Geopolitics and Regional Rivalry will make India’s Fight Against Terror a Long-Drawn Affair

By Lt Col. Shailesh Kumar Rai

Courtesy: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP

China’s recent veto preventing blacklist of Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) chief Masood Azhar under the UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1267 for the fourth time in a row has once again frustrated India’s attempts while making China-Pakistan friendship shine above all.  Despite strengthening via other supplementary resolutions, the resolution 1267 has failed to force Pakistan to change its state policy of inciting terrorism in Afghanistan and India. As a case in point, the blacklisting of both Dawood Ibrahim and Hafiz Saeed under the resolution has had no effect either on their activities or on the attitude of the Pakistani security establishment towards them. On the contrary, terrorist organisations such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and JeM have created fronts like Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), Falah-i-Insaniyat Trust, Al Rasheed Trust, and Al Akhtar Trust International to deceive the international community and to continue terrorist activities in the region. Thus, as seen from that perspective, Masood Azhar’s narrow escape from UN sanctions isn’t a setback for India at all.

Shifting of Nuclear Tipping Point Post-Balakot strike

The IAF air strike at Balakot, notwithstanding the debate over the damage caused, has undeniably called off Pakistan’s bluff of using nuclear weapons to a great extent. It has undoubtedly shifted the tipping point for their use in the event of Indian military aggression in India’s favour. Moreover, post-1999 Kargil war, several pundits had predicted the scenario of a limited high-intensity war between two neighbors happening below the much-hyped nuclear threshold. The hypothesis found validation with the recent high-intensity aerial duel between Indian and Pakistani air forces. Even though the sustained use of such coercive military options in future remains a question, on the policy front, the IAF counter-terror (CT) air operations marked a significant shift in India’s stance. However, if not sustained, the gains in operational momentum and psychological impact will be lost over time. The key to maintaining such a momentum lies with the speed with which India undertakes its military modernization with China as its eventual top adversary in the long term.

Pakistan based its response to Balakot on its assessment that India neither expected it to react boldly nor did it have any plans to escalate the situation further due to its depleted military capability. Thus it responded in a short time frame in broad daylight. However, the action meant for the domestic audience, who were outraged over the successful Indian attack. Pakistan probably assumed that the raid was driven by the Indian government’s domestic political compulsions in an election year and thus any further escalation was neither planned nor catered.

While the tone for India’s future options was set with the use of IAF in an offensive role, the process of de-escalation began immediately with the joint services’ media briefing on February 27. While Pakistan’s retaliatory air-strike on Indian military installations was termed as an act of war, the onus for further escalation was placed on Pakistan itself. It meant that any further action was subject to a provocation from Pakistan which was unlikely to come.

International Support for India’s Right to Self-Defence

India’s CT air strikes on Balakot were received well by the international community except for China that kept the tone low as a support for its all-weather ally. Most of the western world supported India directly or indirectly on its right to take pre-emptive offensive action against terrorist groups beyond its borders. Also, India’s resolution at UN to declare JeM as a global terrorist organisation found support and was co-sponsored by thirteen countries including US, UK, France, Germany, Japan, Australia, Bangladesh and Maldives.

On the contrary, Pakistan stood isolated internationally with only moral support from a few countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Interestingly even member countries of the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) did not yield to Pakistan’s blackmailing threat to boycott the annual meeting in the event of India being invited for the event.  However, the unfolding geopolitical events exposed the limitations faced by the U.S. in forcing Pakistan to destroy the terrorist infrastructure at home, as it needs the latter’s support to secure a face-saving exit from its Afghan quagmire.

Dragon in the Room: China in Kashmir and Options for India

During the entire course of events post-Pulwama attack, India found itself at its wit’s end with China. Nothing seemed to work for it despite the bonhomie displayed by Prime Minister Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping on multiple occasions. The Chinese remained unyielding to India’s demands for its acceptance by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and for reigning in of the JeM. The Chinese intransigence doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon. Besides, a burgeoning bilateral trade imbalance in favour of China and her impressive military growth continue to make things worse for India. While China follows a consistent long term foreign policy based on its national interest, India lacks such vision and has no such strategy to deal with China. Instead, India satisfies itself through strategic alignment with several nations in the Asia-Pacific bound by the common objective of containing Chinese hegemonic growth.

It must be remembered that China has already entered the disputed Kashmir region with its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that connects Gwadar in Baluchistan to Kashgar in Xinjiang province and is a showpiece of the BRI passes through disputed Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK). As a result, India has consistently denied being part of the BRI project citing sovereignty issues. In the recent past, China had also shown interest in seeking India’s approval and participation in the CPEC. Whether or not such an attempt was based on desperation is debatable, but India’s absence from the picture will limit its options concerning future events in the South Asian region. It can achieve more with its participation in CPEC as it will not only strengthen its claim on PoK, but it can also use the same as a bargaining chip to seek a border settlement with China and further use her influence to restrict Pakistan from supporting terrorist groups in Indian administered Kashmir. If seen from a broader perspective, in the event of Taliban joining the political mainstream in Afghanistan, not only will India’s ability to interfere with or sabotage the CPEC fade, but its investments in Afghanistan will also be at significant risk. Thus India is likely to lose its influence in the region further if it doesn’t join the BRI.

Taming Pakistan in Kashmir

The impression harbored by the international community regarding Pakistan as a highly unstable state with nuclear weapons is a delusion. Instead, the Pakistani military has mastered the art of using nuclear weapons as a threat to blackmail the world. The doomsday scenario of Pakistan imploding and her nukes being taken over by radicals is highly improbable. On the contrary, the Pakistani Generals are in full control of their nuclear assets. Besides, no terrorist organisation such as JeM or LeT can survive without their covert support, and any such group opposing the military will meet the fate of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Baloch nationalists. The same can be gauged from the famous Lal Masjid episode in which Pakistani Army used disproportionate force to clear the mosque of the radicals resulting in substantial human casualties. On the other hand, the impending American capitulation to the Taliban in Afghanistan proves that Pakistan Army not only controls Pakistan but can influence events in Afghan theater as well. It has been successful in regulating the levels of violence in Kashmir at will, using proxies against the Indian Army for extended periods.  Hence, to tame Pakistan, India will have to engage with China while investing in enhancing its military superiority over her western neighbor.

The road ahead

India’s policy ambivalence and related ambiguities vis-a-vis Kashmir continue to incur it embarrassment on international forums repeatedly while paving the way for Pakistan to claim the moral and political high ground in its call for self-determination for the Kashmiris. By its denial to acknowledge and address the root cause of the problem in the Kashmir valley, India continues to help keep the flames burning. This ambivalence has the potential to push the entire subcontinent to the brink of a nuclear catastrophe. While India is right in blaming Pakistan for terrorism, and in demanding an end to that policy as a prerequisite for any meaningful bilateral political dialogue, India’s actions remain in contradiction to its overall desire.  In the past, every time the Indian Army restored normalcy in Kashmir, India’s political class went back on its word to address the root cause of the problem. Kashmir, as it stands today, is not just a law and order issue but a larger political problem that requires an honest and brave response from the Indian political leadership.  The constitution of India provides adequate scope to address the issue, and New Delhi must explore the same by inviting all stakeholders to the table including the separatist leadership.

Once Kashmir returns to peace, the local support for militancy will wane and would restrict options for interference from Pakistan. There was relative peace in Kashmir from 1947 to 1986, and repeated attempts by Pakistan to instigate insurgency therein failed spectacularly. It must be noted that an insurgency can survive without outside support but not without local support. As seen in the case of Punjab, the insurgency ended with the loss of popular support and couldn’t be revived despite attempts made by Pakistan via various expatriate Sikh organisations.

(Lieutenant Colonel Shailesh Kumar Rai is an Indian army veteran and a strategic affairs analyst, with 21 years of operational experience including deployment in Jammu and Kashmir)

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