Uri Attack: Why India Can't Respond Effectively to Pakistan

The gruesome attack on an Indian Army base in Kashmir this week has renewed calls for a more purposeful approach from New Delhi on Pakistan. Critics charge that the Modi government has been found alarmingly short of answers in tackling Islamabad, even as terrorists from across the border perpetrate one attack after the other.

The criticism isn’t invalid. The Modi government has blown hot and cold in equal measure on Pakistan, suggesting a lack of coherence within India’s foreign policy establishment.

New Delhi’s stated policy has been to suspend all dialogue with Pakistan, until Islamabad cracks down on terror camps on its soil. Yet, talks have happened, and with no abatement in terrorism.

Meanwhile, the Indian government has been able to offer no more than strong words of condemnation and promises of “action” as the status quo rolls on.

What’s hurt India the most has been its constant vacillation in dealing with Pakistan. India’s foreign policy has swung from being hawkish to dovish, seemingly at whim.

Following the Uri attacks, home minister Rajnath Singh called for Pakistan to be “isolated”, labelling it “a terrorist state”.

Such language is uncommon in Indian diplomacy, but there is a certain legitimate case to be made for it. The links of some elements in the Pakistani state to terrorist groups has been proven for years.

As far back as in 2006, a British defence ministry think tank charged that “Pakistan (through the ISI) has been supporting terrorism and extremism”. In 2010, leaked records of US intelligence agencies suggested strong links between the ISI and militant groups in Afghanistan. And perhaps most damningly, Pakistan shields a UN designated terrorist in Hafiz Saeed.

If North Korea, Iran and Cuba spent years ostracised by the international community, it seems rather inconsistent that Pakistan is treated as a major regional power.

But Pakistan isn’t North Korea (and India certainly isn’t South Korea). Pakistan’s strategic value in Asian geopolitics has rendered isolation largely unrealistic. Pakistan remains one of the few countries in the world with strategic ties to almost all major powers, from the United States to Russia and China.

Despite recent cuts in aid owing to fallouts over counterterrorism, the US still sends as much as $320 million in security aid alone to Islamabad.

And any attempts to isolate Pakistan globally will drive China to be more hawkish and protective in Pakistan’s defence. Beijing has already invested heavily on an infrastructure project connecting its Western provinces to Pakistan’s southern coastline - and most pointedly, a significant part of it passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. And last year, China voted against India’s appeals at the UN to censure Pakistan. This really is an “all-weather” alliance.

Let’s face it: India has no bargaining chips at present to counter Pakistan with. The best form of “isolation” India can manage is to impose economic sanctions on Pakistan.

But its impact is likely to be weak. In 2014, India’s trade with Pakistan amounted to under $2.5 billion; by contrast, China traded almost $13 billion worth of goods with Pakistan that year. India’s trade with Pakistan makes up less than five per cent of Pakistan’s total trade.

New Delhi has to develop pressure points vis-à-vis Islamabad if it is to frame a coherent and purposeful response and actually take “action” against terror groups in the region.

That means making hard choices. Take the Pakistan military, for instance - an institution notorious for its widely publicised patronage of militant groups targeting India, but also an unlikely starting point.

In a path-breaking book enquiring into Pakistan’s military economy in 2007, Ayesha Siddiqa wrote that the Pakistani army controls as much as one-third of all heavy manufacturing and seven per cent of private assets.

In all, retired and serving military officers run secret industrial conglomerates worth as much as $40 billion, according to Siddiqa, ranging from manufacturing complexes to petrol pumps.

Pakistan’s military businesses, many run underground as they are, provide a vulnerable bargaining chip for India, waiting to be exploited. Many of these businesses are run privately by high-ranking former and serving officers, and like all businesses in the modern globalised world, they view India as a lucrative market for investment.

Yet, India’s self-imposed freeze on dialogue with the Pakistani army means that none of those businesses have a stake in India. If Pakistan army officers had deep private economic interests in India, the Pakistan army would likely be less comfortable with terrorism across the border.

Additionally, New Delhi would also be well-advised to engage with Pakistan’s civil society to root out political propaganda directed against India across the border.

Much of Islamabad’s policy towards India is sustained on a web of ideological poison, portraying New Delhi as an existential threat to Pakistan. The propaganda has effectively made the peace process prohibitively costly for political leaders across Pakistan’s spectrum.

No individual reflects this better than the prime minister himself: in an interview to journalist Karan Thapar in 2013, Nawaz Sharif spoke of India as a potential friend and ally, and promised to investigate the ISI’s role in 26/11 if elected to office that year.

Yet, in the three years that have passed, no such probe has taken place. Worse, tensions have risen under Sharif’s watch as his government has turned increasingly hawkish. Just this month, Sharif controversially met Kashmiri separatists shortly before leaving for the UN General Assembly session.

New Delhi must decide on a consistent course of action towards Islamabad if it is to curb the frequency of cross-border terrorism. And that means building bargaining power in place of tall domestic rhetoric.

(c) 2014-15, India Today Group