Events on the subcontinent are moving quickly, with uncertain outcomes. In short order, Prime Minister Narendra Modi won a resounding mandate. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attended his oath-taking, a savvy symbolic gesture of potential import. One faction of the Pakistani Taliban carried out a brazen attack on Karachi’s international airport, after which Pakistan’s armed forces launched a “comprehensive operation against foreign and local terrorists” in North Waziristan.
After a year of hesitation, Nawaz’s government has finally joined the fight. But it’s unclear whether the Army has a plan to succeed. It’s hard enough to fight shadows, sleeper cells, hardened Taliban fighters and what euphemistically used to be known as “guest militants,” like the Uzbeks reportedly involved in the airport attack. It’s harder when civil and military leaders spar over punishing Pervez Musharraf for suspending regular order to extend his rule, and when Pakistan’s military and intelligence services treat media outlets and journalists who broadcast unwanted messages as enemies. Whatever plans are unfurled in the weeks ahead will prompt even more explosions. The only question is where.
Many scenarios are in play, ranging from positive to catastrophic. A big boost in direct trade between India and Pakistan can improve Pakistan’s economic prospects, but this won’t be easy for Nawaz. Blocking maneuvers in Pakistan are underway, even Operation Zarb-e-Azb ramps up.
Op-ed pages carried trenchant criticism of Nawaz’s performance in Delhi. Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s former Ambassador to the United States and High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, took him to task for failing to defend Pakistan’s diplomatic priorities and concerns, to object to Delhi’s narrative about terrorism, and to take up the Kashmir cause in a public way.
Maleeha’s most significant complaint was that Nawaz’s oddly cobbled-together team – he has yet to appoint a Foreign Minister – is presumed to be open to India’s desire to restructure the “composite dialogue,” which dates back to 1997. This on-and-off-again format – eight baskets of issues including trade, terrorism, nuclear matters, water, Kashmir and lesser territorial disputes – was designed to allow both countries to raise priority concerns and, in theory, to facilitate trades. In reality, few deals have been consummated because priorities differ. In Maleeha’s view,
To so cavalierly abandon Pakistan’s longstanding position – without any sense of what might replace this structure or what India would agree to – is beyond comprehension…
The risks of abandoning a well-established multi-tiered process and recasting the terms of the future dialogue are obvious. India might seek to narrow the bandwidth of talks by cherry picking issues of its priority…
The greatest risk lies in a ‘new architecture’ that might relegate Kashmir to the back channel and take it out of the formal peace process. This will erode its international and bilateral status as a dispute and send an unmistakably negative signal to the Kashmiris.
Other critics seek more muscular remedies. Shamshad Ahmad, Pakistan’s hard-line Foreign Secretary during Nawaz’s previous tenure, urged him to stay home and then hammered him for going, resurrecting rhetoric on Kashmir that was shelved during Musharraf’s tenure:
“What must be clear to [Nawaz] is that peace in South Asia will remain elusive as long as Kashmir remains under Indian occupation. There can be no compromise on this issue.
There is only one fair, just, legal and moral solution to Kashmir, which was provided by the United Nations, and which both India and Pakistan mutually accepted in UN Security Council resolutions.
Translation: The future of Kashmir is fundamental to the future of Pakistan. Therefore, Pakistan is justified to turn up the heat across the Kashmir divide, just like in the 1990s when the ISI shifted assets and tactics there from Afghanistan.
Shahzad Chaudry, a columnist, retired Air Vice Marshal, had this to say:
Terror is a two-way concern. And let me add, as long as Kashmir doesn’t resolve… terror will continue to be the only tool that the repressed there will use to assert their voice against the state’s repressiveness. Terror in Kashmir is rooted in Kashmir and is only augmented by regional imports, just as Pakistan faces a conglomerate of threats coalesced under the banner of ideological support to a brand that works against Pakistan.
There are way too many moving parts on the subcontinent at present. A decision to boost direct trade without the usual haggles would produce more winners than losers, but Modi, a far more formidable and less predictable leader than Manmohan Singh, is not trusted. US-Pakistan relations are uncertain, and as US troops leave Afghanistan, the TTP will find safe havens across the Afghan border, an ironic twist. On top of all this, internal security concerns are growing along with the tempo of military operations.
Nawaz Sharif has not used his electoral mandate to good effect, the ISI is defending its prerogatives, and civil-military relations are frayed. The only thing missing from this combustible mix is increased friction along the Kashmir divide. Sure enough, Pakistani media outlets reported on June 13th that Indian troops initiated indiscriminate firing along the Kashmir divide, prompting Pakistani troops to retaliate. Indian media outlets reported that Pakistani troops initiated the firing, which is far more likely. Why elevate the Kashmir issue now, after such a long hiatus? What good can come from doing so?
One possible reason would be to put India on the defensive — but this strategy has consistently produced more pain than gain for Pakistanis and Kashmiris. A second possibility is to block the prospect of improved India-Pakistan relations. Elevating concerns about Indian misrule in Kashmir and support for separatists in Balochistan could also serve as a prelude or justification for upping the ante across the Kashmir divide – or worse, another attack originating in Pakistan on an Indian city. Praveen Swami, who writes must-read pieces in The Hindu, surmises that, “for Pakistan’s Army, mired in a losing war against the jihadists it once nurtured, hostilities with India offer the sole hope of repairing its relationship with the jihadists.”
Raising the Kashmir cause at this juncture might reflect internal maneuvering between Pakistan’s power centers. Or perhaps this is merely shadow play to prompt the Modi government to recommit to the composite dialogue and to lay off changes in Kashmir’s status — or some combination of the above.
Many scenarios are in play, ranging from positive to catastrophic. Bilateral relations could improve markedly by fast-tracking a significant increase in direct trade. The Modi government could cut Pakistan considerable slack during Operation Zarb-e-Azb. Alternatively, if Rawalpindi raises the stakes on its losing hand in Kashmir, the new Indian government seeks to change the status quo in Kashmir, or if surrogates are not kept in check, trying times lie ahead. The most dangerous scenario is another major crisis sparked by a spectacular act of terror in India carried out by groups that are either unencumbered or aided by Pakistan’s intelligence services.
Bottom line: Buckle your seat belts.