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Pains of tackling both terror and Pakistan

By Ashok K Mehta

India seems to have lost the moral high ground on combating terrorism by what some people are calling as ‘Doval-isation’. Even moderate elements in Pakistan are seeking moral equivalence with India. As the convenor of an uninterrupted India-Pakistan track II conference since 2003, even as we were exploring at Dubai, ways and means of reviving the dialogue process, I got a rude shock when Pakistan announced the death sentence to retired Indian naval officer, Kulbhushan Jadhav, alias Husain Mubarak Patel with two passports. The owner of a media house attending the conference called it a new low in India-Pakistan relations. Lately, India seems to have lost the moral high ground on combating terrorism by what some people are calling as ‘Doval-isation’. Seeking moral equivalence with India, even moderate Pakistani interlocutors are regularly citing instances of the slow trial of Samjhauta Express blasts, collusion between Indian and Afghan security agencies for cross-border terrorism in Pakistan and the Modi declarations of political and moral support for Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Balochistan.

They quote National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s statement, albeit before he became a security czar that “if there was another Mumbai, there would be no Balochistan” with Pakistan. Former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar is also a celebrity for his comments like, “To catch a terrorist, use a terrorist”; “going to Pakistan is like going to hell”, and re-thinking India’s No First Use nuclear doctrine. This narrative has allowed Pakistan to shift the focus from being the perpetrator of terrorism to a victim of terrorism emanating from India. Regrettably, all that India has really done is the modest surgical strikes which Pakistanis uniformly deny. On the other hand, a member of the Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJK) Assembly attending the conference accused the Indian Army of targeting a civilian bus and an ambulance in the Neelam valley after Uri and Nagrota. I do hope we are causing sufficient pain and political dividend to deserve the Doval-isation label. A former General and Interior Minister of Pakistan at Dubai, said: “India is perceived as a hegemon, arrogant and state-sponsor of terrorism, determined to destabilise and isolate Pakistan as well as to block the China Pakistan Economic Corridor.” Though every allegation is countered, the moot point is: Has it been strategically worth India’s while doing what Pakistan is alleging? Or are most of these, False Flag operations? The blame game is unending, the trust gap widening, even at civilised Track II meetings such as ours.

What went unnoticed during the Dubai dialogue was the quiet disappearance of a retired Pakistani officer, Lt Col Mohammad Habib Zahir, along the India-Nepal border, notorious as a trading point for spies, soothsayers and terrorists. Zahir was ostensibly involved in the capture of Kulbhushan Jadhav in a landmark Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) operation which has made Pakistani charges of Indian espionage and terrorism stick domestically. Rawalpindi has been able to sell the canard that it was India and not Pakistan which was the regional villain in sponsoring terrorism. The alleged abduction of Zahir in early April was a classic revenge operation masterminded by Research &Analysis Wing (R&AW). According to a Pakistani Brigadier, he was lured to Nepal via Oman, evidently for a UN job. His military colleagues are incensed with his ‘greedy behaviour’ which landed him in the R&AW trap. Feeling vulnerable, retired Indian Generals are now loath to travel to Nepal or the Gulf region. The anti-India sentiment in Pakistan, and among the establishment in particular, is very high.

The visit of Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to New Delhi around the same time as the disappearance of Zahir and pictures of Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Hasina sitting against the backdrop of the legendary 1971 surrender ceremony at Dacca going viral in Pakistan, is another blow to Indian-Pakistan bilateral relations. On Track II discourse, matters have not got out of hand, which is the case at Track 1. Despite India’s valiant attempts, Pakistan is not isolated. In fact, it has a new ally in Russia, besides the indelible and enduring strategic bonding with China. Even US National Security Advisor Lt Gen HR McMaster, in his first meeting with Pakistani Generals this month, delivered only the mildest of rebukes, counselling the use of diplomacy not proxies, and not being selective on countering terrorism. The constant problem is of the diarchy of Governments in Pakistan  Rawalpindi and Islamabad  which adversely impacts bilateral relations. No way has been found working around the Pakistan military, though informal military-to-military dialogues have long tried to overcome this hurdle. It seems neither the Generals in Pakistan nor the Government in India are interested in high level military contacts.

The most recently crafted two-strand Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue  NSA and Foreign Secretary  which is yet to break the ice, has the potential of blossoming into an outcome-yielding path. It has one snag though. On the Indian side, it has a policeman, not a soldier, as the NSA. I have never understood why the Indian ruling  political class has not selected a General or Admiral and instead persisted with a diplomat or an intelligence chief for the post.

The Pakistan NSA, Lt Gen Nasser Janjua, would bond better and famously with, for example, Lt Gen HS Panag, a recently retired Kashmir Army Commander, or Admiral Arun Prakash or any other military officer. US President Donald Trump has seven retired Generals and Admirals on his National Security Staff. It is time Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is frequently invoking the good work of the Army, tried out a military man as his NSA, even though a Chief of Defence Staff is yet to be appointed. The military has been systematically enfeebled by the lack of finance, and against which fear and suspicion has been engineered by the bureaucracy. The military is still portrayed as a threat. So much for nationalism! The Dubai dialogue recognised that present conditions were not conducive for reviving the dialogue process that has been stalled with the longest interruption of four and a half years. Still, both sides felt that core concerns of Kashmir and terrorism be addressed swiftly, especially when the situation in the Srinagar valley was slipping out of control. In absence of any political  engagement and outreach with stakeholders and youth, the continuing over-dependence on the military is bound to be counter productive. On Kashmir, the Four-point Musharraf formula once refined and rebranded, could constitute the framework of a solution. On terrorism, finger-pointing has become the new normal. A Panamagate weakened Nawaz Sharif and on an all-time high, Modi will be together in Kazakhstan in early June as full members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. A deal on a swap of Jadhav for Zahir could become the ice breaker. Remember, Modi invited Sharif for his swearing in, dropped in at Lahore for Sharif’s grand daughter’s wedding and called him before his heart operation in London. Will Modi pull out a rabbit in Astana?

(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army, and a strategic affairs expert).

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