The Road from Pathankot
By M. K. Narayanan
22 January 2016
The Pakistani deep state’s complicity in the Pathankot attack established, ‘yo-yo diplomacy’ will yield no tangible outcomes for India. The government must focus on building military capacity along the border and wait it out before returning to a step-by-step normalisation process
Weeks after a Fidayeen attack on the Pathankot airbase, several key questions are yet to be answered. Among these are: if indeed there was good intelligence, why was the airbase so poorly guarded, and the intelligence not acted upon? How does one explain the gaping holes in the security architecture of a military installation situated so close to the border? Why was there no unified command and control once the attack commenced?
Also, when the Indian and Pakistani National Security Advisers (NSAs) met in Bangkok, did they, or did they not, envisage the possibility of a terror attack to try and disrupt the Foreign Secretary-level talks? If they did, what were the contingency plans in place? The biggest question of all, however, is over what Pathankot presages. Is there a message that the Pakistani deep state is sending to the Indian interlocutors? Has the Indian side missed this, or are they still deciphering it?
Pattern too familiar
The pattern — first, the announcement of holding talks; next, the collapse of the initiative; and third, renewal of the initiative after an interregnum — has been all too frequent not to realise that there is more to it than mere caprice. Nawaz Sharif’s presence at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in May 2014 and subsequent developments were expected to break this cycle. Hopes were dashed when the Foreign Secretary-level talks were called off in August.
Between November 2014, when the two Prime Ministers shook hands at the closing ceremony of the SAARC summit in Kathmandu, and their meeting on the sidelines of the Climate Change Conference in Paris a year later in November 2015, there were two ‘false starts’. The latest round commenced with a meeting of the two NSAs in Bangkok. The visit of External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, to Islamabad followed. The next step was Mr. Modi “dropping in” in Lahore to wish Mr. Sharif on his birthday — all in the same month. Prospects seemed bright, till the Pathankot incident occurred.
Consequently, there is a need to introspect as to whether New Delhi is misreading the taxonomy of inherent complexities and differences in the difficult Pakistan-India equation. For instance, India tends to work towards the longer-term goal of restoring the strategic unity of the subcontinent, enlarge its strategic space, and enhance its security options. On the other hand, Pakistan’s identity is often defined by its opposition to and rejection of India. It has shorter-term goals and sees talks and negotiations as a mere stratagem.
Since taking over, Mr. Modi has put a high premium on ‘neighbourhood diplomacy’. If he is unable to establish better relations with Pakistan, it would leave his neighbourhood policy in a shambles and be a serious setback to India’s efforts to fashion the region in a manner best suited to it. Clearly, this is one of Pakistan’s objectives.
A Pakistan dominated by its military establishment is unlikely to launch an attack on an Indian airbase without a carefully contrived plan. Preparations for the attack — which carries the imprimatur of the Pakistani military and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) — would have commenced several weeks prior to the attack, and not after Mr. Modi’s visit to Lahore. It was no mere handiwork of non-state actors. The use of Jaish-e-Mohammad elements was deliberate, as the Lashkar-e-Taiba is now under the lens of international agencies. It is again no coincidence that at about the same time, a terror attack was launched on the Indian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif (Afghanistan), which the Afghan government attributes to the Pakistani military. Unlike on previous occasions, Pakistan has not taken recourse to plausible deniability, which strengthens the belief of a message being conveyed through the medium of an attack on an Indian airbase.
This attack on a military base has not merely highlighted India’s vulnerability to such attacks, but also raised certain fundamental issues for the leadership of the two countries. In the case of Pakistan, it raises the question as to whether Mr. Sharif has control over Pakistan’s India policy or not. Also, it seeks to convey that he is in no position to determine foreign policy options. Intrinsic to this is whether in the future a Nawaz Sharif can be relied upon to deliver. Also, there are huge question marks regarding his political calculus.
Pakistan’s policy towards India has always been a bundle of inconsistent and irrational policies. This is further reinforced by the image of Pakistan as a dysfunctional state. The question, hence, is whether it is wise in the circumstances to embark upon major policy initiatives and risk further embarrassment in the future.
This question is particularly important for Mr. Modi. His trademark has been personal diplomacy, often executed with energy and panache. It has produced good results, except perhaps in India’s neighbourhood. Vis-à-vis Pakistan, the brand of ‘yo-yo diplomacy’ has given an impression that the Prime Minister’s Pakistan policy lacks both depth and vision. Care has to be taken, hence, not to arouse undue expectations. Moreover, while dealing with Pakistan, processes are often as important as the outcomes. Every Indian Prime Minister must also realise that he is especially vulnerable, since terror attacks from Pakistan will take place at regular intervals.
The Prime Minister is already skating on thin ice. He embarked on his December ‘peace offensive’ without any overture from Pakistan for resuming talks. Another attack would not merely embarrass the government and the nation, but will call for a fitting reply — more so in view of Mr. Modi’s image as a ‘Maximum Leader’.
Need For a New Doctrine
What is therefore most needed today is new thinking, rather than a mere change in style. Conventional wisdom stipulates that conflicting nations hold talks to settle their differences. This has been the dictum that has driven leaders of India and Pakistan till now. It may be worthwhile to take a hard look at the utility of this course of action — given the India-Pakistan record of talks — and desist from embarking upon talks merely for the sake of it, or due to external pressure. It would not be for the first time that such a policy has been adopted, for there have been many periods in the past when the situation has oscillated between extremes of comprehensive engagement and almost complete disengagement. An extended period of disengagement at this point might prove worthwhile.
New thinking should begin by reviewing and revising the current code of conduct for relations with Pakistan. This must involve adoption of a ‘minimalist’ approach, including limiting trade relations and restricting movement of people between the two countries. More importantly, India must evolve a new ‘Counter Force Doctrine’. Operation Parakram (2001-02) exposed the inherent weakness of a large standing army as a means to counter a terror attack, including ones as serious as an attack on the Indian Parliament. Alongside a ‘Counter Force Doctrine’, the Army must convert many of its static formations on the border into more mobile and leaner units. These should be capable of sudden and swift retaliation in the event of an attack, especially when directed against military installations, key facilities and critical infrastructure.
Pakistan often accuses India of possessing a “Cold Start” doctrine, even though India denies the existence of any such doctrine. With a ‘Counter Force Doctrine’ and leaner and meaner units, India would signal that it is ready to swiftly retaliate. It would send the right message to the Pakistani deep state that they cannot exploit our democratic freedoms without facing retaliation. Once the situation improves, India could consider resorting to a step-by-step normalisation process, beginning with the resumption of Track II and Track 1 1/2 dialogues, followed by a resumption of backchannel negotiations, before proceeding to full-scale talks.
M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and former Governor of West Bengal.