NEW DELHI – It has taken just weeks for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Pakistan policy to break down, thanks to his peace overture generating a boomerang effect. Modi thought he was making history by paying a surprise visit to Pakistan on Christmas Day. Few in India dared to ask whether visiting an adversary state unannounced and unprepared could really bring peace.
Today, Modi’s silence on Pakistan underscores the dilemma haunting his government — how to fix a broken Pakistan policy. New Delhi seems to be at a loss as to what to do next.
After Modi’s much-publicized hug of his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, in the Pakistani city of Lahore, it took the terror masters who rule the roost in Pakistan barely a week to thank him for his visit by carrying out terror attacks through their surrogate Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) group on an Indian air base at Pathankot and on the Indian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. The Pathankot attack, which killed seven Indian troops, was the military equivalent of the 2008 Mumbai strikes on civilian targets by terrorists from Pakistan.
Now, as India presses the Sharif government for action against Azhar Masood and other JeM terrorist leaders for carrying out the New Year’s terror attacks at Pathankot and Mazar-i-Sharif, Pakistan has let loose Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind of the 2008 cataclysmic Mumbai terrorist strikes. The United States in 2012 put a $10 million bounty on the head of Saeed, a United Nations-designated terrorist who founded the Lashkar-e-Taiba group.
In an example of how the Pakistani military, including the rogue Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, uses terrorist surrogates, Saeed has justified the Pathankot attack and warned India of more terror strikes.
Saeed’s very public life mocks not just the Obama administration’s bounty but also the Modi government’s fond hope that Sharif — Pakistan’s impotent prime minister who has ceded key powers to the military — would rein in his country’s terrorist proxies. Indeed, Saeed’s latest actions, including staging rallies across Pakistan, including one that he himself led in the Pakistani capital, have helped to highlight the Modi government’s strategic naivete. They also show that the U.S. bounty on his head is just to placate New Delhi and buy its cooperation on Pakistan.
Pakistan has never honored international norms or its own solemn commitments. For example, when Sharif visited the White House in October, the joint statement said the visiting Pakistani leader apprised Obama about Pakistan’s resolve to take “effective action against U.N.-designated terrorist individuals and entities, including Lashkar-e-Taiba and its affiliates, as per its international commitments and obligations under U.N. Security Council resolutions and the Financial Action Task Force (FATF).”
U.S. President Barack Obama did not question Sharif about the public activities of Saeed, Azhar and other terrorist proxies or about Pakistan’s violation of the Security Council and FATF requirements in the case relating to Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, a Lashkar-e-Taiba leader whom Pakistan arrested and charged with involvement in the Mumbai attacks. Pakistan failed to investigate the source of funds used to bail out Lakhvi in April 2015.
Modi took office in May 2014 with a prudent approach toward Pakistan — inviting Sharif to his inauguration but sidelining the Pakistan issue so as to keep the focus on foreign policy priorities where progress could be made. In September 2014, while addressing the U.N., Modi made clear that “a serious bilateral dialogue with Pakistan” was only possible “without the shadow of terrorism,” urging that country to “create an appropriate environment” for talks.
But later Modi succumbed to pressure from the lame-duck U.S. president, who has not only shielded Pakistan from international sanctions but has also boosted American aid significantly to that renegade state. The U.S. heavily funds the Pakistani military even as sections of the Pakistani Army and intelligence actually work against it, including aiding the killing of American troops next door in Afghanistan through their surrogates, the Taliban and the Haqqani network.
After Obama’s New Delhi visit in early 2015, Modi’s Pakistan policy transformed conspicuously. He resumed bilateral dialogue unconditionally, only to invite new terror attacks in India’s Punjab and Kashmir states. Still, he paid a surprise visit to Pakistan.
The attack on the Pathankot air base by Pakistani gunmen constituted an act of war. Yet Modi’s only public comment thus far on that attack has been to blame it on “enemies of humanity.” Even when he visited the air base after the attack, he said nothing. If Obama had said nothing when he visited San Bernardino, California — where a married couple of Pakistani origin killed 14 people in December — he would have been roasted by his critics.
It was naive of Modi to think that by supplying Pakistan communication intercepts and other evidence linking the Pathankot attackers with their handlers in that country, the terror masters there would go after their terror proxies. Pakistan is currently carrying out investigations into the Pathankot strike, not to prosecute those behind it but to identify the attack’s operational deficiencies so that the next attack by its terrorist proxies is better planned. That is why it is seeking even more evidence from India.
According to a flawed argument, the only choice for India is between continuing useless talks with Pakistan and waging a full-fledged war. Worse still, some Indians believe that India has no choice but to keep battling Pakistan’s unconventional war on Indian territory. This means treating cross-border terrorism as an internal law-and-order problem and bringing yourself under siege.
Wisdom lies in fighting an unconventional war with an unconventional war that is taken to the enemy’s own land so as to drive home the message that the foe’s aggression is not cost-free.
Today, however, Modi’s Pakistan policy lies in tatters. Modi’s Pakistan visit, in fact, illustrated the difference between diplomacy and drama. By putting the emphasis on drama, Modi undermined Indian diplomacy.
The Indian public is sick and tired of the national leadership’s acts of commission and omission that have made the country repeatedly relive history. According to Indian Army chief Gen. Dalbir Singh, 17 terrorist-training camps in Pakistan close to the border with India are still operating. So, India must brace itself to further cross-border terrorism. The enemy will strike at a time and place of its choosing.
With Modi’s credibility at stake, it is difficult to believe that he will continue with a business-as-usual approach toward Pakistan. But if his government wants history to stop repeating itself, it must develop a credible counterterrorism strategy.
Long-time Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist and author of nine books, is a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and a Richard von Weizsacker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.
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