Unless the attack at the LoC had the sanction of the Nawaz Sharif government, and most would agree that it did not, there is no rationale for calling off the dialogue

When the commotion and outrage generated by last week’s unfortunate killing of five Indian soldiers along the Line of Control (LoC) in J&K subside, those in charge of the country’s foreign policy should do some “strategic thinking,” something that is sorely missing from the ongoing debate on the issue. It is widely understood that India-Pakistan relations are severely crisis-ridden and that is why the relationship between the two countries simply does not improve. The 2004-2008 dialogue process, arguably the most successful India-Pakistan dialogue ever, was called off after the 26/11 attacks. Similarly, the renewed dialogue process was interrupted after the LoC killings in January this year. Again, just as the stage was being set for a resumption of the talks, last week’s killings are threatening to derail it.

In other words, occurrence of crises, be they terror attacks, ceasefire violations or terrorist infiltration, can interrupt the dialogue process between the two countries at will. Both India and Pakistan are well aware of it and also know it is impossible to rule out such crises. Therefore, it is important for India to determine how to deal with them, when to continue the engagement and under what circumstances it should withdraw from engagement. Let us look at four different scenarios so as to better understand Pakistan’s liability in the most recent crisis between India and Pakistan.

Four scenarios

Scenario 1: The ambush of the Indian soldiers was undertaken by the Pakistan Army on the orders of Nawaz Sharif. Pakistan is unhappy that Kashmir is slipping away from its hands and would like to increase the heat along the LoC to aid the infiltration of more terrorists into the State in order not to lose its influence in the Valley. Moreover, Pakistan continues to believe that India is its eternal enemy.

If this is even close to what actually happened, there is absolutely no point in engaging in a dialogue process with Pakistan. Force is perhaps the only possible answer along with drumming up international support for isolating Islamabad. But is this what happened? Most Pakistan-watchers across the world and senior officials in New Delhi would agree that this is not what happened.

Scenario 2: It was the handiwork of the Pakistan Army’s top brass who, as many Indian analysts have pointed out, including former diplomat Vivek Katju in The Hindu (Op-Ed, Debate@The Hindu, “Before talks, Pakistan needs to settle internal equations,” August 9, 2013), is not keen to give much leeway to Mr. Sharif with regard to Pakistan’s India policy. The Pakistan Army, as Ambassador Katju points out, though not in a position to stage a coup, but desirous of reasserting its traditional position in the country and unhappy with Mr. Sharif’s overtures to New Delhi, has decided to frustrate the dialogue process with India. Hence, the attack on the Indian soldiers.

This is not an unconvincing scenario. However, the more important question here is not whether this is what happened or not, but what India’s response should be if this is indeed the case. If Pakistan’s current civilian leadership, like the previous one, is keen on improving relations with India which the country’s army does not want to see happening, does it really serve New Delhi’s strategic interests better to sever all ties with Pakistan? No. New Delhi, on the contrary, should strengthen its ties with Pakistan and put pressure on Mr. Sharif to isolate the army, something he would not be very averse to doing. If New Delhi severs the dialogue process with Islamabad, the Pakistan Army will achieve both its objectives: damaging the dialogue with India and discrediting Islamabad’s political establishment both of which are detrimental to India’s long-term interests. By not talking to Islamabad, New Delhi would ultimately strengthen the hands of the Pakistan Army.

Scenario 3: Pakistani troops carried out the attacks in Poonch in coordination with terror groups, but without the knowledge and support of the Pakistan Army’s top brass.

Given the extent to which jihadi elements have infiltrated the Pakistan Army and the existence of competing perceptions of national interest within it, such a possibility cannot be ruled out. If this is what happened, it would be strategically unwise to call off the dialogue process. Instead of suspending the dialogue process, New Delhi should radically expand its engagements not only with Islamabad but also with the Pakistan Army, especially at the quiet back-channel level.

Scenario 4: “Terrorists wearing Pakistan army uniform” carried out the attacks. If this is the case, then Pakistan has been telling the truth and New Delhi would be doing itself a great disservice by not talking to Pakistan. India should continue to engage Islamabad and make efforts to coordinate with the Pakistani Army to explore ways and means to better target the terror groups. It should send a highly specialised team of experts to Pakistan in order to explore ways to do precisely that. Merely blaming Pakistan for what it is incapable of controlling would achieve nothing.

An examination of the four potential explanations for what happened at the LoC last week makes one thing abundantly clear: Only if the attack was carried out with the sanction of Prime Minister Sharif should New Delhi call off the dialogue process with Pakistan. If not, it would be shooting its own feet by refusing to talk to Pakistan. Those advocating calling off the dialogue with Pakistan need to answer one simple question: What could New Delhi potentially gain by not talking to Islamabad? Those advocating the “no talks” option are not really offering any alternative. The fact is that there is no alternative. The only other alternative, other than refusing to talk, is military action against Pakistan which if carried out on Pakistani territory, under the existing balance of military power in the subcontinent, is bound to end in disastrous results for New Delhi.

In other words, military retaliation against Pakistan is militarily and politically unviable.

Calling off the dialogue process with Islamabad, then, will be a strategically ill-advised decision. New Delhi can do so, but sooner or later, it would be forced to revive the dialogue process again. Therefore, not only should India redouble its efforts at engaging Nawaz Sharif but also explore the possibility of establishing backchannel contacts with the Pakistan Army.

(Happymon Jacob teaches international politics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)

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