pakistan holds the key to a US peace deal with the Taliban. Then US President Barack Obama unsuccessfully tried to co-opt Pakistan by extending multibillion-dollar aid packages to that country. Now, under Trump, the US has renewed efforts to win the support of Pakistan’s powerful military generals, including by assassinating the chief of the Pakistani Taliban in May. In fact, three successive Pakistani Taliban chiefs have been killed by US military strikes, with each assassination intended to win Pakistan’s cooperation in the Afghan war.

For its part, the US, seeking to preserve the option of reaching a Faustian bargain with the Afghan Taliban, has not included that militia in its list of foreign terrorist organizations. And the only time the US has assassinated a major Afghan Taliban leader inside the militia leadership’s sanctuary, Pakistan, was in 2016 when a drone strike killed the new chief after he adamantly opposed any peace talks.

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, while making an unannounced visit to Kabul last month on his way back from New Delhi, claimed that reconciliation efforts with the Taliban had gained “traction”. But the Taliban, while valuing direct talks with the US as a means to undercut the Afghan government’s legitimacy, have little incentive to make peace with America. Through battlefield victories, the Taliban have already gained the momentum against government forces, which are spread thin and on the defensive.

An emboldened Taliban, in the recent talks in Qatar, demanded a timeframe for an “end to the US occupation” and removal of all Taliban leaders from US sanctions lists. Meanwhile, in response to the increasing Taliban attacks in Afghanistan, Washington has advised Afghan troops to pull back from sparsely populated areas and focus instead on safeguarding cities. Consequently, not only have vast swaths of Afghanistan become no-go zones, but also the priority accorded to force protection is signalling a government in retreat.

Further emboldening the Taliban are the new avenues of support from Russia, Iran and China. But while Moscow and Tehran long viewed the Taliban as a major terrorist threat before establishing contact with the militia, China has always had a dubious approach toward the Taliban. When 9/11 happened, a Chinese delegation was in Kandahar signing an accord with the isolated Taliban regime. Now, seeking a bigger role in Afghanistan, China is again courting the Taliban.

India, a top aid donor to Afghanistan, is the only power to pursue a consistently anti-Taliban policy. India is concerned that the US-Taliban direct talks, besides marginalizing the Afghan government, lend respectability to a terrorist organization that enforces medieval practices. But the US appears willing, as part of a peace deal, to accommodate the Taliban in an Afghan power-sharing arrangement.

However, an enduring peace deal appears unlikely as long as Pakistan continues playing a double game and the US refuses to go after the Taliban’s cross-border safe havens. The Trump team knows this and yet is seeking to repeat Obama-era failed efforts, including wooing the Taliban.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

No easy escape from Afghan war for Trump

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Russia, China and Iran now backing Taliban and stymieing U.S. peace efforts

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The U.S. will find it difficult to pull out of Afghanistan in the face of increased foreign support for the Taliban.   © Reuters

Brahma ChellaneyNikkei Asian Review

Not for the first time, the U.S. is showing signs of desperation in trying to end its war in Afghanistan, by renewing efforts for a peace deal with the Taliban and — yet again — reviewing combat strategy.

Ending the longest war in American history, which marks its 17th anniversary on Oct. 7, appears integral to President Donald Trump’s broader plan to roll back America’s “imperial overreach” — the phenomenon of a great power going into decline when it takes on excessive global commitments.

In contrast to China’s use of economic tools to achieve strategic objectives, the U.S. has too often reached for the gun instead of the purse. Many in Washington now believe U.S. retrenchment must include staying out of faraway wars and making allies pay their fair share for defense.

In the summer of 2017, the Trump administration ended the CIA’s covert operations to train and arm rebels in Syria — a large-scale program that had begun under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. Ironically, it was Obama who in 2013 underscored the danger of perpetual war for U.S. power by recalling the warning of America’s fourth president, James Madison, that “no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

Today, extricating the U.S. from the military quagmire in Afghanistan is seen as important to reversing America’s relative decline, including focusing on domestic renewal. A year ago, Trump acknowledged that his “original instinct was to pull out” but that he had been convinced that “a hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS and al-Qaida.” Now, with U.S. patience wearing thin, his administration has stepped up efforts to end the war.

But international geopolitics promises to play spoilsport. U.S. foreign policy, through punitive sanctions and tariffs, is driving Russia, China and Iran to support the Afghan Taliban in a bid to tie down American forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan, which provides cross-border safe havens to America’s main battlefield foe, the Afghan Taliban, seems intent to continue running with the hare and hunting with the hounds — pretending to be a U.S. ally while harboring the Taliban’s network structure.

To make matters worse, an ascendant Afghan Taliban is expanding its territorial control and killing government forces in such record numbers that authorities in Kabul no longer disclose fatality tolls. Afghan military casualties have been rising since 2014, after U.S. forces transferred responsibility for most security to the Afghans. According to one estimate, the daily fatality toll among Afghan security forces has jumped from 22 in 2016 to about 57 recently. Both Kabul and Washington now admit that Afghan casualties have risen to unsustainable levels.

About 14,000 American troops remain in Afghanistan, including 4,000 added by Trump, plus some 26,000 American military contractors.

Trump, instead of the promised fundamentally different approach, is now seeking to essentially repeat Obama’s failed effort — to cut a deal with the Afghan Taliban, for which the U.S. needs the full backing of Pakistan’s powerful generals. To win their support, the U.S. has assassinated three successive chiefs of the Pakistani Taliban, a group that poses no real threat to American forces but is the nemesis of the Pakistan military.

After the latest killing in May, which came about four months after Washington cut most security assistance to Pakistan, the U.S. held face-to-face talks in July with the Afghan Taliban in Qatar.

The Obama administration first sought to make Qatar’s capital, Doha, a negotiations hub by allowing the Afghan Taliban to establish a de facto diplomatic mission there in 2013.

To preserve the option of reaching a Faustian bargain with the Afghan Taliban, the U.S. has not included the militia in its list of foreign terrorist organizations. And the only time the U.S. has assassinated a major Afghan Taliban leader inside the militia leadership’s sanctuary, Pakistan, was in 2016 when a drone strike killed the new chief after he adamantly opposed any peace talks.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, while making an unannounced visit to Kabul recently on his way back from New Delhi, said reconciliation efforts with the militia had gained “traction.”

But the Taliban, while valuing direct talks with the U.S. as a means to undercut the Afghan government’s legitimacy, have little incentive to make peace with America. The Taliban have gained the momentum against regime forces, which are spread thin and on the defensive. Taliban battlefield victories are denting government morale and making it less likely that the insurgents will agree to a deal.

Washington, in response to the increasing Taliban attacks, has advised Afghan troops to pull back from vulnerable outposts and focus on safeguarding cities. Making force protection the priority clearly signals a government in retreat.

Further emboldening the Taliban is new support from Russia, Iran and China. With U.S. sanctions hurting the Iranian and Russian economies and Trump’s trade war against China potentially laying the foundation of a new Cold War, Tehran, Moscow and Beijing are opportunistically seeking to use the Taliban as a tool to step up pressure on the U.S.

The revival of the “Great Game” — the 19th-century Anglo-Russian rivalry for Central Asian influence — makes it harder to pacify war-torn Afghanistan. Behind the changed geopolitics is a major role reversal.

In the 1980s, U.S. President Ronald Reagan used Islam as a tool to spur resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, with the CIA arming thousands of Afghan mujahedeen — violent jihadists that later spawned al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Moscow and Tehran long viewed the Taliban as a major terrorist threat and aided the 2001 U.S. overthrow of the five-year-old Taliban regime. But now Russia and Iran are seeking to assist the Taliban against the shaky, U.S.-backed Kabul government.

Meanwhile, China has long had a dubious approach toward the militia. On the day of the 2001 New York World Trade Center terrorist attack, a Chinese delegation signed an economic and technical cooperation agreement with the isolated Taliban regime in its de facto capital, Kandahar.

Seeking a bigger role in Afghanistan, China is again courting the Taliban. It has received Taliban delegations in recent years and offered to mediate peace talks. The Taliban has promised not to attack China’s much-delayed, $3 billion project to mine huge copper deposits at Mes Aynak, near Kabul.

India, a top aid donor to Afghanistan, has pursued a consistently anti-Taliban policy. Despite its warming ties with Washington, India is concerned that U.S. direct talks with the Taliban could lend respectability to a fanatical terrorist organization.

But the U.S. clearly appears willing, as part of a peace deal, to accommodate the Taliban in an Afghan power-sharing arrangement. But the spoiler roles of Russia, China and Iran and the Taliban’s battlefield successes make such a deal less likely. As American senator John McCain predicted before his death, the conflict in Afghanistan would continue “on a low-burning simmer for a long time to come.”

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of the award-winning “Water, Peace, and War.”

India fumbles against a rogue neighbour

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Brahma Chellaney, Mail Today

pakistani-flag-reuetrsPakistan has turned into the Mecca of international terrorism even as its new prime minister, Imran “Taliban” Khan, has promised to make his country a Medina-like welfare state. Pakistan, however, is battling a deepening financial crisis, largely exacerbated by its “all-weather” ally, China. Beijing has imposed unfair deals on, and stepped up capital-goods exports to, Pakistan under its so-called Belt and Road Initiative.

The military-manipulated election that brought Khan to power, instead of providing much-needed stability to Pakistan, is likely to inject more turmoil. A supporter of the military-backed jihadists and a religious zealot himself, Khan in February married his burqa-clad “spiritual guide”, who now also serves as his political guide.

The Pakistani military has waged an undeclared war against India since the 1980s. But now that an internationally isolated Pakistan, with its economy in dire straits, is seeking an international bailout package, the military generals there, for tactical reasons, want “peace” talks with India while remaining engaged in aggression. Through such talks, they also wish to legitimize the government they helped to install.

Yet this is exactly what Prime Minister Narendra Modi risked doing by initially agreeing to a bilateral foreign ministers’ meeting. The meeting, on the sidelines of the UN general assembly, would have represented the first high-level contact between India and Pakistan since early 2016, when talks were suspended after the Pakistan-scripted terrorist attack on the Pathankot air force base. Despite frequent terrorist outrages, such a meeting would have signalled a thaw in Indo-Pakistan relations. Fortunately, the Modi government had the good sense to reverse its decision.

It should not be forgotten that another BJP prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, legitimized General Pervez Musharraf’s military rule by inviting him out of the blue to a summit in Agra. That summit went badly, but Musharraf came out the clear winner.

The Modi government initially agreed to the foreign ministers’ meeting just after the Pakistani army killed an Indian soldier by sniper fire and then slit his throat and mutilated his body. In fact, such was the bad optics that India was playing a cricket match with Pakistan in Dubai on the day the Pakistani savagery was first reported. Worse still, the timing of the Indian announcement to hold the meeting sent out an unfortunate message — that India, instead of being outraged over the mutilation, was rewarding Pakistan with bilateral discussions. That message was reinforced in the immediate aftermath by the abduction and killing of three cops in Jammu and Kashmir by Pakistan-backed terrorists.

To its credit, the Modi government took barely 24 hours to correct its mistake and scrap the foreign ministers’ meeting. Strong reaction on social media played a role in the quick reversal. But it is apparent that the original decision in favour of the meeting was taken without careful thought. There was no consideration of the fact that such talks would not only be futile but also amount to India playing into Pakistan’s hands.

Indeed, no sooner had India reversed its decision than Imran Khan sought to mock Modi by referring to “small men holding big offices” — a statement that effectively closes the door to any senior-level bilateral talks in the coming months. That reference might more aptly apply to Khan himself. After all, Khan (the Pakistani military’s newest puppet) has long been ridiculed as “Im the Dim” for his lack of intelligence.

Still, the fact is that incompetent officials in New Delhi have seriously embarrassed India through their flip-flop and provided new grist to the Pakistani propaganda mill. For example, the ministry of external affairs cited Pakistan’s glorification of terrorists through new postage stamps as one of the provocations for the Indian U-turn, although these stamps were released before Khan took office.

It is an open secret that Washington has sought to persuade New Delhi to engage with Islamabad. America has stepped up its effort to end its longest-ever war by clinching a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban, for which it needs the Pakistani military’s help. India, in its first bilateral engagement with the Imran Khan government, convened a meeting of the Permanent Indus Commission in Lahore at the end of last month, although the meeting was not due until March 2019. The Commission’s meeting, however, attracted little attention in India.

The Modi government’s meandering Pakistan policy is also apparent from another volte-face: It hastily permitted and then, after Khan’s mocking statement, postponed a tour of inspection of new Indian projects on River Chenab by Pakistan’s Indus commissioner and two other officials. In September 2016, Modi had vowed that, “Blood and water cannot flow together”. But two years later, instead of action, visible backsliding is evident. The Indus Waters Treaty remains the world’s most generous water-sharing pact. India, however, remains reluctant to leverage this treaty to tame a scofflaw neighbour.

Successive Indian governments have failed to develop a clear strategy to deal with Pakistan. The Modi government has finally realized what was well known — that “Pakistan will not mend its ways”. It’s better late than never. It has also acknowledged that talks with Pakistan would be “meaningless”, given “the evil agenda of Pakistan” and the “true face” of the Imran Khan government. Can we now hope that India would develop consistency, clarity and courage in its Pakistan policy and fashion a coherent strategy to contain a rogue neighbour?

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

India’s Indus leverage

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India must assert its full rights under the Indus Waters Treaty to leverage the pact and halt Pakistan’s undeclared war against it through terrorist proxies.

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

In foreign policy, it is important for national leadership to choose its rhetoric carefully and back its words with at least modest action. Words not backed by any action can undermine a country’s credibility and perhaps even its deterrence.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised the Balochistan issue in his Independence Day speech in 2016, he seemed to signal an important Indian policy shift. At least that is how his reference to Balochistan was widely interpreted. But since then, India has been totally silent on the issue, although Balochistan — Pakistan’s Achilles heel — threatens to become the new East Pakistan because of military killings and mass graves. India has even denied visas to some exiled Baloch activists.

Take another key issue: the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT). In 1960, in the naïve hope that water largesse would yield peace, India gifted the bulk of the Indus system’s waters — and the largest three of its six rivers — to Pakistan under the IWT. The Indus treaty remains a colossus on the world stage: It is by far the world’s most generous water pact, both in terms of the downstream country’s share of the waters (80.52%) and the aggregate volume of average yearly flows reserved for it (167.2 billion cubic metres). Still, an ungrateful Pakistan has waged covert or overt aggression almost continuously and is now using the IWT itself as a stick to beat India with, including by contriving water disputes and internationalizing them as part of a “water war” strategy.

Against this background, Modi raised the hope that India would finally revisit the IWT, by seizing on the Pakistan Senate’s unanimous March 2016 resolution calling for the treaty’s re-evaluation. Indeed, while chairing a September 2016 internal meeting on the IWT, Modi warned that, “Blood and water cannot flow together”. Setting in motion the treaty’s reappraisal, an inter-ministerial committee of secretaries was established, and officials said that India would now assert all its rights under the IWT, including fully utilizing its share of the allotted waters and expediting its long-delayed hydropower projects.

But two years later, India, alas, appears to have returned to the former state of affairs. The committee of secretaries, headed by the PM’s principal secretary, has fallen by the wayside. Apart from completing the small, 330-megawatt Kishenganga project after 11 years, India has shown little urgency on Indus Basin water projects. Even as Punjab and other states bitterly feud over water, India’s failure to adequately harness the resources of the three smaller rivers reserved for it results in Pakistan receiving substantial bonus waters. Just these extra outflows to Pakistan are many times greater yearly than the total volumes under the Israeli-Jordanian water arrangement.

India’s zigzag policy is most apparent from the recent meeting of the Permanent Indus Commission (PIC). The IWT calls for the PIC to meet at least once a year. The previous PIC meeting, like the one before it, was convened after almost 12 months — on March 29-30 this year. The next meeting was not due until 2019, yet India held a fresh PIC meeting just five months later.

The recent August 29-30 meeting, held in Lahore, marked the first bilateral engagement since the new military-backed Imran Khan government took office in Pakistan. With Pakistan’s international isolation deepening and its economy in dire straits, the military there is tactically seeking “peace” talks with India while still employing terrorists in a proxy war. Through such talks, it also hopes to legitimize the government it helped install through a manipulated election. But with India’s own elections approaching, talks with Pakistan will be politically risky for the ruling BJP.

The PIC discussions — and a prospective foreign ministers’ meeting in New York — illustrate how Modi’s government is seeking to engage Islamabad in other ways. In fact, India has given permission to Pakistan’s Indus commissioner and two other officials to shortly begin a tour of inspection of Indian projects in Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere. In the past, such a tour has been used to collect new information so as to mount objections to Indian projects. In keeping with its broader strategy to foment discontent and violence in J&K, Pakistan seeks to deny J&K people the limited water benefits permissible under the IWT.

While the US has dumped international pacts at will (from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to the Kyoto and Paris accords), India still clings to the world’s most-lopsided water treaty, adhering to its finer details, even as Pakistan refuses to honour the terms of the central treaty governing bilateral relations — the 1972 Simla peace pact. Pakistan also flouts its commitment to prevent its territory from being used for cross-border terrorism. The Indus may be Pakistan’s jugular vein, yet a visionless and water-stressed India has let the IWT hang from its neck like the proverbial albatross. Make no mistake: Only by asserting its Indus leverage can India hope to end Pakistan’s unconventional war.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

Pakistan’s sham election reinforces India’s challenge

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Why India shouldn’t rush into engaging with the new Imran-led Pakistan

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, August 4, 2018

It has taken the Pakistani military a full year to complete the soft coup it launched when it used a pliant judiciary to oust an elected prime minister. The military-engineered election outcome in favour of Imran Khan came virtually on the anniversary of Nawaz Sharif’s removal from office. What happened to Sharif will happen to any PM that seeks to assert civilian control over a praetorian military.

In fact, no PM has been allowed to complete a full five-year term. When a PM falls foul of the deep state, the judiciary, opposition and bureaucracy are used to smear the leader’s reputation and oust him or her. Every PM has been thrown out on charges of corruption and incompetence.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court hanged one elected PM in 1979, ousted another in 2017, and legitimized every military coup. Sharif was ousted without a trial, let alone a conviction. Turning natural justice on its head, the Supreme Court first pronounced him guilty of corrupt practices on the basis of the report of a military intelligence-associated Joint Investigation Team and then ordered his trial post-ouster.

The Sharif removal anniversary last Saturday was a reminder that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise Lahore visit proved very costly for the now-jailed Sharif and for India, with the Pakistani military responding with a series of daring terrorist attacks on Indian security bases, from Pathankot to Uri and Nagrota. Modi’s visit sealed Sharif’s political fate, with the subsequent Panama Papers leak providing the perfect pretext for ousting him.

For India, this is not just a cautionary tale but also a sobering lesson that policy made on the fly increases the odds of a boomerang effect. So does diplomacy seeking to befriend Pakistan’s civilian government in the hope of both offsetting Pakistani military’s implacable hostility to India and driving a wedge between civilian and military authorities. Such diplomacy has repeatedly recoiled on India. Didn’t Atal Bihari Vajpayee ride a bus to Pakistan and then publicly bewail that his “bus got hijacked and taken to the Kargil battlefield”?

The latest election has changed little in Pakistan, a country still struggling to be at peace with itself. The Pakistani military will remain the puppet master calling the shots from behind the scenes, with Imran as its newest puppet.

The military didn’t just stack the electoral odds in Imran’s favour; it did practically everything to put him in power. It took the general election to literally mean that it was to be run by the generals.

It was the military’s brainchild to bring into the political mainstream the terrorists and militants assisting its belligerent India policy and Afghanistan meddling. In the election, not all the Islamists and militants fared badly. One militant group, Tehreek-i-Labbaik, garnered nearly two million votes. Even in the case of the terrorist-affiliated groups that were routed, the military has largely succeeded in its objective of “mainstreaming” them. The terrorists’ conversion into politicians means not just that they no longer are pariahs; their increasing political footprint in the coming years will likely extend Pakistan’s jihad culture to the polity.

The military has actually scored a double win: The next PM is a supporter of the military-backed jihadists and Islamists. Imran, long ridiculed as “Im the Dim” for his lack of intelligence, has morphed into a religious zealot who plays the blasphemy card and whose party brass includes hardcore extremists like Ijaz Shah, an ex-ISI officer and handler of Hafiz Saeed, Mullah Omar and Daniel Pearl’s murderer. Shah, now in Parliament, also helped hide Osama bin Laden.

Make no mistake: After this contrived election, Pakistan seriously risks slipping deeper into a jihadist dungeon. Its exploding population, resource pressures, a pervasive lack of jobs, high illiteracy and fast-spreading jihadism create a deadly cocktail of internal disarray. Caught in mounting debt to China, it now needs an international bailout.

Successive Indian governments have failed to develop a clear strategy to deal with this Mecca of terrorism. India’s policy pendulum on Pakistan actually swings from one extreme to the other — from vowing a decisive fight to making schmaltzy overtures. While Washington has cut off security assistance to Pakistan and periodically slaps new sanctions on Pakistan-based terrorists, India is loath to back its rhetoric with even modest diplomatic sanctions or by leveraging the Indus Waters Treaty, the world’s most generous water-sharing arrangement. All talk and no action, by undermining Indian deterrence, has invited continuing cross-border terrorism.

Today, instead of rushing to engage Imran, New Delhi should let the new leader establish his bona fide intentions for combating terrorism. Tellingly, in his “victory” speech, he called Kashmir the “core” subject but evaded the central issue for India, Afghanistan, the US and Pakistan’s own future — tackling and terminating the presence of terrorist groups on Pakistani soil.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

America’s Pakistan Problem

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Debt-ridden Pakistan is very vulnerable to Western sanctions, yet it is unclear whether US President Donald Trump’s administration is willing to squeeze it financially in a way that could help reform its behaviour. Washington also seems reluctant to strip Pakistan of its status as a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) or target its military for rearing transnational terrorists.

The main driver of Pakistan’s nexus with terrorists is its powerful military, whose generals hold decisive power and dictate terms to a largely impotent government. With the military’s rogue Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) rearing terrorists, Pakistan has long played a double game, pretending to be America’s ally while aiding its most deadly foes that have killed or maimed thousands of US soldiers in Afghanistan. Pakistani forces only target terrorists that fall out of line or threaten Pakistan itself.

The recent media attention on the multilateral Financial Action Task Force’s planned action against Pakistan obscured that country’s success in preserving its status for another two years under the European Union’s preferential trading (GSP+) programme. Pakistan is the No. 1 beneficiary of the GSP+ programme, which grants Pakistani exporters, especially of textiles, tariff-free access to the EU market in exchange for the country improving its human rights and governance. In effect, GSP+ rewards a sponsor of terror whose human-rights record has only worsened.

Trump’s suspension of most military aid to Pakistan is unlikely by itself to force a change in the behaviour of a country that counts China and Saudi Arabia as its benefactors. Only escalating American pressure through graduated sanctions can make Pakistan alter its cost-benefit calculation in propping up militant groups that have helped turn Afghanistan into a virtually failed state, where the US is stuck in the longest and most-expensive war in its history. The US failure to take the war into Pakistan’s territory has resulted in even Kabul coming under siege.

Yet, swayed by geopolitical considerations, the US has long been reluctant to hold the Pakistani generals accountable for the American blood on their hands. Indeed, Washington for years heavily funded the Pakistani military and turned Pakistan into one of its largest aid recipients — a strategy equivalent to feeding milk and honey to pit vipers in the hope of changing their biting habits. Even when the US, after a 10-year hunt, found Osama bin Laden holed up in a compound next to Pakistan’s main military academy, it did not abandon its carrots-only strategy. Such an approach has only helped to tighten the military’s grip on Pakistan, thwarting movement toward a genuine democratic transition.

Worse still, the US has dissuaded India from imposing any sanctions on Pakistan. If anything, India has been pressured to stay engaged with Pakistan, which explains the secret meetings the national security adviser has had with his Pakistani counterpart in Bangkok and elsewhere. The recent launch, with US backing, of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project illustrates why it is difficult for India to impose even diplomatic sanctions on Pakistan, which maintains a bloated, ISI-infested high commission in New Delhi.

To be sure, the Trump administration is searching for a new strategy on Pakistan. Yet it is an open question whether it will go beyond the security aid suspension, which excludes economic assistance and military training. Aid suspension in the past has failed to change Pakistan’s behaviour.

With Washington loath to label Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism, it must at least strip that country of its MNNA status, an action that will end its preferential access to US weapons and technologies and deny it the financial and diplomatic benefits associated with that designation. To force Pakistani generals to cut their nexus with terrorists, American sanctions should target some of them, including debarring them and their family members from the US and freezing their assets. Among the half a million Pakistanis living in the US are the sons and daughters of many senior Pakistani military officers.

Pakistan’s vulnerability to potential US-led sanctions is apparent from its ongoing struggle to stave off a default. Despite China’s strategic penetration of Pakistan, the US is still the biggest importer of Pakistani goods and services. US financial and trade sanctions extending to multilateral lending, as well as suspension of military spare parts, can force Pakistan to clean up its act.

To end Pakistan’s double game on terrorism, Washington will have to halt its own double game of rewarding or subsidizing a country that, in Trump’s own words, has given the US “nothing but lies and deceit”. To address a self-made problem, it is past time for US policymakers to put their money where their mouths are.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© Hindustan Times, 2018.