ALI AHMED | 10 AUGUST, 2019
War Dead Ahead
It may yet turn out that India has bitten off more than it can chew
The happenings in Parliament over August 5-6 indicate that a reasonably robust strategic assessment preceded it. Emboldened by a conclusion that Pakistan was unlikely to chip in with a military counter, Jammu and Kashmir ceased being a state of the Indian Union. Knowing strategic assessments cannot cover all the bases, the Modi government nevertheless chose to run the risk.
It is arguable that the risk may end up a tad too much in relation to the dividend. The timing of the move that resulted in pilgrims, tourists and migrant workers being hastily assisted out of Kashmir points to the dividend being the preening opportunity for Narendra Modi on Independence Day. Events may yet prove the risk unpardonable.
Since the Indian government has a professional hand on its foreign policy rudder, it is implausible that India was stampeded into going the distance on a ruling party’s manifesto promise on Kashmir merely because the president of the United States fantasised that India had invited him to mediate on the Kashmir issue.
However, since the offer came as part of Trump’s appeasement of Pakistan, in order to get Pakistan to deliver up a tamed Taliban to the negotiation table with the Afghan government, India feared that Pakistan may displace it from America’s bed. Since it cannot reinsert itself into consequentiality in Afghanistan, it settled for the second best choice: spoil the party.
This is reminiscent of the post 9/11 situation in the region. Even as Pakistan under Musharraf did a smart about turn on its Taliban policy and jumped into bed with the US, India felt left out in the cold. The head start it had taken over Pakistan through the Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott talks was overtaken by events. Taking advantage of a terror attack on Parliament, it launched a mobilisation, converted later into coercive diplomacy when the tanks failed to fetch up for the attack timely.
The upshot was a diversion from Bush’s so-called global war on terror. This was a hit-wicket of sorts, since it allowed the Pakistanis an alibi to turn the other way as the Taliban slipped past the Durand line to fight another day. The rest as they say is history.
The trajectory of American withdrawal (which it is nothing but) is such that Pakistan is set to stabilise its western front. After doing so over the year, it may revert its gaze to the east, where it has been somewhat uncharacteristically reticent over the past few years.
The statistics from Kashmir have it that the percentage of locals killed has moved from two thirds to over three quarters. Given the fighting capacity of the locals, evident from their lifespan with guns being less than a year, Pakistan would have had to reignite its proxy war. Its outstretched hand, after its military got its civilian side on the same page, has received a snub from India.
A resumption of its proxy war – which it had lately projected as indigenisation – was in the offing. India in attempting to preempt this has only hastened the timeline.
Thus, India appears to be aiming to hit two birds with one stone: gain domestic mileage over its Kashmir gambit, useful at a time when the economy is downhill, and, second, to complicate Pakistan’s return from the doghouse. It could yet turn out that India has bitten off more than it can chew. The first is easy to see. The second is in India’s engineering a condition in which the Pakistani establishment is set against the ‘good terrorists’, who would be out to outflank the establishment in case it proves a reluctant actor.
The Naya Pakistan thesis privileges non-military options, but the terror base might not be persuaded of it. India’s intent may have been to set off internal strife in Pakistan. This is not for the first time. India’s last effort was undercut by the Pakistan army when it used the judiciary to depose India’s targeted pointsman in Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif. Then India attempted to engineer a civil-military disjuncture but its bear hug of Sharif compromised the intent. This time round it hopes to set Pakistan’s home grown jihadis against their minders, its army. This may force the Pakistani military’s hand.
While Musharraf warded off jihadist pressure, the greater threat he faced was being bombed into the stone age. But India is not quite the US.
And it is not over the hump within Kashmir. Already two deaths are reported and a score injured over the last two days. One of the dead is a teenager drowned on being chased by the central armed police. It took merely one death to ignite the 2010 outrage, that of the teenager Tufail Mattoo. The repeated advisories to its forces on restraint suggest it is well aware that a second Jallianwala may yet occur.
The presence of the national security advisor on the ground is indicative. He best knows that the paramilitary rushed in comprises low quality and ill led troopers, many fed on the polarisation that the ruling party’s ideology has spread across the cow dust belt from where most of its members originate. Pressed into Kashmir in a hurry, it can be surmised they would not have the situational awareness, empathy or confidence to take on the opposition, whether civilian-centric or insurgent. Another Bijbehara might result.
Then, of course, there is Imran Khan’s scenario in which another Pulwama sets the two countries back at the brink.
The strategising that preceded the initiative must have reckoned with a possible Pakistani military backlash. This could have been conventional had the Pakistanis been agile. They have by now missed the bus. Instead, they have another three months before the snows to plug the proxy war gap that includes proxy fighters and material. This has been anticipated by India, best evidenced by the leaked advisory that required the railway security staff to stock up for three months in expectation of unrest.
The increased deployment of the paramilitary has perhaps been accompanied by the shifting of troops towards the Line of Control – as pointed out by a former corps commander and prominent figure now on the strategic circuit.
The counter-infiltration posture strengthening would not permit a repeat by Pakistan of a Kargil like situation, in which it prolonged the insurgency by inducting jihadis through India’s disruption of its own counter-infiltration grid in reacting to the Kargil intrusion. Proven infiltration methods will prove to be of limited efficacy.
Consequently, Pakistan would require generating a crisis, under cover of which it could push in jihadis with the wherewithal. This could be as early as after the usual India-Pakistan joust at the UN General Assembly and prior to snows setting in, or as late as the following spring, by when Talibani assets will also be available for redeployment as necessary. It may yet provoke preemptive action by India, using the tried and tested route of a black operation so as to be able to seize the initiative.
Nothing can be put beyond the Modi-Shah-Doval combine any more in light of its presiding over dead or likeminded institutions.
The preceding strategic analysis indicates that the prime minister’s evocation of a fantasyland in Kashmir after demoting it to union territory status is pure chimera. India’s preparations for a disaster ahead, evident from the blackout in Kashmir, shall prove a self-fulfilling prophecy. After the Gujarat pogrom, encounter killings of Muslims, the stalking scandal, decimation of the opposition, demonetisation, a black operation (in this writer’s view) at Pulwama and the Balakot-Naushera setback, Modi is perhaps persuaded by an invincible self-image. This may yet turn out to come with grave cost for Indian security and regional stability.
But by then he would have had his historic Independence Day speech behind him.
Ali Ahmed is visiting professor at Nelson Mandela Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia.
Cover photograph: Associated Press