February 14 Pulwama blast has turned out to be truly a watershed, a defining moment in relations between India and Pakistan in more than one ways. The perspective canvas of the coming Indian elections for which this entire stage was seemingly set up fades into relative insignificance compared to the momentous events that unfolded subsequently. We will discuss that later, at present let’s see how the effects exploded on both sides of the border and how the winds blew them into global skies.
Pulwama incident has been revealing in multiple ways. It uncovered many who had been stuttering around as Pakistan’s well-wishers and soothsayers. It also blew apart the myth of OIC standing up for the Islamic causes and Muslim countries. It may be of interest to know that UAE was not the first one to invite Indian External Affairs Minister to OIC meeting this time. Many of the poorer Muslim countries are actually beholden to Indian investments and in some case outright largesse. But those who are affluent like UAE, Kuwait, KSA too show softer leanings towards India. It goes to prove that the concept of Umma is at best ethereal and countries are moved by their national interests and not abstract ideology.
One recollects when KSA was the OIC chair a few years ago, it almost granted India an observer status but was averted in time because fortunately, our resident representative, a motivated junior Foreign Service officer played a key role. We survived by the skin of our teeth then. This same OIC tails Pakistan so faithfully in various forums of the UN for leadership and guidance and depends heavily on our diplomatic skills and capital at the UN. Then what is it that distracts them in its own crucial meetings such that Pakistan had to boycott the session? A soul search and a realistic introspection are in order here. Palestine, however, is a maverick in this literally comatose organization. The more Pakistan lobbies for them internationally, the more they tend to move closer to India. It was time we seriously reviewed or unrewarding Palestine policy.
Jabba sneak raid deflated India ‘s chest-thumping bluster to size with a lightning strike by the PAF fighter jets over the LoC in a span of few minutes. It also firmly planted Turkey as our true friend in need and indeed. Turkey’s valiant stand with Pakistan in a potentially dangerous situation was merely magnificent and came just in time when our nation was gearing up to face the expected Indian offensive all by itself. It lightened our weight and broadened our chest in the face of a rising storm. Pakistan cannot be thankful enough to President Erdogan for his bold leadership. It also made people wonder in a state of confused disbelief why China had been sort of sulking around on the issue and why Saudi Arabia was so muffled?
Quite expectedly and not surprisingly it laid bare a well baked and habitual trait in Indian media-political clique to create fake digital news and manufacture gains against Pakistan. This habit or strategy has got deeply embedded into their state policy and architecture of foreign affairs, misleading the world and their countrymen terribly and most tragically. This is the same clique which together has whipped up a horrible hate Pakistan hysteria which has sadly translated into a widespread disgust against Indian Muslims who invariably become targets of undeserved violence and maltreatment in that country.
Presently Kashmiris are facing the wrath. Despite mounting provocations and free-flowing slur Pakistan played its cards carefully and set up its reactions with cool-headed calculation, finesse, and precision. Pakistan’s engagement of IAF fighters is a handbook lesson in dogfight and presence of mind within a very narrow window of opportunity. It remains to be examined how and why IAF was so blind to Pakistan’s radar detection in case it tried to cross the international border which they decided to do at three places before attempting Jabba? Why were they so careless to attempt again during day time and got a bloody nose when they were chased out a night before? There has to be a definite answer to this other than an overdose of victory wine and proverbial Gymkhana tea.
One plausible explanation could be the hypotheses of matching bluff and past record of Pakistani reactions to similar Indian incursions. Admittedly when India downed Pakistan Navy’s Atlantis aircraft with a dozen or so Navy men on board over Sind border, Government of Pakistan seemed to have wholly capitulated. There was no response, except a lukewarm formal statement of condemnation and a lame duck representation in the UN. That incomprehensible precedence must have remained firmly stuck in their military memory.
Now the bluff part, Pakistani and Indian forces have been deployed literally eyeball to eyeball along the LoC since decades. They have been hurling abuse, bullets, and bombs at each other and making exaggerated claims of losses inflicted for years. Flag ceremony at Wagah Check Post epitomizes this kind of mutual bluster dramatically and ceremonially to the amusement of the spectators. So a stage had been set for years for theatrics, chest thumping, and bravado, each one fully believing that the other does not really mean it. Meanwhile, sweets would be exchanged on festive occasions between the uniformed men and present given. An atmosphere of surrealism was deliberately set up, unmindful of its woeful consequences.
This whole thing came to a sudden end with the creeping vulnerability of Modi in forthcoming general elections in India. BJP was desperately looking for an excuse to dramatically raise the ante against Pakistan to capture Hindu vote with their muscular nationalism. Pakistan had become the most convenient punching bag for winning elections in India. This vicious environment was ripe for a sudden and violent eruption should Pakistan provide an opportunity and what better than an act of terrorism which would directly stick to Pakistan without question internally or internationally. But for occasional declarations of facing and defeating any aggression against the country, Pakistan was careful not to provide any chance to the adversary. India, on the other hand, kept threatening of severe military punishment if Pakistan allowed its territory to be used for a terrorist strike inside India.
Pakistan knew very well that the talk was too tall for India to walk. It follows that there was a delicate equilibrium of bluff between the two countries, below which business as usual continued at Wagah and Muzaffarabad; Kartarpur Sahib added for good measure. On the diplomatic score, India had stepped up its economic aggression in forums like FATF which Pakistan was managing reasonably. Then came or shall we say Pulwama was made to occur seemingly at an opportune moment for India, which is what makes it look suspect from timing and locale point of view. Crucial Indian elections are around the corner and Indian Occupied Kashmir has been perpetually in the news for widespread protests and official brutality with implied Pakistani involvement.
India immediately blamed Pakistan for complicity and declared a punitive response will be given fanning muscular but jingoistic nationalism and pious indignation against Pakistan. That drew an immediate response from Indian people and an anti-Pakistan pitch was set up in election rallies. However the catch was to walk the talk but avoid full-scale hostilities, therefore Jabba raid. It appeared to partially call Pakistan’s bluff and shifted the onus of retaliation to Pakistan. Going by the past history chances were remote; however, Pakistan called India’s bluff brilliantly and effectively which is history now.
There are specific residual effects and spin-offs of this engagement which need to be kept in mind. India’s Jabba raid has catapulted such incidents from the soft realm of diplomatic condemnation to the hard battlefield of unilateral military action across the international boundary albeit without international sanction. Imprudent but expedient US wink and nod acted as tacit approval and has regrettably revived the spectre of proxy nations and client states once again. Pompeo’s ill-considered ‘counterterrorism action’ reference to India’s intrepid violation was a signal of approval and is a harbinger of how international affairs would be handled by the US in South Asia in the future. That is bad news for stability and peace in the region. Pakistan’s firm and hard-hitting reaction shattered the trance quickly, and soon the US started to preach restraint on both sides. Indeed, a poor diplomatic performance.
A significant fall out of the engagement is a military response in being from Pakistan. Indian incursion has firmly and finally provided Pakistan with a locus standi and justification to attack across the international border into India at the time and target of its own preference, should an occasion arise. Jabba raid has deprived India of any recourse to international forums, in such an eventuality. More dangerously Indian action has undermined the moral and legal authority of the UN Security Council whose permanent seat it is seeking so desperately. India’s cupboard is filled with skeletons, to engage which a formal declaration of hostilities now will not be necessary. Indo-US collusion over Jabba raid provides the precedence and the path.
Mehboob Qadir is Director Research Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI), Islamabad. He can be reached at [email protected].