Though 2016 has been a geopolitical annus horribilis all round, it is easy to forget that it was not supposed to be so. “Ab to yahaan aana jaana laga rahega (Now there will be much coming and going),” remarked Prime Minister Narendra Modi to his counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, during his 2015 Christmas Day visit to Lahore. “Aap ka ghar hai (This is your house),” replied Sharif, perhaps channelling the heady optimism of another celebrated meeting in that city 16 years beforehand. There was indeed much aana jaana over the year. Unfortunately, most of it was carried on by jihadists and special forces, resulting in the worst period for India-Pakistan relations since the Mumbai attacks of 2008. How did we arrive at this point?
A week after Modi’s triumphal visit, as the New Year dawned, normal service was resumed. Early on January 2, six heavily armed terrorists breached the Pathankot air force station in Punjab and killed seven members of the security forces. That, however, was far from the end of the story. Never in living memory have India and Pakistan handled such an attack, obviously of Pakistani provenance, with such maturity, calm and pragmatism. The two national security advisors, spy and soldier, spoke to each other within hours of the attack and met in Paris. The Indian government allowed a five-member Pakistani team to visit the air base itself in March.
Pakistan had been handed a golden opportunity, by the most hawkish Indian government in over a decade, to break the familiar cycle of atrocity, denial, obfuscation and misdirection that has bedevilled the relationship. Tragically, this opportunity was spurned. The hapless Sharif, sincere in his efforts to throw India a bone, was undercut by corruption allegations stemming from the leak of the Panama Papers, while the army quashed the investigation and accused India of mounting a false flag attack. Jaish-e-Mohammed, resurgent after a hiatus, and its leader, Masood Azhar-spared blushes by a Chinese veto at the United Nations in April-stood as symbols of the Pakistan Army’s commitment to continued covert war. By late spring and early summer, Lahore was a dim memory-and the stage was set for worse.
The protests that erupted in Kashmir in July, following the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen’s Burhan Wani, were local, and inflamed by needless repression. But Kashmir has never been, and never can be, wholly local in its effects. As Pakistan took up the cudgels, India struck back in August with a verbal counter-offensive, delivered by the prime minister from the Red Fort, against Pakistan’s record in Balochistan, Gilgit and the rest of Pakistan-held Kashmir. India’s intelligence agencies likely stepped up covert action against Pakistan-based jihadists after the Mumbai attacks in 2008-Shiv Shankar Menon’s book this year, which I reviewed in these pages in November, hints as much-but Modi’s speech was a less-than-subtle indication that there remained room for escalation.
Onto this tinder, of Kashmir and Balochistan, a match was thrown in September with the slaying of 19 Indian soldiers in Uri. This was the worst attack on the Indian Army since the darkest days of Kashmir’s insurgency. India pulled out of the SAARC summit that had been scheduled for November, and persuaded Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan to follow suit. At the United Nations General Assembly, a perfectly timed global podium, India lashed out at Pakistan with extraordinary language. “The land of Taxila, one of the greatest learning centres of ancient times,” noted the Indian diplomat, “is now host to the Ivy League of terrorism.” But this was a 10-day phoney war, masking preparations for a real one.
On September 29, Indian officials claimed they had conducted “surgical strikes” on terrorists preparing to cross over into Indian-held territory. A flood of leaks and comments followed, documenting everything from the use of drones and satellites to the prime minister’s reassuring omniscience (Modi “did not have a drop of water” through the night, reported one especially fulsome story). Modi boasted that India had shown itself “no less” than Israel, while Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, never one to keep a thought to himself when it might be shared, went one better with a comparison to Hanuman, rediscovering his long-forgotten powers. This was not just deterrence; it was redemption.
It was also political magic, and the Congress party would not leave the crease without protest. An astonishing press release was issued, showing the dates of specific covert raids conducted under the UPA government. More remarkable still was the leaked story of Operation Ginger, a retaliatory raid in August 2011. “Three Pakistani heads? were among the trophies carried back by the Indian soldiers,” noted The Hindu, while another Pakistani body was booby-trapped. Such was the national mood that the army of the world’s largest democracy found itself boasting proudly of war crimes. The closing months of 2016 saw intense shelling, calling into question the 2003 ceasefire from which India, ultimately, has benefitted the most, and a string of further attacks in Kupwara, Nagrota and Pampore. As Pakistan’s new army chief beds in, drawing on his extensive personal experience at the LoC, we are likely to have a turbulent year ahead.
One question is how far India is willing to go. For all the machismo, the surgical strikes were carefully crafted to limit escalation. They stuck to the LoC rather than the international border, no mention was made of casualties to Pakistani troops, and the government wisely resisted demands for video footage that would have forced the hands of Pakistan’s leaders. India’s calculation is that such limited raids are viewed, internationally, as proportionate responses, and place the onus for any further escalation onto Islamabad. Perhaps each side will settle into a new, bloodier equilibrium: more Uris, and more raids. If this is followed by a bargain to de-escalate, Modi could then claim an important success. But if Pakistan decides to escalate further, restarting urban terrorism on the scale of Mumbai, what would follow? Indian airstrikes deeper inside Pakistan, perhaps on Lashkar-e-Taiba’s headquarters in Punjab, become a serious possibility. But it is difficult, then, to imagine the United States or China showing the same insouciance-and Pakistan has a respectable air force of its own. If this dilemma were easy to resolve, then Indian bombs would have fallen on Muridke long ago.
Deterrence is a promise to inflict pain in the future. But a second plank of India’s emerging strategy is coercion, which is the promise to keep inflicting pain on an adversary in the present, until she changes course. This has taken the form of a diplomatic offensive: collapsing the SAARC summit, emphasising Pakistan’s repression in Balochistan, and persuading other states to pay greater attention to terrorism. But India may be swimming against a powerful geopolitical tide.
China is investing heavily in Pakistan as part of its One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, hence its willingness to shield Masood Azhar and block Indian membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). But Russia is also in the midst of its own, more surprising, pivot to Pakistan. Russia ignored Indian protests to go ahead with its first-ever joint exercises with Pakistani special forces, just days after the Uri attack. Then, at the Heart of Asia meeting in Amritsar in December, Moscow’s envoy to Afghanistan rubbished Indian allegations against Pakistan and rebuked India for using the forum as a bully pulpit. Earlier in the year, he made the eyebrow-raising claim that “Taliban interests objectively coincide with ours”.
Iran, which nearly went to war with the Taliban in 1998, too, has been similarly hedging its bets, hosting a large meeting for the insurgents in Tehran in mid-December. In one sense, then, it is India that has grown more isolated over the past year in Afghanistan, even as it deepens friendships in the Middle East and East Asia. India’s export of attack helicopters to Afghanistan was the first such transfer in its history, and a strong statement of intent. But it is unlikely to be enough to prevent further Taliban gains in the new year. American policy is, of course, in enormous flux. Perhaps Donald Trump’s anti-Islamist fervour will incline him favourably to India. An early meeting between Ajit Doval and his prospective US counterpart Michael Flynn will have helped. But in a November phone call with Nawaz Sharif-in which the word “amazing” was used thrice-the president-elect declared himself “ready and willing to play any role that you want me to play”. It is not hard to guess what such a role might be.
The prognosis for this year is troubling. In Pakistan, a weakened prime minister and confident army, under new command, will have every reason to test Indian resolve. India will hold seven state elections, including the biggest prize in Uttar Pradesh. Every skirmish will have magnified political stakes. Meanwhile, the number of militants in Kashmir has doubled since the summer. As a clownish neophyte enters the Oval Office, American policy will grow more erratic and unpredictable. India and Pakistan have stabilised their relationship after each of the most serious crises in the past 20 years, and they will do so again. But expect things to worsen in the interim.