Do talks with Islamabad really make a difference when it’s clear that the shots are called by the Pakistani army?

India has only one way to break the deadlock with Pakistan – make it pay for terror attacks
Photo Credit: Pedro Ugarte/AFP
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Unless India evolves a strategy to impose a cost on Pakistan for spawning terrorism, it is doomed to remain trapped in the veritable cycle of diplomatic thaw and freeze. New Delhi may not call off the foreign secretary talks scheduled between the two countries for this month, but the ferocious attack on the Pathankot air base and the aborted raid on the Indian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif raise the question: Why does India persist in talking to Pakistan, given its refusal to refrain from deploying terror as a tool of diplomacy?

India talks to Pakistan to bring about a change in its behaviour, in the hope of resolving all their outstanding disputes amicably. India wants Pakistan to refrain from sponsoring acts of terror in India, to stop training jihadists, to close down its terror nurseries and come to the table for negotiations.

Pakistan, quite evidently, believes India will not budge on Kashmir to the extent of satisfying the Army-ISI dyad, which thrives on the existential and ideological insecurities of the nation forever suspicious of its neighbour’s intentions. Its insecurity stems from the historical fact of India playing a vital role in Pakistan’s vivisection which led to the birth of Bangladesh, an enduring symbol of the relative difference in their power, both hard and soft.

The power differential has convinced Islamabad that New Delhi cannot provide it comfort on Kashmir, or can even imperil Pakistan, unless cost is inflicted on India. It seeks to impose this cost through the terror machine it has primed over the years. Theoretically, India can dispel Pakistan’s fears, real or imagined, only through talks and negotiations.

Yet the mechanism of negotiations has often been devalued in the past because of major terror strikes in India, provoking New Delhi to freeze talks intermittently. It was indeed a case of déjà vu that the parleys between the National Security Advisors of the two countries in Bangkok last month, the successful visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Afghanistan, and his stop-over in Lahore on December 25 were followed by attacks in Pathankot and Mazar-e-Sharif.

Doing the maths

Given that India is said to have had intelligence of a possible attack on Pathankot 10 days before it was launched, some have argued against linking the incident to Modi’s stop-over in Lahore. They have consequently argued against calling off the scheduled meeting between the two foreign secretaries.

What they forget is that the 10 days of advance intelligence falls well within the time-frame of the Indo-Pak NSA talks in Bangkok. The thaw in Indo-Pak diplomatic relations had even then seemed a distinct possibility, presumably to the displeasure of the Pakistan Army.

It is public knowledge that Pakistan’s civilian government and its Army are not on the same page regarding, among other things, Islamabad’s India policy. This has prompted policy wonks to argue that India should strengthen Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s hand and stay on course with regard to diplomatic talks.

But rarely has anyone been able to cogently explain how diplomatic negotiations could alter the equation between the Sharif government and the Army. If anything, considering the bloody past, successful talks would only provoke the Army to abort them through insidious actions. This is why India is truly caught in a hard place as far as the scheduled talks between the foreign secretaries go.

Should India call off the talks, it would signal the failure of Modi’s Pakistan policy and even become a symbol of his diplomatic naivety. For all his shrill rhetoric that he has it in him to compel Pakistan to behave responsibly, he would be back on the same square that previous prime ministers have occupied. It will also pressure him to spell out the conditions in which Indo-Pak discussions would be initiated again.

Setting conditions

Nor can India insist on Pakistan taking measurable compensatory action – namely, to impose some penalty on the Jaish-e-Mohammad – as a condition for going ahead with the scheduled talks. Pakistan will likely deny it had a role in the attacks on Pathankot or Mazar-e-Sharif or will demand that India furnish proof of Islamabad’s culpability. This would be akin to mocking New Delhi because the terrorists in the Pathankot attack seem to have deliberately left behind the signature that they came from Pakistan.

To participate in the scheduled talks without making them conditional will convey that India is engaged in the meaningless exercise of creating an ambience of camaraderie which is bound to be vitiated sooner than later. This scenario seems inevitable because of the culture of impunity in which the Pakistan military operates.

This attitude has been created not just by geo-political factors but because of the dubious role of global powers, more precisely the United States. For one, the Democratic dispensation in Washington, unlike that of the Republicans, tend to hyphenate India and Pakistan, traditionally more empathetic as it has been to Islamabad’s interests. A Democrat in the White House expects, and pressures, India to provide comfort to Pakistan even though it uses terror as a diplomatic tool.

Two, there is also the nuclear worry. Often described as a failing state, the US seeks to bolster the Pakistani state (in reality shorthand for the Pakistan military), believing such a policy is a guarantee against non-state actors appropriating nuclear arms. Ironically, the Pakistani military’s adventurism only enhances America’s worries that it might resort to nuclear brinkmanship unless the generals are appeased or mollycoddled.

Third, there is the factor of Afghanistan. US President Barack Obama is keen to leave behind the legacy of restoring Afghanistan to a modicum of stability, to herald a diplomatic triumph in the graveyard that West Asia has become because of his foreign policy. It is Pakistan which can deliver Afghanistan to Obama, not the least because of the influence and control Islamabad wields over the terror networks there, including that of the Taliban.

Four, China’s support to Pakistan, which Beijing considers its all-season friend, is another factor for the impunity with which the Pakistan military operates. It isn’t Beijing’s worry, if not to its rejoicing, that Islamabad resorts to pinpricking New Delhi periodically. These pinpricks of Pakistan disabuse India of its pretensions of being a global power.

The real power

From this perspective, diplomatic talks in fits and starts will not have Pakistan change its behaviour. This change will definitely not occur through meetings with just their civilian leaders. India will have to fathom what the Pakistan Army wants in return for ensuring terror attacks don’t emanate from its side of the border. In other words, Pakistan will not alter its behaviour unless the Pakistan Army changes its attitude.

Nations come to the negotiating table in earnest when there are gains to be made or losses to be cut. It is moot what India can offer to the Pakistan Army, the reason for its reluctance to break bread. This is why New Delhi will have to think of evolving strategies to inflict cost on Pakistan for its adamant refusal to change it behaviour and neutralise its Army’s veto power over the India-Pakistan relationship.

Obviously, the tactics of inflicting cost on Pakistan has to be one strand in New Delhi’s multipronged strategy to engage Islamabad. It must, for instance, work with Afghanistan and Iran to contain terrorism. Nor does it need to put on hold people-to-people contact or liberalise visa regimes or facilitate trade.

But none of these will insulate India from terrorism from across the border unless the Pakistan Army is made to realise that there is a cost involved in sending jihadists to India.

But even as it considers the method of imposing cost on Pakistan, it must also introspect. That India failed to pre-empt the terror attack on the Pathankot Air Base despite having prior intelligence testifies to its own ineptness. That it took inordinately long to neutralise the terrorists is an indictment of the security forces. That no headway has been made to domestically resolve the Kashmir problem is a searing commentary on the sloth of our political class.