By M. K. Narayanan
22 January 2016
The Pakistani deep state’s complicity in
the Pathankot attack established, ‘yo-yo diplomacy’ will yield no tangible
outcomes for India. The government must focus on building military capacity
along the border and wait it out before returning to a step-by-step
Weeks after a Fidayeen attack on the
Pathankot airbase, several key questions are yet to be answered. Among these
are: if indeed there was good intelligence, why was the airbase so poorly
guarded, and the intelligence not acted upon? How does one explain the gaping
holes in the security architecture of a military installation situated so close
to the border? Why was there no unified command and control once the attack
Also, when the Indian and Pakistani
National Security Advisers (NSAs) met in Bangkok, did they, or did they not,
envisage the possibility of a terror attack to try and disrupt the Foreign
Secretary-level talks? If they did, what were the contingency plans in place?
The biggest question of all, however, is over what Pathankot presages. Is there
a message that the Pakistani deep state is sending to the Indian interlocutors?
Has the Indian side missed this, or are they still deciphering it?
Pattern too familiar
The pattern — first, the announcement of
holding talks; next, the collapse of the initiative; and third, renewal of the
initiative after an interregnum — has been all too frequent not to realise that
there is more to it than mere caprice. Nawaz Sharif’s presence at Prime
Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in May 2014 and subsequent
developments were expected to break this cycle. Hopes were dashed when the
Foreign Secretary-level talks were called off in August.
Between November 2014, when the two Prime
Ministers shook hands at the closing ceremony of the SAARC summit in Kathmandu,
and their meeting on the sidelines of the Climate Change Conference in Paris a
year later in November 2015, there were two ‘false starts’. The latest round
commenced with a meeting of the two NSAs in Bangkok. The visit of External
Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, to Islamabad followed. The next step was Mr.
Modi “dropping in” in Lahore to wish Mr. Sharif on his birthday — all in the
same month. Prospects seemed bright, till the Pathankot incident occurred.
Consequently, there is a need to introspect
as to whether New Delhi is misreading the taxonomy of inherent complexities and
differences in the difficult Pakistan-India equation. For instance, India tends
to work towards the longer-term goal of restoring the strategic unity of the
subcontinent, enlarge its strategic space, and enhance its security options. On
the other hand, Pakistan’s identity is often defined by its opposition to and
rejection of India. It has shorter-term goals and sees talks and negotiations
as a mere stratagem.
Since taking over, Mr. Modi has put a high
premium on ‘neighbourhood diplomacy’. If he is unable to establish better
relations with Pakistan, it would leave his neighbourhood policy in a shambles
and be a serious setback to India’s efforts to fashion the region in a manner
best suited to it. Clearly, this is one of Pakistan’s objectives.
A Pakistan dominated by its military
establishment is unlikely to launch an attack on an Indian airbase without a
carefully contrived plan. Preparations for the attack — which carries the
imprimatur of the Pakistani military and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)
— would have commenced several weeks prior to the attack, and not after Mr.
Modi’s visit to Lahore. It was no mere handiwork of non-state actors. The use
of Jaish-e-Mohammad elements was deliberate, as the Lashkar-e-Taiba is now
under the lens of international agencies. It is again no coincidence that at
about the same time, a terror attack was launched on the Indian consulate in
Mazar-i-Sharif (Afghanistan), which the Afghan government attributes to the
Pakistani military. Unlike on previous occasions, Pakistan has not taken
recourse to plausible deniability, which strengthens the belief of a message
being conveyed through the medium of an attack on an Indian airbase.
This attack on a military base has not
merely highlighted India’s vulnerability to such attacks, but also raised
certain fundamental issues for the leadership of the two countries. In the case
of Pakistan, it raises the question as to whether Mr. Sharif has control over
Pakistan’s India policy or not. Also, it seeks to convey that he is in no
position to determine foreign policy options. Intrinsic to this is whether in
the future a Nawaz Sharif can be relied upon to deliver. Also, there are huge
question marks regarding his political calculus.
Pakistan’s policy towards India has always
been a bundle of inconsistent and irrational policies. This is further
reinforced by the image of Pakistan as a dysfunctional state. The question,
hence, is whether it is wise in the circumstances to embark upon major policy
initiatives and risk further embarrassment in the future.
This question is particularly important for
Mr. Modi. His trademark has been personal diplomacy, often executed with energy
and panache. It has produced good results, except perhaps in India’s
neighbourhood. Vis-à-vis Pakistan, the brand of ‘yo-yo diplomacy’ has given an
impression that the Prime Minister’s Pakistan policy lacks both depth and
vision. Care has to be taken, hence, not to arouse undue expectations.
Moreover, while dealing with Pakistan, processes are often as important as the
outcomes. Every Indian Prime Minister must also realise that he is especially
vulnerable, since terror attacks from Pakistan will take place at regular
The Prime Minister is already skating on
thin ice. He embarked on his December ‘peace offensive’ without any overture
from Pakistan for resuming talks. Another attack would not merely embarrass the
government and the nation, but will call for a fitting reply — more so in view
of Mr. Modi’s image as a ‘Maximum Leader’.
Need For a New Doctrine
What is therefore most needed today is new
thinking, rather than a mere change in style. Conventional wisdom stipulates
that conflicting nations hold talks to settle their differences. This has been
the dictum that has driven leaders of India and Pakistan till now. It may be
worthwhile to take a hard look at the utility of this course of action — given
the India-Pakistan record of talks — and desist from embarking upon talks
merely for the sake of it, or due to external pressure. It would not be for the
first time that such a policy has been adopted, for there have been many
periods in the past when the situation has oscillated between extremes of
comprehensive engagement and almost complete disengagement. An extended period
of disengagement at this point might prove worthwhile.
New thinking should begin by reviewing and
revising the current code of conduct for relations with Pakistan. This must
involve adoption of a ‘minimalist’ approach, including limiting trade relations
and restricting movement of people between the two countries. More importantly,
India must evolve a new ‘Counter Force Doctrine’. Operation Parakram (2001-02)
exposed the inherent weakness of a large standing army as a means to counter a
terror attack, including ones as serious as an attack on the Indian Parliament.
Alongside a ‘Counter Force Doctrine’, the Army must convert many of its static
formations on the border into more mobile and leaner units. These should be
capable of sudden and swift retaliation in the event of an attack, especially
when directed against military installations, key facilities and critical
Pakistan often accuses India of possessing
a “Cold Start” doctrine, even though India denies the existence of any such
doctrine. With a ‘Counter Force Doctrine’ and leaner and meaner units, India
would signal that it is ready to swiftly retaliate. It would send the right
message to the Pakistani deep state that they cannot exploit our democratic
freedoms without facing retaliation. Once the situation improves, India could
consider resorting to a step-by-step normalisation process, beginning with the
resumption of Track II and Track 1 1/2 dialogues, followed by a resumption of
backchannel negotiations, before proceeding to full-scale talks.
M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and former Governor
of West Bengal.