If a tree falls in a forest, but its fall is scrubbed from the internet, did it really fall?
This weekend, a report in India surfaced that confirmed Kulbhushan Jadhav was an asset of Indian intelligence. Jadhav, a former Indian naval officer, is currently on death row in Pakistan for spying, having been captured in Balochistan in early 2016. Until now, New Delhi has publicly denied that Jadhav had any relationship with the Indian state since his retirement from the navy. To the contrary, New Delhi alleged that Jadhav was a legitimate businessman kidnapped from Iran by Pakistan’s intelligence services.
The “legitimate businessman” façade has slowly been chipped away over 18 months. Leaving aside major complications in India’s story, such as Iran’s silence in the face of this ostensibly daring violation of its sovereignty, even reporters closely tied to India’s security establishment revealed that Jadhav offered to spy for Indian intelligence “several times” between 2010 and 2012, only to be rebuffed. What was new about this weekend’s report, however, was that for the first time, an Indian outlet essentially confirmed Pakistan’s version of events. In the report, both serving and retired Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) officers claimed that Jadhav was indeed spying for India in Balochistan.
The reaction was swift. Minutes after being published, the article was vociferously denounced by Indian journalists and analysts on social media, and in the comments section by readers, as being irresponsible and treacherous. Hours later, the article was taken down entirely. Though an archived version of the article still exists, there is otherwise no trace of it ever being written. The author and editor in question have not publicly explained why or how the article was published or taken down. There has been no follow up to the article’s startling admission by major newspapers or television channels.
Whether a result of self-censorship or government intimidation – the line between the two can be blurred when the government and national security reporters in India enjoy such a symbiotic, nigh-on corrupt, relationship – the report is itself relatively unimportant. The development of Jadhav’s case, both in Pakistan and in the International Court of Justice, will not depend on whether the Indian media concedes that he was a RAW asset. Rather, his fate will be determined by senior officials in Pakistan and India, perhaps as part of an exchange of spies. More than the report, however, it is the Jadhav episode writ large that is significant, for it confirms Pakistan’s worst fears about India’s intentions in Afghanistan and Balochistan.
Pakistan’s Concerns Regarding India in Afghanistan
Pakistan’s concerns with India’s presence in Afghanistan are based on its longstanding “strategic depth” policy. The idea behind this doctrine-cum-strategy is that, due to its eastern neighbor and primary security threat being much larger, Pakistan must ensure a friendly government on its western border. In the event of a military clash against India, the logic goes, Pakistan’s “strategic depth” would afford it space for retreat and reorganization.
The upshot of this policy has been to ensure an Afghan government that is completely pliant, and, at worst, friendly to Pakistan’s interests. Indeed, “strategic depth,” has long been an offensive strategy cloaked in the rhetoric of defensive compulsion; in practice if not in its inception, it has been squarely about subjugating Afghanistan to bend to Pakistan’s whims. It is also a policy that is anachronistic: “strategic depth” makes little sense when Pakistan can deter large-scale Indian invasion thanks to its nuclear weapons program.
That said, the deeper problem with the idea of strategic depth precluding Indian cooperation with Afghanistan is its geopolitical presumptuousness. Is it for Pakistan to dictate which countries Afghanistan can be friendly with? If Kabul finds value in partnership with New Delhi, is it not incumbent on Pakistani diplomats, leaders, generals, and strategists to ask why this is so, rather than attempt to make it otherwise?
Within this general context of concerns of India in Afghanistan, Pakistan has two specific complaints. The first is that India is supporting the Pakistani Taliban as it has wreaked havoc in the country, to the tune of more than 50,000 lives lost. Unfortunately, the evidence for this claim has been sparse if not nonexistent. While states are usually happy to make strange alliances in the pursuit of geopolitical goals – as Winston Churchill said, “If Hitler invaded hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons” – an India-TTP pairing stretches credulity.
One of India’s persistent security nightmares is a Pakistan completely overrun by Islamists – why would it make such an eventuality more likely? While there is little doubt that Afghanistan hosts and finances elements of the TTP, India’s role is considerably murkier, with no hard evidence tying it to Islamist terrorism in Pakistan. On balance, it is probably reasonable to dismiss allegations that India is supporting Islamist terrorism unless more convincing confirmation is forthcoming on the matter.
The second specific complaint Pakistan has about the Indian presence in Afghanistan relates to Balochistan. Here, Pakistan’s concerns are much more reasonable.
Indian Support to Baloch Separatists: The Historical Context
Few states take kindly to foreign interference in domestic rebellion, secessionist or otherwise, and Pakistan is no different. Such third-party support, as I demonstrate in my book, usually hardens a government’s determination to deal with the rebel movement by any means necessary.
South Asia is no stranger to the phenomenon of external actors intervening in their neighbors’ domestic conflicts. Most famously in 1971, during Pakistan’s civil war, India corralled, trained, and supplied the Mukti Bahini, which became strong enough to be one of the very few rebel groups to win a secessionist war and change an international border. Pakistan, for its part, has repeatedly sought to spark or fuel rebellion in Kashmir, most prominently in the early 1990s, as well as other secessionist hotspots, such as Punjab in the 1980s or the Indian northeast in the 1960s. Bangladesh and Myanmar have hosted militants targeting India’s northeast. India has returned the favor with each, and supported Tamil militants taking on the Sri Lankan state in the 1980s too.
Compared to most secessionist rebellions in the region, Balochistan has historically seen relatively limited interference. Until the ongoing insurgency, Pakistan’s stiffest challenge from the province came in the mid-1970s. In that conflict, of all the possible actors that could have conceivably supported the Baloch – India, Iraq, the Soviet Union, and Afghanistan – only Afghanistan, the weakest of these, got seriously involved. Conversely, a major regional power, Iran, backed the state, with both money and military equipment, including aircraft and pilots. Meanwhile, India’s participation was hindered by the tyranny of geography. As one former senior Indian intelligence official wrote in his memoirs, Balochistan “did not have a contiguous border with India. Any Indian support could have been only by sea. This was not feasible.”
An expanded footprint in Afghanistan, established steadily over the last decade, affords India opportunities to avoid these basic geographic obstacles. Even if reliant on embassies and under-the-radar cooperation with host intelligence agencies, such as Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS), India can provide financial help and small arms to Baloch rebels fighting the Pakistani state. It does not take much effort from a state, even relatively weak ones let alone aspiring regional hegemons such as India, to make a substantial difference in the capabilities of a rebellion. What may amount to mere rounding errors in governments’ annual budgets for security or intelligence matters can represent substantial windfalls for ragtag rebel groups.
India thus has the means to interfere in Balochistan. Meanwhile, its growing presence in Afghanistan gives it a launching pad. Finally, it has a substantial motive: keeping Pakistan’s security forces off-balance, as well as providing a tit-for-tat response to Pakistani support for Kashmiri separatism. It should thus serve as little surprise when a government led by a Hindu nationalist coalition, keen to assume a more strident tone with Pakistan, is open about its sympathies for Baloch separatists.
Jadhav, a Waning Nationalist Movement, and CPEC: The Geopolitics of Balochistan Today
India’s increasing willingness to intervene in Balochistan forms the backdrop for Pakistan’s capture of Jadhav. Ironically, it was Indian intelligence in Iran, not Afghanistan, that first established a rapport with Jadhav. Nevertheless, his capture provides compelling evidence that Pakistan’s concerns on Indian support for Baloch secessionism are well-founded.
At present, India’s backing may not represent insurmountable or even significant problems for Pakistan, mainly because of the Baloch movement’s weakness. Generally, Baloch nationalism faces basic demographic hurdles, such as being a bare majority in “Baloch” districts in the province. Through sustained and vicious action, often entailing extrajudicial measures such as disappearances, killings, and torture, Pakistani security forces have largely broken the back of militant organizations such as the BLA (Balochistan Liberation Army) and BRA (Baloch Republican Army). The insurgency, having kicked off in the mid-2000s, is now almost entirely in the hands of the moderately active Allah Nazar-led BLF (Balochistan Liberation Front).
Meanwhile, political representatives of Baloch nationalists are prone to both ideological and personalist squabbling. The main Baloch nationalist parties in the province, such as the National Party (NP), the Balochistan National Party (BNP), and BNP-M are not secessionist, satisfied to politick within the confines of the Pakistani constitution. Elections in 2013 returned a provincial government shared between the provincial wing of a Punjab-based national party (PML-N), a Pashtun nationalist party (PkMAP), and the aforementioned National Party, hardly a triad that screams widespread popular support for an independent Baloch state.
It does not stretch the imagination, however, to conjure an altogether different scenario. Structurally, many of the underlying causes for Baloch dissatisfaction and disenchantment with the Pakistani state remain unaddressed. The Pakistani security establishment still exercises an outsized influence on politics in the province, and continues to target ethnic Baloch with enforced disappearances, both in the province as well those in other parts of the country.
If Baloch fears regarding the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) come to fruition – that they will see little economic benefit, that their land will be used to burnish the China-Pakistan alliance, that the resource-based inequities that have marked the Baloch people’s relationship with Islamabad will recur, and that immigration to areas such as Gwadar will swamp the local population – the movement could once again gain momentum. This momentum could be accelerated yet further depending on events in Iran, specifically its Sistan-Balochistan province, where the Shia regime has oppressed the primarily-Sunni local population, generating a more Islamized version of Baloch nationalism. Ideally, Pakistan’s central government should seek to ensure that gains from CPEC are shared with Baloch-speakers to obviate Indian opportunism, but the historical record does not suggest optimism in this regard.
Even accounting for the rancor inherent in India-Pakistan relations, it is unlikely Jadhav will be physically harmed. Following through with his death sentence would be legally justifiable, but politically disastrous. It is unclear what Pakistan’s proverbial pound of flesh will be: a spy swap, a policy or rhetorical concession, or something else perhaps. Still, regardless of the specifics, Jadhav’s fate will depend on how much value New Delhi attaches to getting him back, and what it is willing to give up to do so.
For Balochistan, meanwhile, four related factors will determine where the province goes from here. First, will CPEC exacerbate or ameliorate the legitimate grievances of poor and middle-class Baloch? Second, what type of coalition will emerge in the provincial assembly from the 2018 elections? Third, will the Pakistani Baloch and Iranian Baloch continue to be divided ideologically and organizationally? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, will Pakistan’s security and intelligence services maintain their reliance on illegal and ghastly methods of counterinsurgency?
Unlike India, the country most beset by secessionism, Pakistan does not have manifold separatist movements threatening its territorial integrity today. With the loss of East Pakistan in 1971, and the dampening of Sindhi and Pashtun nationalism in the last four decades, Pakistan finds itself much closer to Sri Lanka than its eastern neighbor: facing one, and only one, major separatist movement.
Afghanistan’s relative weakness, its lack of cultural or ethnic ties to the Baloch, and Iran’s intolerance of Baloch nationalism translate into an environment where the external security implications of secessionism in Balochistan are relatively muted, at least compared to similar movements in Kashmir or East Pakistan. Pakistan’s civilian and especially military leaders are rightly wary of India’s potential to fuel Baloch separatism from its perch in Afghanistan, but it would serve them to recall that India can only hurt Pakistan if Pakistan continues to hurt the Baloch. Adequately attending to domestic grievances will ensure that foreign interference takes care of itself.
Ahsan I. Butt is an Assistant Professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government. He is the author of Secession and Security: Explaining State Strategy Against Separatists.