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Diplomatic initiatives have, on more than one occasion in the past, successfully pulled back India and Pakistan from the brink of war. Another bout of hectic parleys are currently on among key international players to find a viable non-military solution to the crisis in the subcontinent sparked off by Pakistan-based terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed’s murderous attack on an Indian security convoy in Kashmir.
The attempt is to force Pakistan to take “visible, credible and prompt” action against JeM and other terror groups operating from Pakistani soil. But the question remains if the mounting international pressure on the Pakistani establishment, including a French-initiated UN Security Council move to proscribe JeM founder Masood Azhar, will have the desired effect.
The prevailing uncertainty has led policy-makers in South Asia and in different world capitals to contemplate the possibility of an armed engagement between India and Pakistan and analyse its consequences if that happens.
Diplomacy is seen as an extension of a country’s domestic politics. The reaction to the Pulwama terror attack is perhaps a prime example. Not only was it another provocative attack in Kashmir but, significantly, it comes three months before the Lok Sabha polls. A prime minister who draws much of his domestic influence from his image as a ‘tough’ leader and is seeking a fresh mandate, can barely be seen to shy away from the challenge it poses. What PM Modi’s demonstrative toughness means is a matter of interpretation but there is rising expectation in India for strong action against JeM and their backers in Pakistan.
The prime minister has publicly stated that those behind the Pulwama attack will have to pay a heavy price, and that the security forces have been given a “free hand” to deal with the situation. Major political parties, including the Congress, have rallied around to put up a united political front. All this have whetted people’s expectations for some strong punitive action—most likely in the form of a military response—against terror outfits in Pakistan. The Indian leadership, on its part, is busy assessing how it could diplomatically defend the fallout of a hard political decision in the next few days.
Key international players—the United States, China, Russia and the European Union—have all come out with the obligatory strong statements condemning the Pulwama attack and their resolve to unite against global terrorism. Despite the statements’ unflinching wording, the mood seems more on finding a resolution to the rising tension, not for an armed conflict that may soon end up in an all-out conflagration.
President Donald Trump tweeted: “#Pulwama attack: I’ve seen it, I’ve got a lot of reports on it. It would be wonderful if they [India-Pakistan] got along. It seems like that was a terrible situation….” For all its concern, the demands of geo-politics makes the US dependent on Pakistan for ensuring the success of the US-Taliban talks and an easy withdrawal of American troops from the quagmire of Afghanistan. Therefore, it may have to take a hard look at how to avoid a war in South Asia without putting Pakistan in a corner.
Russia, too, seemed to be in a mood for a non-military solution. “As a fellow member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Russia needs to reach out to both parties with a view of making sure they avoid a military clash which would destabilise the subcontinent,” says Dmitri Trenin, director at the Moscow Carnegie Centre. But Trenin adds that Russia also needs to talk to the political and military leadership of Pakistan about the threat terrorism poses to national and international stability. The UN also indicated that it would like India and Pakistan to take immediate steps to de-escalate the rising tension in the wake of the attack.
Independent observers argue that if India were to go for a military option in the coming days, Pakistan was bound to retaliate. Therein lies the danger of a full-fledged conflict. The PM and other senior ministers have been reiterating that Pakistan will have to pay a “heavy price” for the Kashmir attack. What this could mean is being speculated.
“If India acts then Pakistan will surely react,” says Pakistani strategic affairs expert Ayesha Siddiqua, pointing out that it may not be a post-Uri like situation where the Indian surgical strike gave Pakistan a scope for denying it. “If an attack is the only option left then India would have to calculate the reaction. If this strike is visible, Pakistan will hit back,” she adds.
For now, India has opted for the diplomatic route. It has launched a multi-pronged campaign to isolate Pakistan internationally. Indian diplomats have briefed foreign ambassadors and heads of missions, expressing India’s outrage at Pakistan’s continuing use of terror as a state policy against India. It also briefed a gathering of leading European countries and experts at the Munich Security Meet. In addition, it made a renewed attempt to name Pakistan for its failure to take action against proscribed terror outfits and their leaders like Masood Azhar at the Financial Action Task Force meeting that began in Paris on February 17.
Pakistan, on its part, launched a counter diplomatic offensive to tell the world about its innocence and commitment to fight global terror. Pakistani PM Imran Khan made a public appeal to India, asking it to provide “actionable evidence” for him to act against any person responsible for the Pulwama attack. India rejected the offer, describing it as the same old lame excuse of Islamabad that allows it not to act on its terror groups.
Moreover, realists in Delhi suggest caution because of US President Trump’s “unpredictability” on key issues. Though he has been harshly critical of Pakistan’s duplicitous support of terrorist outfits in the past, it may not come as a surprise if he is appreciative of Islamabad’s support to steer the US-Taliban talks in the right direction.
Then there is the question of China, a sworn ally of Pakistan which would stall any move that humiliates Islamabad in public. Convincing China to join the international move to isolate Pakistan will be a tough ask for Indian negotiators.
Indian leaders had faced similar situations in the past. Atal Behari Vajpayee had mobilised Indian troops along the India-Pakistan border to send out a tough message in 2002 after the Parliament attack. His successor, Manmohan Singh, opted for restraint and used diplomacy to put pressure on Pakistan to act after the Mumbai terror attack in 2008.
For all the serious intent in New Delhi, there are doubts to the extent Pakistan can be isolated at this juncture. Despite, Indian efforts, the leadership in Islamabad appears to be upbeat, especially after the Saudi Crown Prince’s declaration of a $20 billion aid package and his endorsement of Pakistan’s ‘commitment to fight global terrorism’.
Though miffed with the Crown Prince, Modi accorded a warm welcome to the Saudi guest when he arrived in New Delhi on Tuesday night and won promise of investments worth $100 billion and cooperation on fighting terror. The two sides agreed on a ‘conducive’ atmosphere for resumption of India-Pakistan dialogue. This suits India, as it argues that it is for peace with Pakistan but not unless cross-border terror comes to a complete halt and the terror infrastructure is dismantled. Modi has always argued that since 2014 his extension of friendship on several occasions towards Pakistan have been repaid with terrorist acts.
An interesting development, however, came from Iran. Tehran had threatened to take action against Islamabad for the recent terrorist attack within Iran along the Pakistan border. Maj Gen Mohammed Hossain Baqeri, the Iranian Army’s chief of staff said on Monday that Pakistan has started operations against terrorist hideouts since February 17. This could now well encourage PM Modi to keep up the pressure on Pakistan, especially through threats of a military strike.
As Michael Kugelman of the Woodrow Wilson Centre, was quoted in The New York Times, “How exactly India responds will depend on how much risk it’s willing to take on if it chooses to escalate.”
But the rising crescendo of sound and fury around the attack means a climb-down on Modi’s part without any discernible action on Pakistan against the JeM and other terror groups on its soil is politically unfeasible. Will it then be only India’s call to make?