By Zahid Hussain
THE Indian prime minister has laid bare his strategy of what some analysts describe as a ‘vertical and horizontal escalation’. He apparently seeks to encircle and bleed Pakistan dry by intensifying cross-border covert operations while keeping the option of military strikes open. He vows to internationally isolate Pakistan and wants to cripple it economically.
He even threatens to use water as a weapon in the conflict. He feels that by deepening India’s strategic collaboration with Afghanistan and other regional countries, he could have Islamabad on its knees.
It is potentially a costly gamble by the Indian leader who is known for his huge appetite for risk. Such reckless action could easily spiral out of control and turn into a full-blown military confrontation. The underlying calculation of Modi’s escalation is that India can afford this brinkmanship given the country’s growing global influence. But it is hard to believe that the international community has the same appetite for conflagration in one of the world’s most combustible regions.
It is true that the world has sympathised with New Delhi over the Uri attack, the most deadly one in the disputed territory of India-held Kashmir in the past two decades. And it has largely remained silent on the Indian state’s atrocities in the area. This stance of Western powers, in the words of writer Pankaj Mishra, stems from the “fantasies of Western strategists” to use India as a counterweight to China.
Even a minor violation of the Indus Waters Treaty could push the two countries towards conflict.
Yet the gross human rights violations and brutal use of force to suppress the popular uprising in India-held Kashmir has not completely escaped the attention of international rights groups. The Indian government has drawn strong criticism for not allowing a UN observer team to visit the troubled territory. It could also be the reason that the Uri attack was unable to get the same kind of traction as other terrorist actions in India in the past. What the Indian government refuses to accept is that it is an internal rather than an external problem in Kashmir — and one that it needs to deal with.
Though a covert war between India and Pakistan has been going on for the past several decades, New Delhi’s active support for the secessionist movement in Balochistan could trigger a new round of sub-conventional warfare in the region with disastrous consequences for both countries. The Indian move will only encourage the hardliners in the Pakistani security establishment to toughen their stance providing justification to bolster support to the jihadists.
That would have disastrous consequences for regional peace and security. Pakistan has already paid a heavy price for using militancy as a tool for proxy wars in the region. Indian involvement will have a negative effect on Pakistan’s ongoing campaign against militancy and violent extremism.
India’s move to use its strategic relations with the government in Kabul to increase pressure and encircle Pakistan is most worrying. Islamabad has long accused India of using Afghan territory for carrying out subversive activities inside Pakistan. And Modi’s statements reinforce Islamabad’s worst nightmare.
But using Afghanistan against Pakistan should be of concern to the US and other Western coalition partners. Such actions could further destabilise Afghanistan and turn it into a battlefield for India and Pakistan’s proxy war, making it more difficult to find a political solution to the Afghan crisis.
The indication by India that it could unilaterally revoke the Indus Waters Treaty, which has survived three wars and decades of confrontation between the two countries, is ominous. This is the first time that any Indian leader has showed signs of wanting to renege on an agreement that is supposed to be untouchable. The treaty was signed between the two countries under the auspices of the World Bank that resolved the water dispute between the two countries.
Though it will not be easy to annul an international treaty unilaterally, Modi’s moves to make the agreement controversial are dangerous with serious long-term consequences. India has already suspended a regular water commission meeting until what it describes as “Pakistani-sponsored terrorism in India” ends. That in itself is a provocation.
Even a minor violation of the treaty could push the two countries towards a military conflict. One wonders why the Modi government has raised the issue at all. Even more embarrassing for the prime minister would be how to climb down from his extreme position that may isolate his government.
Unsurprisingly, many Indians are opposed to Modi’s belligerent policy against Pakistan. According to a PEW survey published recently, nearly half of respondents across the border do not approve of Modi’s policies concerning Islamabad despite the fact that public sentiments against Pakistan have risen.
It is apparent that Modi has grossly miscalculated that he can manage the diplomatic fallout of an escalation because India is now much better placed in the world today. Surely, as one of fastest-growing economies India’s standing has significantly improved in the world. But there is the huge question of whether that would help it maintain its position in the event of a confrontation with Pakistan.
Meanwhile, Modi has vowed to intensify efforts to make Pakistan a pariah state in the eyes of the international community and diplomatically isolate Islamabad over its alleged export of terrorism. Undoubtedly, our own flawed policies and inability to take out all shades of terrorist and militant groups operating from our territories has provoked widespread international scepticism. Yet Modi’s stance is taking it too far to make Pakistan a pariah state. Undoubtedly Pakistan has suffered from lack of coherent foreign and security policies mainly due to multiple power centres causing it huge diplomatic setbacks in the past few years. But it remains a very important country for the world given its critical geostrategic position.
Any effort to destabilise Pakistan through covert and overt operations will have serious consequences not only for the region but also for India itself. Modi has thrown the gauntlet and now it is for Pakistan to put its house in order to confront the challenge.
The writer is an author and journalist.