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Can China, Saudis rein in Pak, avert a flareup?

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry. He tweets at @ambkcsingh
Published : Feb 18, 2019, 12:37 am IST
Updated : Feb 18, 2019, 12:37 am IST

All three have condemned terrorism in general terms but shown no evidence of berating Pakistani sponsorship of terror.

A scene of the spot after militants attacked a CRPF convoy in Goripora area of Awantipora town in Pulwama district of J&K on Thursday. At least 49 CRPF jawans were killed in the attack. (Photo: PTI)
 A scene of the spot after militants attacked a CRPF convoy in Goripora area of Awantipora town in Pulwama district of J&K on Thursday. At least 49 CRPF jawans were killed in the attack. (Photo: PTI)

The deadly Pulwama terrorist attack raises multiple questions about the motive of the perpetrators and handlers, the timing and context, considering that the Lok Sabha elections in India and the American-steered Afghan settlement are fast approaching. The Narendra Modi government has been caught off guard, as our intelligence and operational readiness did not provide for altered tactics by the militants, on the backfoot after operational losses. Merely scanning for IEDs and moving long and unwieldy convoys without anticipating a car bomb was asking for disaster. The BJP, realising this, is trying to turn the argument around to reap the nation’s ire by having its cadres and leaders attend the funerals of the 49 slain CRPF personnel. But for a party that vowed “zero” tolerance of terror and briefed the nation with jingoistic fervour on the “surgical strike” after the Uri attack and then revelled in its immortalising through a Bollywood film, there is a dilemma now. The public seeks greater retribution now that
Pakistan, not having been deterred, has unleashed the next attack, more audacious and lethal than the last one. Meanwhile, the geopolitical context has shifted from what it was during the Uri attack in 2016.

First, the United States, led by the always-transactional President Donald Trump, is bent on withdrawing troops from the region and focused on trade and domestic issues. Although his national security adviser John Bolton has called his Indian counterpart and apparently endorsed this country’s right to self-defence or military retaliation, it’s not tantamount to open military backing. This, unlike in the past when the US would urgently push for restraint and pressure Pakistan to curb its terror syndicates, is different. Next, the three nations, in descending order of influence, that can alter Pakistani behaviour, are China, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. All three have condemned terrorism in general terms but shown no evidence of berating Pakistani sponsorship of terror.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with his reputation tainted by murder charges, is stopping by in Pakistan before his India visit on February 19. Some in India celebrated the fact that he had curtailed his Pakistan visit by one day. It turns out he had reasons other than snubbing Pakistan, where a red carpet is being unrolled, including a possible meeting with Taliban representatives, as they meet the US under Pakistani supervision. Similarly, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan was in Abu Dhabi a week ago and received with much pomp and ceremony. The two crown princes, of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, are allies in the Yemen war and overall in countering Iran. Alongside China, they have bailed out Pakistan financially, but whether they are willing and able to use that leverage to get Pakistan to do what US President George W. Bush made President Pervez Musharraf do in 2002 remains to be seen. In 2001, following the 9/11 attacks on the United States, the Jaish-e-Mohammed audaciously attacked India’s Parliament in December. It was aimed to compel India to retaliate militarily, thus allowing Pakistan to withdraw its troops from its western front, where the US was compelling it to seal the border and catch fleeing Al Qaeda and Taliban elements. Although the then Atal Behari Vajpayee government battle-deployed the Indian Army, the US restrained India after getting Pakistan to ban both Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and JeM.

The role now falls on China and the two GCC allies of Pakistan. So far China has only issued anodyne statements but its influence would be exercised quietly. Similarly, whether Crown Prince Salman will press Pakistan to act against abettors of terror is moot. It is unclear what the Modi government would find as minimum acceptable to avoid a military response that may exceed the past “surgical strike”, which only targeted the training and launch pads of militants. For one, Pakistan must, like in 2002, immediately detain Masood Azhar, reportedly suffering from renal failure, and his associates. Also, China will have to lift its veto on the listing of Azhar as an international terrorist by the UN Security Council committee. But can Khan get the Pakistani military to agree when the Afghan endgame seems in Pakistan’s grasp and the strategic depth visible for resuming a wider anti-India game. Pakistan cannot ignore the fact that Iran, perhaps not coincidentally, has blamed Pakistan for a similar killing of IRGC soldiers. Iran sees the US, Saudi and Emirati strategic interest converging with the Taliban, despite its investment in cultivating the Taliban since at least 2005. For instance, Mullah Mansoor, successor to Taliban founder Mullah Omar, was killed in a 2016 US drone strike in Balochistan, apparently re-entering Pakistan from the Iranian border. It was speculated he was eliminated by intelligence given by Pakistan’s ISI as he was adopting an independent line on the Afghan peace talks.

But an additional problem, as the Lok Sabha polls approach, is the BJP’s slipping popularity over distress across rural, informal and industrial parts of economy. Does Pulwama provide Modi a Kargil-2 moment? But military options present problems of escalation control, as a widened confrontation can damage the economy and the government’s image. The operation must be calibrated to satisfy public opinion without spiralling into a tit-for-tat India-Pakistan violence cycle. But India does not have a conventional arms edge that allows quick dominance, degrading of the Pakistani terror infrastructure and deterrence of any Pakistani retaliation. Militants in the pipeline must by now have been dispersed. Waiting to strike when they return has virtue, but the polls timetable compels immediate action. It is possible that JeM and its ISI handlers are not keeping the top military levels in the loop on all operations. If that is so, the denials of Pakistani complicity do not help. Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan’s Army Chief, must immediately align with Khan’s government and accept that JeM, having immediately taken credit for the attack, deserves to be punished. Ironically, the much-maligned Saudi Crown Prince can play the statesman and retrieve lost credibility if he can push Pakistan to act and have India restrain its hand. The next few days and weeks are crucial for South Asia’s future. These line of the poet W.B. Yeats sound ominously appropriate: “Turning and turning in widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/ Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

Tags: pulwama terrorist attack, crpf personnel