Pakistan’s proxy war

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Pakistan’s proxy war against India continues unabated, notwithstanding Prime Minister Modi’s surprisingly friendly gesture some days back, when he stopped over at Lahore, on his way back from Moscow and Kabul, to greet Prime Minister Sharif on his birthday and attend the latter’s grand daughter’s wedding. The terrorist attacks on the Indian Air Force (IAF) Base at Pathankot in the India’s Punjab state and the attack on the Indian Consulate in Mazhar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan, clearly indicate that the Pakistan Army’s long-term national security strategy to avoid peace with India has not changed. The other Shareef in Pakistan, the Army Chief, has sent an unmistakable signal that his Army is not ready to allow any normalization in India-Pak relations and remains ever willing to use its jihadi terrorist proxies to nip any rapprochement in the bud. The Army-Jihadi mindset is stuck in the past, nurturing historical grievances and fantasies about Islamic rule in India. The more mundane reason is the fear of the loss of power, prestige and privileges enjoyed for so long by the Pakistan’s men in uniform, if India-Pakistan relations become normal. The Army which controls all policy towards India and Afghanistan has seamlessly integrated Jihadi terrorism in its policy towards these two countries.

Conventional wisdom would have everyone believe that the Army, peeved with PM Modi’s gesture, unleashed it’s jihadi proxies to convey a bloody message, cutting PM Sharif down to size and telling India that peace talks with Pakistan’s civilian government is going nowhere. Such attacks cannot be planned and executed in a few weeks, let alone a few days. There is little doubt that these were planned months before PM Modi’s sudden visit. This leads to the inevitable conclusion that Pakistan’s long-term strategy is to continue its hostile posture towards India. Indeed, this is also evident from Pakistan’s attitude towards SAARC and its wholehearted embrace of China as a patron state. There is no incentive for Pakistan to change its behaviour as any normalization with India will deprive it of leverage with China and the USA. China’s strategic ties with Pakistan depend on geo-political foundations which include China’s policy of containing India and Pakistan stands to lose all the benefits, if it develops normal relations with India.

Bangladesh too is on Pakistan’s radar and has been targeted through its proxies. Warm relations between Bangladesh-India are also anathema to the Pak Army-Jihadi complex which continues to be motivated by revenge for the creation of Bangladesh. Unfortunately, there are Pakistan-pasand proxies in Bangladesh, among the Islamist-Jihadi outfits and a small section of the political class. They remain ever willing to collaborate with Pakistan in destabilizing Bangladesh for narrow political objectives and in undermining bilateral ties with India. Such Bangladeshis share the politico-strategic outlook of the Pakistani ruling elite, premised on perceived grievances and communal hatred against India. The tit-for tat expulsions of diplomats from both countries underscores Pakistan’s attempt to harass the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Pakistani diplomats and ISI officials in the High Commission in Dhaka are trying their best to destabilize the Bangladesh Government because of the War Crimes Trials and punishment meted out to those convicted, all of whom are known partisans of Pakistan. Bangladesh is no longer friendly territory for Pakistan’s proxy war to funnel terrorists, arms and ammunition, explosives and fake currency, thanks to the crackdown by the Bangladesh government.

Evidence is gradually piling up of Pak Army/ISI involvement in both terrorist attacks. The sophisticated GPS system, weapons, IEDs, training and communication intercepts point to a high level of planning, training and logistical support of highly trained professionals. Such help could have only come from the Pakistan Army. The 6 Pakistani terrorists neutralized are reported to be from the Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), led by Maulana Mazhar Mahmood based in Bahawalpur in the Pakistani Punjab.

Mahmood, a well-known terrorist, was released by India from prison, in exchange for release of the hijacked Indian Airlines and its passengers from Taliban-controlled Kabul in 1999. Mahmud relocated in Pakistan and formed the JeM with the help of the Pakistani Army/ISI to conduct proxy war against India. The JeM’s avowed goal is to liberate Kashmir and bring back India under Islamic rule. The JeM was put in the dog house by the Pakistani Army when it mounted an abortive attack on former President Pervez Musharraf to stop him from exploring peace initiatives with India. The JeM, though a banned organization in Pakistan, operates openly like its banned sister organization the Lashkar-e-Taiba. The ISI would have commissioned the JeM to prove its usefulness to revert to its earlier status as an ISI ally via the Pathankot attacks. The JeM has claimed ownership of the terrorist attack on its website.

The choice of a frontline IAF base near the India-Pak border and the Indian Consulate at Mazhar-i-Sharif as targets also confirms that the Pakistan Army chose the targets. Bruce Riedal, a former CIA analyst who worked in the Clinton Administration on national security looking after South Asia, has gone on record saying the terrorist attacks were masterminded by Pakistan’s ISI which takes its orders from the Army. Riedal cites “knowledgeable sources” to assert this claim. The US State Department, however, has made wishy-washy statement, urging both countries to remain engaged and jointly deal with their “shared concerns” on terrorism. The Obama Administration has reverted to the old policy of coddling the Pakistan Army, for salvaging what remains of US security presence in Afghanistan. The Western media (CNN and BBC), taking the cue from their governments, have referred to the terrorists as “gunmen”. When Western cities are attacked, the same channels do not hesitate to call the killers terrorists and not simply gunmen. This charade has gone on ad nauseum.

An important question is why the Pakistani terrorists targeted an IAF base? They could have attacked civilian targets and caused mayhem. Choice of target serves to mitigate the opprobrium that Pakistan had to face after the Mumbai attacks which led to hundreds of civilian deaths. Attacking an armed camp like an air base is seen as taking on the Indian Defence Forces who have been blamed for “occupation” of Kashmir and the terrorists can be seen as avenging historical wrongs. Ultimately, the attacks have to be seen as a strategic political choice made by the Pakistan Army in pursuit of its long term strategic interest.

The Pakistan government’s reaction has been carefully calibrated and has not questioned that the terrorists came from Pakistan. It has offered its condolences to those who died in the attack and promised to investigate the incident. Pakistan’s official statement, unlike the Western media, has labelled the perpetrators as “terrorists”. PM Sharif has telephoned PM Modi to personally offer condolences and renewed the offer to investigate the incident. These are positive developments in a largely dismal scenario.

India-Pakistan relations have been accident prone for quite some time. The two Prime Ministers’ attempt to start a normalization process that gets promptly sabotaged by the Pakistan Army. Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s bus journey to Lahore resulted in the brief Kargil war initiated by Pervez Musharraf. This has become the story of bilateral relations in the last 2 decades. Can India and Pakistan break this jinx? PM Modi’s gesture in inviting SAARC leaders for his oath-taking ceremony raised hopes of better relations between India and Pakistan but subsequent events dashed such hopes. But PM Modi did not give up. The two PMs met again at the Russian city of Ufa, on the sidelines of the SCO Summit and later at the Climate Change meeting in Paris to jumpstart the talks. Following this meeting the two NSA’s met in Bangkok and it was decided that the Foreign Secretaries will meet on 15th January.

The larger question of what happens to the Modi-directed Indian initiative to re-engage the Nawaz Sharif government has now come under a cloud. Can Modi change the course of history after the Pathankot and the Consulate attacks? Opinion in India is sharply divided. Hardliners want all talks cancelled till Pakistan implements its promises to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism on its soil. This group feels that Modi has already made concessions by agreeing to talks and the Pakistani Army sees this as a weakness. The other group want talks to continue so as to send a message to the spoilers that their efforts to disrupt talks through terrorist attacks will not succeed. They argue that cancelling talks plays into the hands of the Army-Jihadi establishment who feel vindicated that their terrorist strikes have achieved their objectives. It seems that the Indian government will permit the talks to go ahead, pending action by the Pakistan government. There is, however, deep scepticism in India about any delivery by the Nawaz Sharif government. Pakistan’s Army will ensure no one is brought to justice, a repeat of its tactics in the case of the Mumbai terrorist attacks. After all their “boys” carried out these attacks with Army support and such assets have to be preserved for future strikes.

This article originally appeared in The Daily Sun.

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Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty