South Asia’s New Strategic Reality
Image Credit: Flickr/ Narendra Modi

South Asia’s New Strategic Reality

 
 

Last week, the Indian Army’s special forces took out several suspected terror camps across the volatile Line of Control in Kashmir in response to an attack on an Indian army post in Kashmir by Pakistan-based terrorists that killed 20 soldiers on September 18. The Indian response came almost 11 days after the initial attack and reflected an attempt by the Modi government to pressurize Pakistan on multiple fronts, thereby gaining leverage over an adversary that had long used terrorism and proxies to challenge India.

Even as it deliberated on its options after the initial terror attack, India launched a diplomatic blitzkrieg against Pakistan. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself reached out directly to the people of Pakistan asking if they could find solutions to developmental issues faster than India could and to introspect as to “why does India export software and your country export terrorists,” his External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj used her speech to the UN General Assembly to deliver a stinging rebuttal to Pakistani President Nawaz Sharif, who had paid tribute to Burhan Wani, the separatist militant whose killing triggered the recent wave of violence in Kashmir.

At the regional level, moreover, the Modi government succeeded in the ensuring the postponement of the SAARC summit after several member states took India’s lead and decided to boycott the Islamabad meeting in November. This was one of the rare occasions when regional states spoke in one voice against Pakistan’s use of terror as an instrument of state policy.

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New Delhi also reviewed its stance on the Indus Waters Treaty and Most Favored Nation status to Pakistan. Though it has decided not to move ahead on these fronts at least for now, India managed to put Pakistan on notice that New Delhi has multiple options which it won’t hesitate to use should the need arise.

Even as Pakistan was reeling from these pressures, the Modi government decided to use the instrumentality of military power — a tool which New Delhi had avoided for long. What was new about last week was not that cross-border raids took place, but that India decided to publicize them to the extent it did.

Pakistan’s reaction was contradictory. While the nation’s military issued a flat denial of Indian claims and insisted that only cross-LoC firing had taken place, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif decried India’s “naked aggression,” and called for convening a joint session of its parliament. He said India’s move had exacerbated the civil-military divide in the country.

With its latest move, India has not discarded strategic restraint, contrary to what many have suggested, but has reset the terms of military engagement with Pakistan. For years now, Pakistan had raised the bogey of nuclear weapons to put India in a state of strategic limbo. After the Uri attacks, Pakistan’s defense minister, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, had waved the nuclear saber and threatened to “annihilate” India if attacked.

But with its strikes, India has managed to convey to Pakistan and to other external stakeholders that Pakistan’s nuclear blackmail has no legs to stand on and that India has military room to operate below the threshold that would trigger major conventional, or even nuclear, escalation.  India is also trying to shape a counter narrative about the ability of India to inflict pain on Pakistan. By constantly deciding not to react militarily to Pakistani provocations, New Delhi was losing its deterrence credibility, further fueling Pakistan’s adventurism.

At the same time, India’s stand has been calibrated as it underlined that the cross-border raid was a one-off affair for the moment. This was New Delhi’s signal that it was not interested in escalating the situation. India wanted to retain control over the escalation ladder and it managed to do that. For its part, Pakistan, by not acknowledging India’s cross-border raids, managed to deflate pressures for an immediate response. The national security advisers of the two countries have also spoken to each other for the first time since tensions spiked in the last two weeks in an attempt to keep the border situation under control.

The success of Modi’s approach lies in the fact that Indian strikes have not drawn any international criticism. Pakistan’s all-weather friend China also resorted to clichés, expressing the “hope that they (India and Pakistan) can carry out dialogues to properly resolve disputes and maintain regional peace and security.”

U.S.-Pakistan ties, meanwhile, have been in trouble. Last month the U.S. Defense Department blocked $300 million in reimbursements to Pakistan because of its continuing tolerance of the Haqqani Network that operates in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is significant that after the Indian strikes, Susan Rice, the U.S. national security advisor, called her Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval, only to reaffirm Washington’s support to India in handling “cross border terrorism,” and reiterated “the expectation that Pakistan take effective action to combat and delegitimize United Nations-designated terrorist individuals and entities, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad, and their affiliates.”

The Modi government’s Pakistan policy will not follow a predictable pattern and keeping Pakistan on tenterhooks is part of the larger strategy. But what is clear is that New Delhi will now not hesitate to raise the costs for Pakistan’s adventurism and will ensure that Islamabad pays a price for trying to bleed India with “a thousand cuts” using terrorist organizations like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. India’s actions are not going to end cross-border terror from Pakistan as the recent ‘fidayeen’ attack on security forces in Baramulla underscores. But if Pakistan continues with its terror policy, India’s hand will get further strengthened and Pakistan’s isolation will only grow.

Moreover, Pakistan is facing multiple domestic problems and Modi’s policies are likely to accentuate internal troubles even further. Assuming that China’s need for Pakistan would ensure the nation’s viability is foolhardy. For India, the challenge will be to strengthen its long-term capabilities, both defensive and offensive.

A new chapter has been ushered in India-Pakistan ties by Modi, signalling it won’t be business as usual from now on. For long, it was New Delhi that wanted to preserve the status quo in its ties with Pakistan and Pakistan wanted to challenge it. Modi has turned the tables. His message to Pakistan is: if Pakistan decides not to mend its ways, then India will destroy the status quo on which South Asian strategic stability rests. The consequences of that message remain highly uncertain but that’s the new South Asian reality, for better or worse.

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