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Understanding Pakistan a Little Better

It is typically characteristic of Indian posturing and narrative to take a moral high-ground vis-à-vis Pakistan’s non-secular existence.

With the spate of violent protests in Kashmir and Pakistan’s allegations of human rights violations and suppression against India, once again the age-old and perennially relevant question in the strategic world has come up: How should India deal with Pakistan?

Time and again it has been felt that India has lacked a systematic and long-term Pakistan policy in the last 60 years. Its policy has at most been reactionary, spontaneous and short term, and based on miscalculations. This can be attributed to many factors like absence of communication between the military brass and bureaucratic-diplomatic cabal, or rather the malicious smugness of the latter vis-à-vis the former.

Other factors include things like a lack of a nationalist and realistic perspective in strategic thinking among India’s policymaking and intellectual circles. A sort of moralistic and idealistic approach that draws its inspiration from Jawaharlal Nehru’s idealistic vision has marked India’s strategic culture, much to its disadvantage, which has become irreversible over time.

One such idealistic approach advocates diplomatically engaging Pakistan with sustained dialogue at the political level. This has been the favored rhetoric of people across the spectrum from die-hard liberals to the so-called “realistic” policy wonks of India.

The problem with this kind of approach is that it comes without sufficient understanding of Pakistani psyche, the country’s true intentions and existential limitations. An exploration of these issues will require some reflection upon the nation’s origin and sociopolitical evolution over the last 70 years.

Understanding the Playing Field

The most pertinent question that comes up while addressing the issue of strategic dialogue with Pakistan is: Whom should India talk to? In Pakistan, there are multiple actors calling the shots. Most importantly and most powerfully, it is the army that runs the state. Then the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), better known as the “deep state” in the strategic world, is the real player who controls the state apparatus.

Then there are fledgling and weak democratic leaders like Nawaz Sharif, Asif Ali Zardari and Imran Khan. There are non-state actors like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and an array of religious parties existing in the gray zone between extremist groups, terrorist organizations, charities or political bodies. These groups have been bred over decades by the military to suit its political and strategic interests. Now they play a major role in the social, cultural, political and the formal state apparatus of Pakistan. The worrying concern is that many of these non-state actors have gone beyond the control of the army and have become potent players in the global Islamic movement with their superb transnational networks, ready supply of recruits and funds, and strong expertise in the tradecraft of insurgency and terrorism.

Finally, there are international players like Saudi Arabia, China and the United States who exercise tremendous political and economic influence in Pakistan. Among all the aforementioned players, Pakistan’s army along with the ISI can be accepted as the most important player for all practical purposes. It can be argued that if India wants to engage any institution in Pakistan — for concrete action and result — in a diplomatic dialogue, then it has to be the army. However, the question that arises is whether the army is genuinely interested in resolving the issues of Kashmir, terrorism and non-state actors.

Eminent Pakistan experts like Christine Fair, Ayesha Siddiqi, Hussain Haqqani and M.J. Akbar have suggested that the Pakistani army derives its sustenance through the Kashmir conflict. As long as it can sustain the perception of India as an existential threat and an ideological antithesis, it can continue getting a large portion of state revenue, land holdings, financial resources and all other types of state largesse besides political and social clout. For this to happen, it is quintessential to keep the Kashmir issue alive.

Keeping Kashmir Alive

Whenever there has been any attempt by the democratic leadership to negotiate peacefully, it has been met with resistance by the army — unless it has been initiated by the army itself or has seen an active involvement of military brass.

Further, there is an extensive jihadi infrastructure that has been created over the last 60 years in the name of Kashmir that has now become uncontrollable and has stakes in the continuation of conflict: The fighters fear to be out of employment if peace attempts succeed. The result is organized sabotage by such groups against any attempt at peaceful negotiations, such as the Mumbai or Pathankot attacks.

Today, it is said that these groups have gone beyond the army’s control and have turned into Frankenstein’s monster, and so the military cannot be blamed for each every act of terrorism. However, facts on the ground tell a different story. Groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and TTP have thrown a major challenge to the sociopolitical fabric of Pakistan and engaged the army in severe gun battles. But this is not true with respect to India-specific non-state actors like LeT and Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM). These are still regarded as strategic assets by the Pakistan army and given favorable treatment.

With regard to political parties, it must be said that, first, they simply do not have enough clout. Second, since the perception of India is that of an existential threat, going overboard with peace overtures will be a political disaster for these so-called malnourished democratic forces. International players like the US and China have their own geostrategic calculations to keep India and Pakistan engaged in a pattern of conflict-dialogue without any honest intention to find a mutually agreeable solution to both the contemporary and historical disputes.

Finally, the people of Pakistan have been fed a distorted and hateful narrative of nationalism over the years that thrive on lies, hatred and religious extremism. As of late, intense Wahhabi and Deobandi radicalization of society has dealt a final blow to the remnants of liberal and tolerant Sufi culture and intensified the anti-West, anti-kuffar (non-Muslim), anti-minorities and anti-India hatred. The aforementioned actors might clash with each other over several issues, but there is a broad consensus over the perception of India as an existential threat that deserves to be countered at every step and by all means.

Tinderbox Past and Future

What are the true reasons for this mindset of suspicion, belligerence and perpetual animosity?

Writing in Foreign Policy, Nisid Hajari states that Pakistanis always perceived the Indian National Congress (INC) party’s opposition to partition as their non-acceptance of the idea of Pakistan. Although the INC’s stand stemmed from idealism, good faith and secularism, for proponents and followers of an independent Pakistan as a fortress of Islam, it had a religious sanctity and any opposition to it was bound to be a civilizational or existential threat.

The INC tried to understand the All-India Muslim League from its own standpoint and could never grasp the subconscious of the Pakistan movement. M.J. Akbar, in his classic work, Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan, maintains that the genesis of the idea of Pakistan can be traced back to the fear that arose in the minds of Muslim ruling elites and intellectuals after the fall of the Mughal Empire. Eminent philosophers and intellectuals like Syed Ahmad Khan and Muhammad Iqbal, with their modern and secular educational background, could never come to terms with the idea of sharing political space with the majority Hindus as equal partners. In the mainstream academic and strategic discourse in Pakistan, the country is primarily perceived as an Islamic entity and India as a Hindu one.

The underlying philosophical doctrine of the Pakistan army also places itself against this “Hindu India.” When this author mentions these words, the intention is not to project any communal aspirations, but simply to state a fact of strategic affairs in South Asia. It is the way the Pakistani establishment thinks and nothing can be done about it. At best, one needs to understand this and accept it.

Moreover, the centrifugal forces in Pakistan have been very strong since its creation. Their project was to build a nation and, for that, there was no binding factor except Islam. Over the last 70 years, Islam and Kashmir have evolved as the primary instruments of cultivating nationalism. It is an existential compulsion to sustain and feed the perception that India poses an existential threat. If not compulsion, it is definitely something in which the main stakeholders have a binding interest. Therefore, Pakistanis (the army, to be precise) might not want a full-scale war, but would always be interested in sustaining something less than a war, interspersed with some periodic stunts like Kargil.

While engaging with Islamabad, the limitations of Pakistan need to be factored in and India’s long-term policy must be based on the nuanced understanding of the Pakistani mindset. Unless the instincts and rationale driving Pakistan’s actions are known, India cannot predict its strategic posture. Now, the question that arises is what is the right way to engage an adversary with such a complex personality?

First, the engagement has to come out of its teleological and futuristic approach. Such an approach is purposive and begins with the unrealistic aspirations of finding lasting solutions to the longstanding disputes like Kashmir and cross-border terrorism. The approach has to be mechanical, aiming to curtail the incidents of military showdowns and terrorist attacks. With this philosophy, the engagement strategy has to span over a broad spectrum, ranging from strong undercover pressure tactics and sabotage to a formal dialogue process.

Second, India has to weigh up the different stakeholders and then decide whom to engage. While doing this, a system of checks and balances based on strictly pragmatic grounds of its national interest must be developed and implemented in both a tactical and strategic manner. As it engages with the most important stakeholders in the short run, India must strengthen those that suit its regional interests in the long run.

Third, international isolation through diplomatic efforts will be immensely advantageous vis-à-vis the costs incurred. Fourth, direct communication channels between the intelligence agencies of the two countries may go a long way in averting many conflicts that arise out of charged passions. Fifth, India must demarcate its red lines and back its pronouncements with actions. A genuinely-felt fear of Indian reprisal and covert actions can be extremely helpful in preventing the state-backed, non-state actors from undertaking any Mumbai-like tragedy in the future that could be a trigger for military action, possibly escalating to a nuclear conflict.

There is a midway solution possible that can satisfy the prominent stakeholders of Pakistan by keeping the India threat alive and also address the uncertainty and instability arising from the fear of unintentional escalation of short military action into an all-out nuclear war. The payoffs are equal as it is a zero-sum game. What India needs is just the right understanding of Pakistan’s aspirations and limitations, and a realistic flavor in its approach. If New Delhi understands the Pakistanis correctly, it can compel them to act more rationally and finish the incentives to indulge in misadventures.

It is typically characteristic of Indian posturing and narrative to take a moral high-ground vis-à-vis Pakistan’s non-secular existence as if still trying to undo history. Partition occurred and it is a historical fact that can never be undone or used to proclaim a moral high-ground by virtue of India’s existence as a successful and multicultural democracy for the last 70 years. It should not be forgotten that secularism and democracy are not the most sought-after objectives for societies and political systems driven by religious extremism.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Racide