India’s new Pakistan strategy: It raises the costs for nurturing terror even if isolating Pakistan is not entirely feasible

Samir Saran| Ashok Malik

In the period following 29 September, India has embarked on a two-pronged Pakistan strategy. First, it has indicated it is willing to use hard force when faced with terrorism and cross old lines, literally or figuratively. Second, it has intensified its campaign to diplomatically “isolate” Pakistan in the neighbourhood. Together these have been called the “new normal”. It is important to examine the contours of this new normal.

For a start, the new normal is not limitless. The use of force in retaliation or anticipation of terrorism is not suggestive of an Indian inclination for a full-scale war; not at all. The Narendra Modi government is conscious of that and has repeatedly said the cross-LoC strikes were targeting terrorism and not the Pakistani military. Diplomatically too the absolute isolation of Pakistan is not feasible. The BRICS summit in Goa was a case in point.

What is possible, however, is to raise the costs for Pakistan for its nurturing of terror, and for those supporting it on various diplomatic and multilateral platforms. Whether it is the Chinese in Goa or the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, those who support Pakistan or at least not ostracise it will need to go to ridiculous lengths in making arguments or expending diplomatic capital. This by itself may seem meaningless, but does mean Pakistan’s backers — like apartheid-era South Africa’s backers — will be reduced to contortions of logic. In the long term, they would push Pakistan towards behaviour change.

That the Chinese have had to articulate their support for Pakistan and use their veto to protect it places Beijing in new territory and changes its assumptions of a workable relationship with India. That it had to do this even as Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) identified Pakistan as the roughneck of the region would have been doubly troublesome.

Not everybody is happy at this turn of events. Two groups have reacted to the Indian government’s new posture — and it is a new posture, irrespective of supposed precedents that are trotted out — with some hostility. Domestic critics of Modi would rather believe ISI and its propaganda than the Indian PM. Frankly, this is a feature of most robust democracies. Domestic disaffection with a ruling party influences international postures as well. Take Donald Trump reaching out to Vladimir Putin to spite his Democrat rivals.

Next there are the nuclear ayatollahs and South Asia specialists in the Washington Beltway. India has done something their playbooks did not conceive as possible. The anger is exaggerated because an emerging power has had the gumption to intervene in a geography (Pakistan-controlled) that was underwritten, fattened and perversely tolerated by the feckless academic and security analysts’ lobby in Western capitals.

Ironically, political leaderships and governments in those very capitals have been more understanding of India’s cross-LoC strikes.

Realist political leaders recognise conventional space exists and no amount of nuclear sabre-rattling is going to stop a sovereign power from responding to asymmetric warfare.

Four facts stand out then. One, irrespective of level of damage or intensity of operations, India did act — and told the tale. India has decided to make cross-border response, at a place and time of its choosing, a new possibility in the Pakistan-terror dynamic. What should not be lost is that this time it was Pakistan that was in denial.

Pretending it did not happen allowed Pakistan a face saver and gave its establishment space not to respond or escalate. In doing so, it tore apart the escalation theory it had fed its friends in the West in the first place. That bluff was called and reams of briefing papers and opeds were made to look foolish. The world has to live with this. That space for significant conventional action, under a nuclear umbrella, exists and may be expanded in future has been established.

Two, India didn’t inform any big power before the event and neither did any big power intervene, ask India to back off and advocate (pointless) talks. This was the second bluff that was called: that the world would instantly intervene. It did not. Actually, if and when it does, it could well be to Islamabad’s disadvantage.

Three, contrary to editorial imagination, Pakistan’s army and its civilian arm are managing the implications of the Indian strike in tandem and in a spirit of cooperation. They are both in trouble. The Military Terror Complex allowed the generals immeasurable sway over people and territory. The civilian government benefited from the political advantages of cossetting extremism and the rent-seeking advantages offered by Pakistan being part of terrorism’s global supply chain.

Manipulative use of a journalist to push the idea that Pakistan was rethinking support to terror proxies only points to the desperation with which Pakistan wants to reclaim the international narrative. It is telling that this new tack comes after Nawaz Sharif’s truculent UN speech found absolutely no takers.

Finally, despite the heightened emotions, it is obvious the surgical strikes were not an antidote to terror itself. They were a symbolic strike at a smug sense of immunity that Pakistan had developed, an early warning to Islamabad’s cussed all-weather friends and the beginning of a new diplomacy with Beijing. The Chinese can continue to differ, defy and deny. Even so, the perpetual free pass afforded to them by a reluctant South Block has expired.

This commentary originally appeared in The Times of India.

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