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OPED: Cowboys & Indians and Pakistanis

Published Feb 2017. Global Affairs.

Ms.Barkha Dutt is absolutely right; and also very wrong.

She argues that “in the likely event of a Hillary Clinton win, her administration will no longer be able to count on New Delhi displaying what is known as strategic restraint; Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has dramatically altered the traditional Pakistan doctrine with several high-risk firsts. None of the old rules apply.”

No one can dispute this point. Modi has been testing the nuclear threshold; trading fire across the LOC and using the term surgical strikes loosely. An old flashpoint (Kashmir) has reignited tensions and the attack on an Indian base has pushed both nations to the brink of war. It has been a busy year.

But then the mention of Modi’s campaign promise of taking a hard line on Pakistan and his abrupt pivot prompted by an “audacious appetite for gambling on peace” is where the argument becomes reductive.
“Why India and Pakistan could be big headaches for the next U.S. president” published in the Washington Post (October 25) recaps Modi’s increasing disillusionment with its uppity neighbor by listing Indian PM’s diplomatic savvy to clarify India’s hawkish makeover while stomping over Pakistan’s share of misfortunes.

It begins with a politician with incredible restraint who invited his Pakistani counterpart to his oath taking ceremony in Delhi and later stopped by to do a happy birthday Mr. Prime Minister routine in Lahore. Soon one can see the slow but inevitable transformation of a steel nerved statesman whose resolve held when Pathankot Air Base was attacked and where Pakistan was blamed though no evidence implicating the Pakistani State has been forthcoming to date. He is also a man pushed to the limit after the Uri debacle on 18th September 2016 who has finally cracked.
And now that he has, all bets are off.

Pakistan’s misdemeanors take centre-stage. And before anyone can demand a context, and there is always a context, India has already pitched its flag on the moral high ground. By cracking down on cultural exchange programs, expelling randomly picked Pakistani embassy workers on charges of espionage and threatening to clamp down on the water supply, India has shown that it’s in no mood to play nice. Pakistan has done the same, in the spirit of full disclosure but it has been in retaliation to India’s economic / cultural offensive. She also booted Indian embassy officials on suspicion of espionage and imposed a blanket ban on their cinema, cable transmissions. Said ban has since been rescinded. Any moves made to deprive an entire nation of water however and potentially triggering the inevitable war is purely an Indian invention.

But what has the Pakistani nation been up to besides pushing Modi’s buttons? Could it be fighting an insurgency raging within its borders; mourning an entire crop of lawyers wiped out in Quetta (Baluchistan) or reeling from IED blasts that claim the life of its brave soldiers? Maybe it is desperately trying to preempt attacks on its citizens via ‘Operation Zarb-e-Azb, defusing bombs, dismantling what could well be RAW, NDS based networks; while failing to prevent high profile assassinations and suicide bombings targeting rookie police cadets, again in Baluchistan?

Or perhaps it has been dealing with a political crisis brewing on the streets of Islamabad next to simmering tensions along the LOC; or safeguarding Chinese investors here for CPEC projects while manning borders to curb a two-way infiltration between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The rest of its resources are spent on piling up containers as road blockers to stop opposition from staging protests to hold its Prime Minister accountable for Panama leaks and election rigging. And trying to determine who leaked details of a classified meeting, that according to government spokesmen are fabricated, and made the military look really, really bad. And this is just 2016.

Ms. Clinton’s casual remark “that she was struck by how “difficult” it must have been for India to show “restraint” after the attacks,” is meant to be the clincher. This was the year 2008, around the time when the Taliban unleashed its reign of terror on Pakistan, beheaded Pak soldiers, invaded Swat, strung up citizens in public squares and systemically bombed schools. A solitary attack on Indian soil led to this observation when the entire Pakistani nation was in the crosshairs of Taliban / Al Qaeda combined? And when the OBL raid hadn’t happened yet and the Pak-US alliance was on relatively solid footing.
Thus far Pakistan has been unable to project its case even after scores of military installations were attacked and civilians targeted over the years because its own demons believed to be proxies are served up to neutralize its arguments.

Waving the Indian held list of grievances, the article then tries to beat Pakistan to the punch. “This is now India’s new normal,” it asserts proudly — “an attempt to increase the cost of terrorism for Pakistan and call out…the “nuclear bogey.” It even explains the damning Baluchistan comment where India gleefully admits to its role in what has been interpreted by many as state sponsored terror. Here it has been shown to be in reaction to Pakistan’s depiction of a Kashmiri freedom fighter as a ‘victim hero’.
Pakistan and India have never been close; once India helped break the latter in half (1971) – once Pakistani Air Force bested them in an aerial encounter (1965). But they had appeared to make some headway in the peace arena. The current Kashmir uprising has reset that relationship.

The security situation has deteriorated rapidly in the wake of the human rights violations in the Indian Occupied part of the Valley. The sight of India’s closest ally (Russia) in Pakistan for joint military exercise must have also rankled. And the recent blocking of the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group) bid by Pakistan’s long time friend / confidant China didn’t help matters.

The passage concludes with a warning. “That restraint can no longer be taken for granted — that’s India’s messaging to Washington.” Before November 9th, India relied on Clinton bringing her “famed hawkishness to her administration’s Pakistan policy.” It also hoped that there will be “no blank checks on military aid; stringent economic pressure to shut down terror groups…” and that she could give Pakistan a stern talking to.
But now that both nations need to be talked off the ledge, shopping for mediators and bridge builders may be a better option than crude intimidation tactics and suggestions of global embargos. Especially since climate change has suddenly become a bigger threat with alarming levels of toxicity courtesy of that nasty smog blanketing Lahore and Delhi in November. The hope that the two can clear the air long enough to talk clean air initiatives seem like a long shot at this stage.

A decade of terror has tested the mettle of the Pakistani nation - battered and bruised yet still standing - and its battle hardened army. In this backdrop it seems a tad fantastic that the beleaguered state of Pakistan or its war weary establishment believes opening another front is in its national interest when it can barely cope with the ones already in play. But as long as banned groups run amok it cannot really say so with a straight face.

It is also unlikely that beautiful takedowns that skirt the fringes of propaganda, however elegantly worded they may be, could ever sway Washington, or convince it to throw its former partner to the wolves; though lobbying some say did deprive Pakistan of its F-16’s recently. However, in the absence of a powerful counter-narrative or a Haqqani free tribal belt, cries to reign in a deranged, nuke wielding third world nation will always find a receptive audience. Whoever had won the Oval Office, a wild card like Donald Trump, or a political veteran like Hillary Clinton, having a region toying with the idea of Armageddon was bound to remain a priority in the coming years. But the only ones who can truly decide its fate appear to be blinded by hate – and maybe some smog.

Indian American businessmen have begun prepping for a Trump White House hoping that their candidate will ‘hold Pakistan’s feet to the fire.’ American experts envision his ‘madman diplomacy’ to be wielded to deliver ‘a credible ultimatum to Pakistan.’ And these seem to be fairly reasonable speculations in light of his post win performance. In the days leading up to his inauguration, President elect, Trump was rewriting the Presidential script by spurning intelligence briefings, fencing with the press corps and launching twitter wars with businesses, random TV shows, high profile celebrities and difficult nations. It would be naïve to expect that the blast radius of his hardliner policies will remain confined to a single nation. Already his close ties with Modi have been referred to as a ‘double edged sword’ while the proposed sanctions on Iran could reportedly jeopardize the Indian oil supply. The new leader of the free world is unencumbered by fear of bad publicity, indifferent to traditions and prone to stepping over red lines. And that should concern everyone regardless of which side of the LOC they occupy.


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