South Asia on a knife-edge after Uri raid

The one thing that can be said for sure is, if India and Pakistan hadn’t become proxies for the US-China rivalry, things would have been less complicated.

A woman lights candles during a vigil for the soldiers who were killed in Sunday’s attack at an Indian army base in Kashmir's Uri, at a school in Jammu

A woman lights candles during a vigil for the soldiers who were killed in Sunday’s attack at an Indian army base in Kashmir’s Uri, at a school in Jammu, September 20. REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta

Not much less.  Just a little.  And maybe a little less murderous.

The latest point of acute friction between India and Pakistan is the seemingly inextinguishable popular opposition to Indian rule in Kashmir.

The Indian government’s inability to keep a lid on Kashmir is a considerable rebuke to counter-insurgency doctrine (COIN), at least in its tough-guy incarnation as practised by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The COIN recipe calls for a ratio of 20 security forces to 1,000 inhabitants, which in Kashmir would imply 250,000 troops for a population of 5 million; India has half a million troops (down from 700,000!) but has not been able to suppress demonstrations triggered by Modi’s turn away from autonomy negotiations with Muslim political leaders, and by incidents like the killing of charismatic militant Burhan Muzaffar Wani.  With 78 Kashmiris killed and no end to the cycle of escalating suppression and outrage in sight, Kashmir is taking the sheen off India’s international image.

Pakistan’s government has been assiduously exploiting the Kashmir situation as a diplomatic and political liability for India, most recently with Nawaz Sharif’s September 21 speech at the United Nations General Assembly.

Modi’s response has been jiu-jitsu: blame Pakistan! Modi asserts that the true human rights miscreant and font of instability in South Asia is terrorist-exporting Pakistan.

Considerable validity in Modi’s statements, to be sure, but he complicated the state of play by “internationalizing” the issue of Pakistan’s human rights violations in its brutal police actions in the province of Baluchistan by directing Indian diplomats to raise the issue at the UN.

“Internationalizing” Baluchistan is problematic since it is right out of the Indian ultra-nationalist playbook.  Ultra-nationalists deny the legitimacy and permanence of Pakistan, seeing it as a criminal offense against the unity of ‘Akhand Bharat’ (Undivided India) which, depending on the flavor, either regards the proper boundaries of the Indian state as pre-partition Raj (mainstream) or replicating the empire of King Ashoka (all of South Asia; for the hardcore enthusiast).

What others might deem Pakistan’s internal affairs—like its security operations in Baluchistan—are for hypernationalists the legitimate and necessary concern of Undivided India.

‘Akhand Bharat’ is dogma for the Indian nationalist RSS movement and tactically promoted as needed by the RSS political wing, the BJP.  Modi, whose core identity is perhaps best understood as a RSS pracharak (cadre) rather than as a BJP pol or Indian statesman, dog-whistled to the ultra-nationalists by posturing as the interlocutor of the oppressed of Baluchistan and Gilgit-Baltistan during his Red Fort Independence Day speech on August 15 and promising to bring their plight before the United Nations.

The dog whistle was heard both by ultra-nationalists and the pro-Modi press, which delivered reams of invective against Pakistan for its crimes in Baluchistan; it was also heard by Baluchistan separatists, who invoked Bharat Mata (Mother India) as their genuine progenitor and eventual rescuer and also recommended Modi follow the precedent of Indian intervention in East Pakistan in 1971.

If anything is needed to heighten the sky-high paranoia of the Pakistan military, East Pakistan is probably it.

In 1971, after West Pakistan’s political blundering and military brutality had terminally alienated the Bengalis of East Pakistan and triggered a region-wide resistance movement, India assiduously fished in troubled waters, training and arming Bengali militants, then supporting them in cross-border raids, finally launching a full-scale conventional invasion in November 1971 that resulted in the humiliating surrender of the Pakistan forces in East Pakistan and the eventual creation of Bangladesh.

The covert and military efforts were paralleled by a diplomatic offensive by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to highlight abuses in the east by Pakistan’s military, undermine the legitimacy of its rule, and create an environment in which the world acquiesced to a full-scale invasion of Pakistan by India.

Sounds like a dangerous harbinger for Baluchistan today. The diplomatic shoe is dropping; will the military shoe be far behind?

The only difference is East Pakistan was considered remote and disposable real estate by West Pakistan’s elites in 1971.  Baluchistan is up close and indispensable, since it serves as the southern half of the coveted China Pakistan Economic Corridor project.

Messing with Baluchistan is something of an existential threat to Pakistan and the question — the question that Prime Minister Modi wanted Pakistan to wonder about — was how far would India go in its ‘Akhand Bharat’ rhetoric and, maybe, actually make a try for the liquidation of Pakistan?

Modi’s adventurism was probably encouraged by the fact that Pakistan has become something of a pariah to the United States and its allies and clients thanks not only to Pakistan’s dysfunctional security policy and employment of terrorists as deniable power-projection assets, but because it is now solidly in the PRC camp with the CPEC.  Meanwhile, Ash Carter is covering India with slobbery kisses to lure it into a front-line role in the PRC-containment axis, raising the possibility that America would look the other way if Modi decided to kick over the South Asian security chessboard by subverting Baluchistan.

To the disappointment of Baluch separatists and India hawks — and the relief of observers not anxious to see what a collapsing state with nuclear weapons looks like — the U.S. State Department reaffirmed on September 12 it did not support independence for Baluchistan.

Pakistan’s spook establishment perversely responded to this favorable turn of events by apparently unleashing militants for an across-the-Line-of-Control operation against an Indian military base at Uri in Jammu and Kashmir on September 18 that resulted in the deaths of 18 Indian servicemen as well as four suicide commandos.

The default position of the Pakistan security apparatus, perhaps, is to respond to any threat with a punch in the nose.  It probably decided Modi’s promise to meddle in Pakistan’s affairs had to be answered with a murdero us riposte, especially since the US declaration reduced the likelihood of India’s Research and Analysis Wing  (RAW) unleashing hell in Baluchistan in retaliation.

This situation might help explain an otherwise puzzling opinion piece in the PRC’s quasi-official purveyor of hawkish sentiment, Global Times, on September 13, pre-Uri in other words.  It discussed the considerable security challenges facing the CPEC and opined: “it would be unwise to put all its eggs in one basket…The CPEC has long been seen as a flagship project in China’s Belt and Road initiative, but the initiative’s strategic focus may need to shift gradually toward Southeast Asia…”

The article was gleefully seized upon by Indian’s China hawks at the time as evidence that PRC penetration into Pakistan could be deterred by some inexpensive bombing and shooting.

Perhaps not.  The PRC is committed to CPEC for the long haul.

In retrospect, I find it more likely that it was the public expression of messaging by the PRC government to the Pakistan government to show restraint and dial back its so-called “good terrorists” i.e. Pakistan government terrorists who do wet work for the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in India, or risk the PRC cooling on the CPEC.

Cut back on cross-border terrorist provocations, in other words.  Don’t give India a pretext to destabilize Baluchistan and convert the CPEC from “China’s flagship win-win project” to “PRC-sponsored murder factory”.

Maybe, don’t do things like the Uri raid.  Message unreceived, in that case.

Or, one might say, the ISI did send the message to the PRC that its security prerogatives, extra-legal or otherwise, are not bargaining chips to be bartered away for the sake of Indo-Chinese friendship and at the expense of Pakistan power projection.

In the aftermath of the raid, the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson addressed the Uri attack four times in two press conferences, with the message:

We are deeply concerned about the violence and casualties caused by attacks in the Kashmir region, as well as the strained relations between India and Pakistan over this. We urge relevant parties to exercise restraint and avoid fueling the tension.

The Times of India quoted a concerned Chinese analyst to the effect that “The new attack will further escalate India-Pakistan tensions which is not in the interest of the CPEC. This may prompt India to harden its attitude against CPEC and it will impact its future.”

Indian sentiment was understandably infuriated.  My twitter timeline filled with ever darkening statements:

An Indian media luminary tweeted:

If Pakistan thinks #UriAttack will have usual Indian non-response, it’s delusional. This India has moved on from old strategic restraint.

Another:

Time for diplomacy is over. Time to let guns do the talking & bring Pak to its knees through heavy arty pounding along LoC

Not enough, perhaps.  Modi’s National Security Advisor (known as India’s James Bond) was invoked:

Ajit Dobhal said- ” if another Pathankot there, Balochistan gone from Pak. (corrected by another tweeter: “He said Mumbai not Pathankot”)

A hawkish author and ex-RAW official upped the ante:

Uri terrorist attack. Govt shd redefine its policy to Pakistan. POK shd be annexed. Ballochistan & Sindh independence given full open help.

Another tweet responded with yet another turn of the escalation crank:

worse was our lack of retaliation after 26/11 [Mumbai].We had a golden chance to annihilate Pakistan.We have a golden chance now.

Then a galvanizing report:

Pakistan can use atomic bomb against India in case if Pakistan feels its existence is in danger: Pak Defense Minister (ANI)

Response!:

India will still survive but Pakistan will cease to exist.

Well, then:

Poll: Are we Indians prepared for a nuclear war for finishing Pakistan as a country. Many of us may die in the process (after 8300 votes, “Live” edged out a win over “Die” 54% to 46%).

That, as we say, escalated quickly.

Meanwhile, the sensible International Relations community assured the world rather nervously, I think, that India would come up with a sensible IR response: maybe a flashy retaliatory raid across the Line of Control into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to bring back some terrorist scalps and quiet the popular furor, perhaps after the UN General Assembly meetings this week.

Indian news agencies reported that, indeed, the Modi government is reaching out to the PRC for its help to curb Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, an indication that World War III hasn’t been penciled in for this year, at least.

On the other hand…

A grand settlement between China and India to squeeze Pakistan would probably require Modi blessing passage of the CPEC through Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B), a parcel of land that is tangled up in the Kashmir territorial dispute.  And for that to work would require letting Pakistan have a win, if only for G-B, which it has been trying to decouple from the Kashmir dispute for several years and define as legitimate Pakistan territory.

It’s hard to see that happening, especially with Indo-Pakistani relations headed for the hot and nasty place.  As The Hindu’s analyst put it post Uri: “China wants to build its One Belt One Road (OBOR) but other countries especially India will not sacrifice their core interests for Beijing projects.”

If Pakistan and the PRC weather this storm and succeed in stabilizing Pakistan economically and politically through the CPEC and entrenching the PRC in South Asia unilaterally and with minimal deference to India, mainstream Indian strategic security concerns as well as ultranationalist obsessions end up taking a knock.

Indian as well as US China hawks might be looking at the situation and saying, if we don’t take some risks now, there’s a danger that the PRC position in South Asia might become unassailable.

On balance, the temptation to quagmire the CPEC and PRC in an intractable security nightmare in Baluchistan may prove irresistible.

In which case, the Pakistan military’s addiction to clandestine terrorism may turn out to be an asset for the Indian government, enabling a cycle of outrage and retaliation that will keep the region on a knife-edge—without toppling off, hopefully—for years to come.

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.

(Copyright 2016 Asia Times Holdings Limited, a duly registered Hong Kong company. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)



Categories: Asia Times News & Features, China, India, South Asia

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,