Lead

Uri as inflection point

Army personnel take positions and moves towards the site where militants were hiding during an encounter in Uri Sector. File photo  

If there is one element in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy that has baffled foreign policy analysts, it has been his Pakistan policy. Oscillating between the two extremes of ‘Jhappi’ (bonhomie, hugs) and ‘Katti’ (no talks, retaliation threats), alternately pleasing and frustrating both hawks and doves, it gave rise to an inordinate amount of speculation about who was in charge. It also lacked coherence.

The attack on the Army camp at Uri, which left 18 soldiers dead, is not the first such attack during Mr. Modi’s tenure but could well become the inflection point in his Pakistan policy. Political leadership lies not in predicting events but in using them as inflection points to strategise, design and drive a new policy.

Neither is Mr. Modi the first to face this challenge. Since 1998, when India and Pakistan conducted nuclear tests, emerging as nuclear weapon states, Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh faced similar inflection points in their Pakistan policies and calibrated their responses accordingly. As Mr. Modi ponders over the contours of a credible Pakistan policy which is more than just retaliation, he knows that he enjoys one significant advantage — compared to Mr. Vajpayee, he is less dependent on coalition partners, and compared to Dr. Singh, he knows he can count on the complete support of his party president.

Parakram and after

The Kargil war in 1999 had already strained relations with Pakistan but the Parliament attack on December 13, 2001 was qualitatively different. It was a daring attack in Delhi, targeting the heart of Indian democracy, and it was entirely fortuitous that the casualties were low. The origin of the terrorists was established and it led to the launching of Op Parakram, involving the mobilisation of nearly 500,000 troops along the Line of Control (LoC) and the border. Pakistan responded with its own mobilisation.

Coming months after 9/11 and a hardening global sentiment against terrorism, General Pervez Musharraf came under international pressure and in a public address on January 12, 2002, declared that Pakistan would not let its territory be used for terrorist attacks anywhere and simultaneously banned certain organisations including the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. India was not satisfied and the mobilisation continued even as both countries recalled their envoys. The Kaluchak attack in May, when three militants hijacked a bus and attacked an Army base, exposed the hollowness of Gen. Musharraf’s assurance.

This became Mr. Vajpayee’s inflection point. It was clear that eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation across the LoC was fraught with the risk of unintended consequences and would not deliver a desired outcome. The economic cost of the mobilisation on Pakistan as the smaller and more vulnerable economy was certainly greater, but it also diverted India from its growth agenda. Behind the scenes, backchannel talks were initiated even as the U.S. increased its pressure on Gen. Musharraf to make good on his assurances. The U.S. also needed him to deploy his forces on the Af-Pak border which could not happen as long as the India-Pakistan border was active. Eventually, a defacto ceasefire across the LoC got established, training camps and launching areas for pushing militants across the LoC from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) were dismantled and by the end of 2002, Op Parakram ended. The cost to India had been $1.2 billion and more than 800 casualties during mine-laying and other operations, vehicle accidents and artillery duels with Pakistan.

Lessons learnt and 26/11

The key lesson was that a limited war between India and Pakistan was not feasible, not at the level of capabilities that existed then. Second, while India would do what it considered necessary to improve its capabilities, escalation management also required certain confidence-building measures and communication links with Pakistan.

Significantly, the ceasefire held till 2008; the number of cross-border infiltrations came down significantly as did the incidents of artillery and firing exchanges. The backchannel between the two National Security Adviser (NSA), Brajesh Mishra and Tariq Aziz, continued behind the scenes. Mr. Vajpayee visited Pakistan in January 2004 for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit, trade liberalisation measures were introduced, and, most important, talks were started on a Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service.

Dr. Singh, as Prime Minister, kept the backchannel going, first with NSA J.N. Dixit and later with veteran diplomat S.K. Lambah. The LoC remained quiet and cross-LoC trade was introduced in 2008. His inflection point with Pakistan came with the Mumbai attacks on November 26, 2008, that left the nation stunned. Since one of the terrorists was captured alive, the details of the operation and the complicity of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) were soon apparent. Following meetings at the highest level, it became clear that there were no credible retaliatory options available. Inadequate intelligence ruled out precision strikes. Ground operations ran the risk of unmanageable escalation. Covert responses would take time and not address the rising emotions. The only realistic option was to push for Pakistan’s diplomatic isolation, given that the evidence was solid and the casualties included foreign nationals.

In hindsight, India’s strategic restraint, though imposed by lack of better options, served it well in terms of projecting it as a responsible nuclear weapon state. Measures were taken to strengthen domestic capabilities including the setting up of the NATGRID (an integrated intelligence grid that could connect the databases of a number of security agencies), a National Counter-Terrorism Centre and a National Investigation Agency.

Between ‘Jhappi’ and ‘Katti’

Mr. Modi’s initial meeting with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in May 2014 went well; however, Foreign Secretary-level talks scheduled for August 2014 were called off after the Pakistan High Commissioner’s meeting with the Hurriyat leaders. A new redline had been drawn. A year later, in July 2015, after careful planning, another meeting between the two leaders led to the Ufa Declaration but differences surfaced about the agenda for the discussions and with back-to-back press conferences by Adviser Sartaj Aziz and Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj in both capitals, the NSA-level talks were cancelled. After careful choreography, the two Prime Ministers met in Paris in November, followed by talks between the two NSAs in Bangkok and Ms. Swaraj’s visit to Islamabad. Then came Mr. Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore on his way back from Kabul to wish Mr. Sharif on his birthday.

This newfound bonhomie was quickly derailed by the terrorist attack at the Pathankot airbase on January 2, leading once again to the cancellation of talks amid rising rhetoric. Positions hardened as India maintained that Pakistan was not serious about acting on the leads provided to it following Pathankot. After Burhan Wani’s killing in early July, the situation in the Kashmir Valley deteriorated. India blamed Pakistan for inciting violence in the Valley even as Pakistan accused the Indian authorities of gross human rights violations. A new front was opened when Mr. Modi included references to Balochistan, Gilgit and Baltistan in his Independence Day address. And then Uri happened.

Finding a balance

While Mr. Modi’s first reaction was to ‘assure the nation that those behind this despicable attack would not go unpunished’, more strident responses demanded ‘a jaw for a tooth’ and immediate retribution, including cross-border raids and precision strikes by the air force. Pakistan’s Army Chief Gen. Raheel Sharif responded with the predictable nuclear sabre-rattling. Escalation management under the nuclear shadow was difficult. International involvement was needed, to put pressure on Pakistan but not to internationalise Kashmir which meant that India’s military options were limited.

This inflection point gives Mr. Modi the opportunity to design his own policy. He has used his communication skills effectively in his speech at Kozhikode last week and “Mann ki Baat” last Sunday to retreat from jingoism and change the narrative, while keeping domestic morale high. He has sought to reassure the international community while drawing a distinction between the Pakistani rulers and the people and challenging them to compete in the battle against poverty and illiteracy. He has reminded Pakistan about its vulnerabilities, keeping open covert action prospects.

A “surgical strike” was carried out across the LoC in the early hours of Thursday against terrorist camps, though it has been denied by Pakistan. This indicates that our technical capabilities (C4ISR) have grown since 2008 but also reveals that it took us a week to respond. It has addressed the immediate domestic pressures for punitive retaliation. A repeat is unlikely because such launching pads will be shifted deeper inside PoK. Meanwhile, Pakistan can retaliate, in India or against Indian entities abroad (such as in Afghanistan). More important, the Modi government has reached out to all sections of the political spectrum to ensure that there is unanimity on the future course of action, something his predecessors had done regularly.

Meanwhile, the gamut of diplomatic isolation has been broadened, the first salvo being India boycotting the SAARC summit. Bhutan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan have followed thereby ensuring the summit’s demise. The Indus Waters Treaty has not been abrogated; future meetings have been suspended with the rhetorical flourish that “blood and water cannot flow together”. Review of the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) provisions further indicates that Mr. Modi is determined to demonstrate that it is not business as usual. Having defined his frame of reference, Mr. Modi is using his communication skills, a controlled rhetoric and a limited cross-border operation to show that he can take risks while dominating the escalation ladder. In doing so, he is taking advantage of the divided structures in Pakistan and the growing tensions between the Army and civilian leadership on a range of issues as Gen. Raheel Sharif’s term that comes to an end in November.

At the same time Mr. Modi needs to tackle the institutional turf battles that have failed to address the vulnerabilities in our border management repeatedly exposed since Mumbai, in Gurdaspur, Pathankot, and now Uri. Only then will he be able to demonstrate that India’s use of “soft power” is not because it is a “soft state”, but because it consciously chooses to. Leverage comes from having options and finally Mr. Modi seems to have realised the importance of breaking out of the straitjacket of ‘Jhappi’ and ‘Katti’. With the domestic political outreach, he now has a singular opportunity to shape a Pakistan policy that is grounded in realpolitik and gives him realistic options and leverages.

Rakesh Sood is a former Indian diplomat and is currently Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.


Our code of editorial values

Related Topics