A risky high-wire act, but no cause for war

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Global jihad As the Afghan endgame looms large, the Lashkar-e-Toiba, which perpetrated the 26/11 Mumbai carnage, is eager to stir the Kashmiri hornet’s nest
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

IN THE late 1990s, while based in Islamabad, I made frequent trips to the Line of Control (LoC). The Pakistan Army drove me from Muzaffarabad up the Neelam Valley, through the villages that intermittently received Indian shellfire. I wrote many stories about firing, clashes and rising tensions. When asked, I confidently said it was unlikely there would be a war.

Wrong. I covered Kargil from the Pakistani side, spending much of my time in Skardu or the rear areas behind the frontlines. I crouched in a Pakistani bunker next to an anti-tank gun firing at Indian transport vehicles a mile or so away and ate sponge pudding with a colonel as shrapnel from exploding Indian artillery shells literally rattled off the sides of the regimental mess tent.

Subsequently, though tensions peaked again from time to time over the following decade, most notably after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, the issue of Kashmir faded from the headlines, globally and, increasingly, locally. The Valley grew less and less violent on every successive visit I made.

In Pakistan too, Kashmir was a significantly less prominent part of public debate than a decade earlier. Partly, that was due to the new distractions provided in Afghanistan and Iraq through the US-led War on Terror; partly it was due to growing internal violence in Pakistan itself, especially post-2007; and partly it was due to the sensible policy of the Indian government not to rise to the still frequent provocations from across the border.

Whoever started this new cycle of clashes on the LoC — Indians, Pakistanis, hot-headed local commanders or a grandmother with scant regard for de facto international frontiers protected by very large numbers of troops — the apparent mutilation of the corpses of two dead Indian soldiers is an act designed to provoke a reaction.

One part of that reaction has already come: the inevitable outrage expressed in Indian media, the call from commentators to stop “pandering” to Pakistan, and the belligerent words of senior army officers. All this is a necessary part of national chest-thumping — and healthy in its way too. Countries need to vent their rage. It is this rhetoric that has stirred up memories from a decade or more ago.

But much has changed.

In India, though there have been some strong words, there is no political will to risk the current dialogue process that is finally paying some (albeit meagre) dividends in areas that are at the centre of the current administration’s agenda: trade, business relations and travel. Though a new regime to allow elderly Pakistanis and some others to travel to India through Wagah on visa obtained “on arrival” was put on hold, at least it was on the point of being introduced. In any case, India’s horizons and ambitions are larger now. Kashmir, and Pakistan by extension, take up commensurately less space.

There is also, even with the odd sarpanch being assassinated, a new calm in Kashmir. Though spun rather differently in the Indian press, the figures given for infiltrators across the LOC — 90 in 2012, up from 63 in 2011 — need to be compared to those for 2010 and 2009: 94 and 69 respectively. There have been a total of 249 infiltration attempts last year as against 247 in 2011. There were 489 infiltration attempts in 2010, 485 in 2009, 342 in 2008 and 535 in 2007. It’s not quite peace in our time, but close.

But if the Indian government has a clear interest in keeping any confrontation in check, what about the other side?

Here, it would be easiest to say the only important actor is the Pakistan Army. But the generals don’t operate in a vacuum. More influenced by, concerned with and representative of Pakistani public opinion than often thought, the Pakistani security establishment’s credentials as the only institution that works in the country have been badly battered in recent years. The failure to stem rising violence, the US raid on Osama bin Laden, a possible trial implicating senior officers in massive graft and a range of other elements have combined to undermine the public image of the military at a time where other actors, such as the judiciary, have emerged to play new roles.

Raising the old idea that India and Indians have never been reconciled to Partition might once have been a useful way to remind Pakistanis of the army’s primary role of defending the nation against India. It might also serve as a distraction from the internal violence. A good confrontation on the LOC also serves to remind Washington that Pakistani “restraint”, as the generals see it, comes at a price.

But this needs to be nuanced. In recent weeks, Gen Ashfaq Kayani has signalled a new prioritisation of internal threats, a historic shift away from the old security paradigm. This is a reflection of public sentiment too. In my conversations with Pakistanis over recent years, the widening of horizons that has been seen in India is evident across the border too. Pakistanis are now significantly more oriented, culturally, economically and geopolitically, towards West Asia than ever before. So, once again, in a mirror image of the situation here, Kashmir and, by extension, India more generally occupy a smaller role.

Equally, the military has clearly given a green light to political moves to work towards better commercial relations with India, indicating an understanding among the generals that hitching Pakistan to the coat-tails of India’s still powerful economic momentum is a potential way for the country to haul its own economy out of the mire.

The Pakistan Army has vast business and land interests and is thus linked deeply with the economy. When it does badly, so does the economy. Again, the army reflects broader sentiments.

THERE ARE also signs that there is some new thinking about the Afghan endgame among senior strategists, leading to a potential recognition that the battle for influence there with India is not necessarily a zero-sum game. This is still very uncertain, but a factor worth considering.

Finally, the internal political turmoil of recent days will mean senior military officials will not be seeking any further destabilisation. The old adage was that the Pakistan Army always had three priorities: fighting to the east, fighting to the west, and taking control internally. The third was the priority, despite the reluctance to intervene directly.

Those who would gain from any genuine confrontation along the LOC are the major jihadi organisations such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET). Once again, the forces generated by globalisation are key. A major factor that led to the Mumbai attacks was the pressure on the LeT to prove its international credentials at a time when global jihad was the rallying call. Attacking India was a useful compromise that could pacify hardline elements within the movement without risking security establishment support as an attack on a major western target might have done.

The LET has been present, albeit somewhat half-heartedly, in Afghanistan for many years. As NATO forces draw down there, the conflict to the west will become less attractive for extremists, as it did following the withdrawal of the Soviets in 1978-79.

With the need to show a global dimension, a new theatre to the east — or at least the prospect of imminent future conflict — would therefore be welcome to LET and others. If the extremists can stir the Kashmiri hornet’s nest, they will undoubtedly do so.

The bullets will continue to fly, and the shells to fall, in Uri, Poonch and elsewhere. The most likely future is one of continuing provocations, with tension continually being defused at a senior level by major players on both sides, while the tenor of the rhetoric remains high. This is a risky high-wire act that needs careful management. It should mean serious conflict in the near- or even the mid-term is avoided. But then I have been wrong before.

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1 COMMENT

  1. As the talk of peace in Afghanistan have gained momentum, India is feeling left out and this LOC crises is an attempt to put pressure on Pakistan. Does India have any other card to play?

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