news Wednesday, February 25, 2015 - 05:30

By Nitin A. Gokhale

More than 18 months ago, I was in Dubai as part of a track II effort (my first and perhaps last such participation, given that I am not much of a Pakistan watcher) on how India and Pakistan can overcome their antipathy and strike an enduring, working relationship. The conference covered issues of common interest to the two countries, including trade, business, micro finance, IT, water, energy, climate change, public health, security, and media. I wrote briefly about it in May 2013 .

At the conference I spoke on the Indian military doctrine. In the course of my presentation I asserted that the Indian military has, over the past decade, re-oriented itself towards meeting the bigger challenge from China since it exactly knows how to deal with Pakistan. The underlying theme of my assertion was: India has got the measure of Pakistan's predictable military moves and knows how to counter them. The focus therefore is to try and be prepared for the bigger threat, that is China. A retired Pakistani military officer, who was among the delegates, disagreed demonstrably. "How can India forget that Pakistan is a nuclear power? How can India ignore Pakistan's military power," he remonstrated with me. I could not, till the end, convince him that India was not taking Pakistan's military threat lightly but was merely pointing out that Indian military has moved on to prepare for a far more potent threat. He however, would not believe me.

I recall that little encounter now since the current situation on the border between India and Pakistan, I believe, is also born out of Pakistani establishment's (read the Army's) fear of losing its relevance in the Indian sub-continent.

For long, the hyphenation of India-Pakistan has been a common international theme. But a small but subtle change in India's approach towards big international players and the immediate neighbourhood, has clearly caught Pakistan on the wrong foot. If Prime Minister Narendra Modi's unexpected move to reach out to SAARC leaders by inviting them for his inauguration was a surprise move, his government's decision to cancel India-Pakistan bilateral talks on the issue of Pakistan's high commissioner to India meeting separatist leaders from Kashmir despite India's warning, was totally unexpected in Islamabad. Suddenly, this was a different New Delhi it was forced to deal with.

The decision makers--Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former spymaster-turned National Security Adviser Ajit Doval--were not going be trapped into a long-held framework of 'talks-with-Pakistan-at-any-cost' that had come to dominate New Delhi's policy on Pakistan, even during the earlier avatar of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Instead, they had decided to draw new, firm red lines, even if that meant a breakdown in the dialogue process. So the first red line was 'either talk to us or talk to the separatists.' Both are not acceptable was the clear message.

Simultaneously, Narendra Modi's outreach to other smaller neighbours in the Indian sub-continent--Nepal, Bhutan and a lesser extent to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka--meant India was mending its somewhat wobbly relations with them even as Pakistan was being left out. The last straw however came late in September when Prime Minister Modi traveled to the United States.

First, at the United Nations General Assembly, Modi, much to Pakistan's annoyance, refused to react to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's mention of Kashmir in his speech. Then, more ominously for Pakistan, the joint statement at the end of Modi's meeting with President Barack Obama spoke in unambiguous terms the need to dismantle terrorist havens in Af-Pak.

"The leaders stressed the need for joint and concerted efforts, including the dismantling of safe havens for terrorist and criminal networks, to disrupt all financial and tactical support for networks such as Al Qaeda, Lashkar-e Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, the D-Company, and the Haqqanis. They reiterated their call for Pakistan to bring the perpetrators of the November 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai to justice," the statement said. This was unprecedented.

Was this the beginning of the de-hyphenation of India-Pakistan that Islamabad so dreads? Was Washington finally coming round to accept New Delhi's long-held view that Pakistan-based terrorist groups posed the biggest threat to peace in the Indian sub-continent? For the Pakistani Army, Washington's endorsement of India's stand meant its strategic assets (LeT, the Haqqanis) were in danger of being targeted more vigorously.

This, in the Pakistani Army's mind, was invitation to disaster and more dangerously, to becoming irrelevant. It had to do something to bring Kashmir back in focus and also take control of the country's foreign policy. So what does it do? Fall back on the tried and tested formula of igniting the border with India.

Predictably, it activates the International Border (or what it calls the working boundary) since tactically and topographically it is easy to target villagers around the BSF posts. In earlier years, India would have also fired back appropriately but at the same time would have asked for an immediate flag meeting with Pakistani border guards. A lull would have followed the meeting but firing would have resumed again, making a mockery of the ceasefire both had agreed to in November 2003. This happened repeatedly in 2012 and 2013.

The current government was however not willing to follow the well-known script.

Instead, it issued clear instructions to BSF to respond in kind and some more. The BSF was told unambiguously to retaliate heavily whenever provoked. During the weekly DGMO (Director Generals of Military Operations) conference on telephone last Tuesday and through other informal channels, Pakistan was told that talks and violence cannot go hand in hand. So flag meetings at the border were ruled out.In a clear departure from the past, Pakistan was warned that India is willing to climb the 'escalatory ladder', that is take the border firing to another level if it so desired. The idea was to impose, as Defence Minister Arun Jaitley said, "un-affordable cost," on Pakistan.

Military veterans and serving commanders that I spoke with, welcomed this unambiguous statement of intent from the highest quarters. For a decade and more, most tactical moves they made were subject to clearance from Delhi. No longer. "Now we have been given an overall policy framework but tactical decisions are left to us," a serving general in J&K told me.

Not surprisingly, there have been fears expressed by 'usual suspects' that New Delhi is playing a dangerous game with a nuclear-armed adversary and as a bigger and responsible nation, India should not be indulging in such brinkmanship. So well-entrenched is this view in some quarters on both sides of the border that a Pakistani minister, as if on cue, promptly raised the nuclear bogey.

The fact is: between ceasefire violations and employment of nuclear weapons there are several options available with India to keep Pakistan in check. After nearly 10 days of heavy firing on the border, the tension appears to be winding down. What India must guard against is provocation elsewhere in the form of a covert attack in Kashmir or a terrorist strike in rest of the country. If that happens, the response will have to be punitive. Surely, Indian decision-makers have thought this through and have identified a point where they can terminate the current confrontation after gaining the necessary advantage. Therein lies the trick of using coercive military-diplomatic tactics.

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