(in two parts)
Each time Pakistan and India make the news together, one can expect that the long-festering conflict between the two countries has taken a turn for the worse. Nearly every American story on this conflict begins with (and often does little to proceed beyond) the observation that the two countries have fought three wars with each other since Pakistan was carved out of India in 1947, and have on several other occasions been on the verge of war. The most recent round of this conflict, revolving largely around the disputed status of Kashmir, was precipitated by what India, and most likely the world, viewed as a “terrorist” attack on a convoy of its soldiers in February. (Why only most likely: we are all aware of the adage that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.) A suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden vehicle into a truck carrying Indian soldiers from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) near Pulwama on a road leading into Srinagar, killing forty soldiers. India responded to this deadly attack with an unprecedented aerial assault, designed to liquidate a terrorist training facility beyond the “Line of Control”, the de facto border that separates the two countries. At least one Indian fighter jet was shot down; though the Pakistanis initially claimed to have shot down two Indian jets, they were not able to produce the debris of two aircraft and hours later, without any explanation, the Pakistan government revised the figure downward to one jet. But difficulties in Pakistan’s narrative are a minor gloss since, as nearly everyone who is not wholly partisan to the conflict can discern, India almost certainly came off much worse in the propaganda war and in its ability to manipulate the media. The initial Indian claims to have eliminated a terrorist camp and killed 300 terrorists could not only not be verified, but are quite likely fictitious; indeed, according to most commentators, Indian jets, challenged by Pakistan’s aerial defense, were compelled to shed their payload in a hurry and the bombs appeared to have fallen on barren land. The details remain murky, but fears that the situation would escalate into an outright war appear to have eased with Pakistan’s return of an Indian pilot, whose fighter jet was shot down by the Pakistanis, within days of his capture.
The United States, China, and other powers have repeatedly urged both Pakistan and India to seek diplomatic solutions to “the problem of Kashmir”. India has for the last two decades insisted that Pakistan cease to allow its soil, or the territory under its control, to be used by terrorists to initiate attacks in India, and it has also called for Pakistan to take concrete action against known militants such as the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, Masood Azhar. Although the United Nations declared Jaish-e-Mohammed a terrorist organization in 2001, previous Indian attempts to have Azhar himself be branded a terrorist have been stymied by China. In mid-March, the UN effort, spearheaded by the US, Britain, and France, to render Azhar into a pariah was once again blocked by China, which put on hold their request to blacklist him, an action that would have had the effect of placing him on a global travel ban, freezing all his assets, and making it somewhat difficult for him to acquire arms. In recent days, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson is on record as saying, “China’s position is very clear. This issue should be resolved through cooperation. We don’t believe that any efforts without the consensus of members will achieve a satisfying result.” Such anodyne diplomatic language is barely surprising: the consensus to outlaw Azhar exists, barring, of course, the inclinations of Pakistan and China itself. Whether China, which like nearly every other country, is on paper pledged to do everything to remove the scourge of terrorism but is only emboldened to act when its own national interests are in question, is even remotely interested in joining the rest of the world in outlawing Azhar is thus seriously questionable. We may say that China has in fact acted in its own national interest: it is, above all, committed to its One Road One Belt in which Pakistan occupies a significant place. One might have thought that China, which has scarcely hesitated to place its own innocent Muslims in camps which are far more than reeducation camps and yet something lesser than concentration camps, would be eager to do its bit to bring a terrorist acting in the name to Islamic resurgence to heel, but it is not about to squander its ambitious designs merely to add some element of discomfort to one terrorist’s life.
There is, in any case, every reason to doubt whether a diplomatic victory by India in the matter of Azhar, should that materialize, would have any significant impact on militant activity. The Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT), whose leader Hafiz Muhammad Saeed masterminded the terrorist attacks of November 2008 across multiple sites in Bombay over four days, was placed under UN mandated sanctions in March 2009, yet moves around in Pakistan with near impunity. The United States has placed a $10 million bounty on his head, and every now and then the Pakistani authorities put him behind bars only to release him a few days later. Even though there have been terrorist attacks within Pakistan itself, mainly targeting Shias, Christians, and other supposed infidels and apostates, the temptation to play with fire is too strong. The supposition, on India’s part, that militant activity can be brought under control through vigorous diplomatic efforts is as fallacious as it is wholly insensitive to the consideration that, even as Pakistan has encouraged terrorist activity with the hope of keeping the embers of revolt in Kashmir burning, some militant elements are not merely beyond its control while others act with the connivance of the state. Militants have had a free run, and will continue to do so: absolutely nothing, and certainly not platitudes from its present Prime Minister, Imran Khan, points to Pakistan’s willingness to forgo what it deems to be the only weapon it wields in its attempt to be heard in the din of contemporary politics.
Pakistan, it should also be noted, has been quite adept at waging a diplomatic and media offensive against India at every turn. Imran Khan’s brilliant quip, describing Pakistani jets’ forays into Indian territory and anticipating its eventual release of the captured Indian pilot, sums up its victory in the latest round: “They hit our trees, so we thought we would hit their stones.” If the Indian position has pivoted around the view that Kashmir is an internal affair, calling strictly for bilateral talks and agreements between the two countries, Pakistan has sought to internationalize the Kashmir conflict. It not only rejects India’s argument that intervention by foreign powers constitutes the abrogation of Indian sovereignty—which, in any case, Pakistan does not recognize with respect to Kashmir—but has also invoked the matter of humanitarian relief for besieged Kashmiris. Pakistan has acted on the supposition that it can enlist the aid of Muslim-majority countries in the name of Islamic brotherhood, and that the liberation of Kashmir’s Muslims contributes to the liberation of Muslims globally. But Pakistan’s diplomatic offensive, however adroitly it has been carried out, has no prospect of succeeding in the long run. It is not only that prolific terrorist activity has given Pakistan a bad name, and in some marginal respects even rendered Pakistan into a semi-pariah state, or that India is bound by the logic of the nation-state to be inflexible in its hold over Kashmir. There is also something of an international consensus, even if it is not always openly conceded, that the Simla Agreement, which the two countries signed in the wake of Pakistan’s defeat in the war of December 1971, legitimately allows India to press for a bilateral rather than international solution to the dispute over Kashmir.
(to be continued)