India | After Quetta, Modi must turn his statesmanship to Pakistan
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After Quetta, Modi must turn his statesmanship to Pakistan

M.K. Bhadrakumar October 27, 2016 6:30 AM (UTC+8)
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In the downstream of the horrific terrorist attack Monday night on the police academy in Quetta, Pakistan, some early conclusions can be drawn. The latest reports suggest that Pakistani intelligence had advance information that a terrorist attack targeted at security personnel was to be expected.

The Dawn newspaper from Karachi reported quoting ‘sources’ that terrorists had “come from Afghanistan and were in contact with their handlers in the neighboring country.”

In a refreshing break from the past habit of Pakistan (and India), promptly pointing finger at each other’s ‘locked-in’ adversary whenever such incidents took place, Islamabad has shown maturity and restraint.

Pakistan has suspended judgment on even any involvement by Afghan state agencies.

Having said that, the reference to ‘handlers’ seems ominous. It can only imply that the terrorists were not free agents. At issue here is whether the Al-Alimi faction of the extremist group Salafi group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi was acting under the influence of foreign countries.

These are early days. Given Pakistan’s strong intelligence in Afghanistan, it is a matter of time before Islamabad and Rawalpindi will reach firm conclusions.

There is bound to be consequences to follow. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been reported by Pakistani media as saying that the issue would be taken up with Kabul.

But in all likelihood, the Pakistani response will not be confined to the political and diplomatic level.

The point is, the scale of the Quetta attack has been so big – over 60 personnel were killed and over hundred people injured – and the target was unmistakably the security establishment.

The terrorist masterminds virtually taunted the Pakistani military leadership at a time when there is a transition expected at the GHQ in Rawalpindi. The retiring army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif’s legacy in the counter-terrorist offensive has been very substantial.

Strong headwinds

From the diplomatic perspective, the tragedy in Quetta certainly reinforces Pakistan’s image of being a ‘victim’ of terrorism, which helps subsume its reputation of being a practitioner of cross-border terrorism.

This is quite apparent from the outpouring of sympathy from the world capitals. The international community has differentiated the terrorists as ‘non-state actors’.

Notably, the reactions by the White House and the Kremlin as well as the European Union and China underscore that Pakistan is a key partner in the war against terrorism, implicitly appreciating its role.

The White House reiterated the US’ “commitment to support the Government of Pakistan in its efforts to end the scourge of terrorism and violent extremism and to promote peace, security and stability in the region.”

Similarly, in a personal message addressed to the Pakistani leadership, President Vladimir Putin, while condemning the “barbaric crime” in Quetta, “confirmed Russia’s readiness to further expand our counter-terrorist cooperation with Pakistani partners.”

The European Union said it will “continue to work closely together with Pakistan to fight the global threat of terrorism”, and stressed that the commitment “remains steadfast today.”

The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said Beijing “will continue to support Pakistan in fighting against terrorism, maintaining national stability and protecting people’s life and property.”

Quite obviously, India’s diplomatic campaign to isolate Pakistan, labeling it as the ‘mothership’ of terrorism, and to rally the international community to impose sanctions against it runs into strong headwinds that all but make it impossible for Delhi to carry on without a course correction.

Delhi faces an acute predicament. It would have made great sense tactically for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to pick up the phone and speak to Prime Minister Sharif.

But then, that would have meant forgoing a trump card that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is holding to drum up jingoism in the Indian domestic opinion that might have its use in the upcoming provincial election in the key state of Uttar Pradesh (pop: 207 million), which is crucial to the power calculus in Delhi.

Clearly, political expediency prevailed in Modi’s mind.

On the other hand, Modi is not entirely at fault here, because he did try hard in the past to turn such tragic moments into an exercise at genuine soul-searching and catharsis by the Pakistani leadership, but it simply didn’t work the way he intended.

An audacious bid

In January when there was a terrorist attack on Peshawar University, Modi lost no time in taking to Twitter. In March, when there was a massive attack in Lahore in which 70 people were killed, Modi promptly phoned Sharif to offer his “deep condolences”.

Last December, when an army school was attacked in Peshawar, Modi instructed National Security Council Advisor Ajit Doval to visit the Pakistan embassy to sign the condolence book.

However, Modi has not said a word this time around. Does it make sense as a strategic decision?

The heart of the matter is that a delegation from Delhi led by a senior BJP leader and former foreign minister Yashwant Sinha met the top separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani in Srinagar on Tuesday in an audacious bid to break the stalemate in Jammu & Kashmir where a 100-day upheaval shows no sign of abating despite sustained state repression in which over hundred people have been killed so far by security forces.

Given the colorful background of some of the members of the 5-member delegation accompanying Sinha, it is possible to make out the imprimatur of the Indian security and political establishment on this political initiative.

Of course, BJP washes it hands off the initiative and the media blandly calls it a Track 2 enterprise. More appropriately, perhaps, it is Track 1.5 – or even Track 1.2.

That being the case, there is an India-Pakistan dimension to Sinha’s mission to Kashmir.

While it is alright to insist that Geelani is an Indian citizen and that Kashmir is an integral part of India – or, that the only thing to discuss with Pakistan is its vacation of occupied territories – the ground reality is that Pakistan can be of help in calming the situation in the Valley.

Also, it is a geopolitical reality that Pakistan can be helpful if it wishes to. And Delhi has experienced more than once in the past history of the Kashmir problem that Pakistan may keep an open mind even when things look as if the chips are down.

Therefore, a phone call by Modi to Sharif in the wake of the Quetta tragedy would have made eminent sense as a tactical underpinning to Sinha’s mission, which aims at political reconciliation.

There are times when a statesman must also be a historian, for, as Edmund Burke said in his famous speech of September 22, 1775 on Great Britain’s conciliation with America, ‘Otherwise, he is a mere empiric.’

M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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