Irrespective of how round one may play out, in any future engagement round one may not be the endgame.
Post the Balakot airstrikes and the subsequent events that played out, a number of Pakistani commentators and strategic experts have surmised that there is no space for the use of conventional firepower under a nuclear overhang and, therefore, India and Pakistan should go back to talking to each other. Writing in the Pakistani newspaper, Dawn, Ejaz Haider, executive editor at Indus News, and a self-decreed specialist in defence and security, said, "From here on, there's nothing more for India but to understand the imperative of positive engagement through a sustained dialogue. The framework for such engagement is already in place. There is no alternative to talking and walking that talk. But that will not happen until we see the electoral contest in India and its results."
If this particular conclusion from a rather long analytical piece by him represents the thinking of the Pakistani civilian or military leadership nothing could be a more flawed assessment. The premise that enigmatic nuclear thresholds do not provide flexibility to the Indian states to respond conventionally to the use of semi-state actors to perpetrate terror is a completely defective premise. It is a non-sequitur to even believe that India would respond by any other but conventional means to deter and punish Pakistan-sponsored terror. Unlike our Western neighbour, India has not nurtured a variety of venomous snakes in its backyard. As Hilary Clinton had succinctly put it, “It’s like that old story — you can't keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbours. Eventually those snakes are going to turn on whoever has them in the backyard.”
Rather than gloating over the two-day standoff with India and drawing the wrong lessons, what the Pakistani strategic elite really needs to focus upon is the trajectory their nation has taken ever since the mid-eighties when Pakistan willingly decided to become a frontline state in the Afghan jihad against the Soviets. For if Pakistan's claim that they are victims of terror and over 70,000 people have died in terror-related incidents (63,732 from 2000 to March 10, 2019 according to the South Asian Terrorism Portal https://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/pakistan/database/casualties.htm) it is not because of terror or terrorists being sponsored by any neighboring country but primarily because of the rather lethal pets that the deep state has nurtured in its own backyard.
The question that the Pakistani leadership needs to ask itself is, why is Pakistan and not any of its neighbours grey-listed by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) that proscribes terror funding? This time around, Pakistan may have escaped the embarrassment of Masood Azhar being labelled a global terrorist because of Chinese benevolence but what it must reflect upon is why its nationals and organisations based in Pakistan are regularly hauled up before UN Committees to be barred as global terrorists.
If a substantive number of the 63,732 people killed in terror attacks in Pakistan fell to the depredations of suicide bombers then Pakistan has no one but itself to blame. It is Pakistan that brought the phenomenon of suicide bombing to South Asia. Vali Nasr, in his book The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat, recounts that “Steve Coll, the journalist and long-time observer of Afghanistan, writes that in the 1980s when the Afghan warriors were battling the Soviet occupation the CIA was desperately seeking someone to set off a massive vehicle bomb inside the 1.6 mile long Salang tunnel. The tunnel is a crucial north-south link running beneath a difficult pass in the towering Hindukush mountain range and blowing it up would have cut off the main Soviet supply route. In order to be effective the bomb would have to go off mid-tunnel meaning certain death for its operator. In effect the CIA was looking for an Afghan suicide bomber. No one volunteered. Suicide, said the Afghans, was a grievous s
in and quite against their religion, yet fast forward to 2009, and there had been more than 180 suicide bomb attacks in Afghanistan. The Taliban had evolved to make Afghanistan an even more dangerous place.”
Who were the talib (students) who formed the Taliban? They were products of Saudi-funded Wahhabi Islamic madrasas that mushroomed in the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. That is where young boys were transformed into suicide bombers through misinterpreted Islamic theology and self-serving fatwas issued by dodgy clerics. If, therefore, Pakistan argues that the Pulwama suicide bomber was a Kashmiri boy and not a Pakistani it still cannot escape responsibility of institutionalising the suicide bombing culture in South Asia that was alien to our ethos, discounting the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Elam (LTTE) as an odd exception to the rule.
If Pakistan is really serious about peace in the region as Prime Minister Imran Khan would want the world to believe, the answer to that does not lie in talks either with India or Afghanistan, the two neighbours who have been at the receiving end of the depredations and machinations of its portentous deep state but rather with reforming itself. For its own sake, Pakistan requires to dismantle the terror infrastructure that it has spawned; it needs to reclaim the ungoverned spaces in its territory, demilitarise its society and finally understand that the Kraits it has so assiduously nurtured have harmed Pakistan more than its neighbours.
Insofar as India is concerned let there be no misunderstanding that Pakistan cannot bring India to the negotiating table with the terrorist's gun to its head. Every future government in India, irrespective of its complexion, would also be very hard put to exercise strategic restraint if Pakistan continues with its "business as usual attitude". The use of conventional assets, especially airpower, is undoubtedly escalatory, but what Pakistan needs to realise is that the threshold has now been surmounted. We are one step up the escalatory ladder in South Asia. Irrespective of how round one may play out, in any future engagement round one may not be the endgame.
The writer is a lawyer and a former Union minister. The views expressed are personal. Twitter handle @manishtewari