Pakistan has painted itself into a corner today. It’s continued employment of terrorists as ‘strategic assets’ in waging a proxy war against India stands exposed before the world. It is, therefore, posing as a “peace-loving nation”, ready for talks with India. The statements of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan urging for talks, accompanied by the release of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthman (a matter in which they had very little choice, considering the Geneva Convention norms) have been seized upon by the usual suspects in India. They have joined in unison with Pakistani voices “to give peace a chance”. Before taking any decision, we need to zoom out and look at the bigger picture to put the correct perspective on these placatory moves by Pakistan.
Kashmir’s accession to India in 1947 was a big blow to the ‘two nation theory’, on the basis of which Pakistan itself was created. It tried to remedy that by force, sending in ‘Kabailis’ mixed with regular Pakistani army personnel in civvies, to seize Kashmir and present a fait accompli. Rapid action by Indian Army saved the day, and for the next one year, we systematically pushed back Pakistani forces from a large part of Kashmir. In a highly questionable decision, the then Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru took the matter to the United Nations and accepted a ceasefire brokered by them before all of Kashmir could be liberated. This resulted in the creation of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. It also resulted in the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir acquiring the status of a ’disputed area’.
In 1965 Pakistan Army once again tried to seize Kashmir by force, following a template similar to 1947 – infiltrating irregulars accompanied by Pakistan Army regulars into the Kashmir Valley. They thought that the Indian Army, having recently suffered a major setback in the war against China in 1962, was too weak and demoralised to fight back strongly. We proved them wrong when, under the leadership of a new Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indian Armed Forces not only threw out the raiders from Kashmir but also launched an offensive into Pakistani heartland in Punjab. In the next fortnight, we made major territorial gains in Jammu and Kashmir as well as Punjab. Once again, before a decisive blow could be struck, we succumbed to international pressure and agreed for a ceasefire. Both sides agreed to return captured territory and go back to the status quo. Kashmir remained unresolved.
In 1971 the focus shifted from the North to the East, when Pakistani atrocities in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) led to an influx of millions of refugees into India. The humanitarian crisis thus caused compelled India to resort to war once again. This time Pakistani forces were decisively defeated and signed an instrument of surrender. Indian Army took approximately 92,000 Pakistani personnel as prisoners of war. Once again, the political leadership turned the victory on the battlefield into a defeat on the negotiating table. We released the prisoners unconditionally while failing to seek a decisive resolution of the Kashmir issue.
The defeat of 1971 rankled deeply with Pakistan. It set off a chain of events which led them to formulate a strategy of inflicting ‘death by a thousand cuts’ to India, which is still in operation. Simply put, it meant Pakistan realized that India was far too strong for Pakistan to take on militarily. So Gen Zia Ul Haq came up with a strategy to use terrorism as a tool to target India in Kashmir and other parts of India. The Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan had left a large surplus of weapons and trained guerrillas which could be used in this proxy war. This war has been playing out ever since, with occasional flare-ups like the Kargil episode and Operation Parakram after the attack on India parliament.
Pakistan’s strategy has been to keep the pot boiling, just enough, but to avoid it simmering over. Engage Indian Army in Low-Intensity Conflict without allowing escalation into a full-fledged war. That’s why the moment it realises it has gone too far – like in Kargil, after the Parliament attack, or now after Pulwama – it immediately backtracks and starts making placatory noises. But every time, terrorist attacks resume after a short interval. The unfortunate part is that successive Indian governments have been obliging enough to go along with this playbook of Pakistan.
One of the key election planks that Narendra Modi came to power on was a tough posture on Pakistan. Yet, to be fair, he began his term with earnest efforts to give peace a real chance. The invitation to Nawaz Sharif to attend his swearing-in ceremony, the subsequent bonhomie including the unexpected stopover in Pakistan, were all aimed at this. Pakistan responded with a terrorist attack in Pathankot. Like after all major attacks, Pakistan feigned innocence and promised to act against ‘non-state actors’ provided they were given proof. In the past, comprehensive dossiers of evidence (including the statements of Ajmal Kasab, the Pakistani terrorist caught alive after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks) had been provided to Pakistan, but without any concrete action. After Pathankot, the government went a step further and agreed to allow a Pakistani team to physically visit the attack site – with a predictable outcome – nought.
Shortly afterwards came the Uri attack. This time significant retributory action was authorised by the government. Special Forces teams carried out attacks on terrorist launch pads inside PoK. Unlike similar actions in the past, the government this time took full ownership of having ordered the army to cross the Line of Control (LoC) and strike at terrorist targets. This was escalation phase 1. A clear signal was sent out that the manner in which we will deal with terror attacks on our soil had changed. But the point wasn’t apparently driven home hard enough – and the Pulwama attack followed.
Now India has undertaken an unprecedented retaliatory action by carrying out air strikes, not only on terrorist camps in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) but also in Pakistan itself. This was escalation phase 2. The subsequent foiled Pakistani air strike on Indian military targets in Jammu and Kashmir, the downing of Pakistani F-16 and Indian MiG 21, the capture and subsequent return of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthman – that’s where we are now. As per the time tested script, Pakistan is now trying to cool things down by making placatory noises. Like a broken record, it has once again promised to act against terror, provided India ‘gives them proof’. They are urging us to come to the dialogue table and resume talks. The usual suspects within our country have been quick to seize upon this as evidence of Pakistan’s desire for peace, and voices for India to ‘give peace a chance’ are coming from expected quarters.
It is now for the government to decide whether it will press home the advantage it currently has, or succumb to Pakistan’s promises of dealing with terrorists and de-escalate militarily. Lessons from the past tell us that we should get Pakistan to deliver BEFORE we ease the pressure this time. The minimum we must demand before pulling back is unconditional handing over of Masood Azhar, Hafiz Sayeed and Dawood Ibrahim, and complete dismantling of terror infrastructures in Pakistan.
This is not a hot-headed call to war, as no one knows the price paid for active hostilities than a soldier. This is a call to ensure long-lasting peace – one in which we don’t have to constantly look over our shoulders fearing the next terrorist attack. In which soldiers and paramilitary men aren’t killed every other day. Days of thousand cuts are over. The time is ripe, and if the advantage isn’t pressed home now, 2019 might be just another lost opportunity like 1948, 1965 and 1971.