Pakistan has placed its forces on high alert after being denounced by India as a ‘terrorist state’ complicit in an attack on a military base at Uri in Indian-administered Kashmir. The accusations have been strongly denied by Pakistan and fuelled a war of words, raising bilateral tensions to levels not seen since the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008.
The attacks coincide with an upsurge in protests in Kashmir triggered by the death of Burhan Wani, a media-savvy and seemingly popular militant. For Pakistan, Kashmir lies at the heart of its disputed relationship with India. Pakistan has traditionally argued that Kashmir needs to be ‘resolved’ to enable the relationship to improve. India responded that the relationship was so poor other confidence-building measures needed to be introduced before Kashmir could be addressed.
This impasse led, in the 1990s to the ‘composite dialogue’ under which a range of issues, including Kashmir, were to be addressed. This dialogue ended with the Mumbai attacks, since which point no progress has been made.
The unrest in Kashmir has prompted Pakistan to revert to its traditional position: that Kashmir must feature first and foremost in talks. How, India responds, can we think of discussing Kashmir when Pakistan keeps sending terrorists across the border? Indeed, Modi upped the ante by raising the question of Baluchistan, a restive province of Pakistan in which allegations of human rights abuses are widespread. This may have been an error; Pakistan’s leaders have long claimed that unrest in Baluchistan is instigated by India (much as India argues that Kashmiri unrest is the fault of Pakistan).
On 21 September Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in his address to the UN General Assembly, went on the offensive and charged India with gross human rights violations during the latest civil unrest in Indian-administered Kashmir. The allegations met with a sharp response from India, which condemned Pakistan as ‘host to the Ivy League of terrorism’.
While all-out war is unlikely, there has been a noticeable hardening of tone in Pakistan – aided and abetted by sections of Pakistan’s print and broadcast media. On 23 September Pakistan’s special adviser to the prime minister on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, said his country was ready for ‘unconditional’ talks with India but stressed that in order to succeed they must include the ‘disputed territory’ of Kashmir. Meanwhile, an offer by India to pursue a joint investigation into the latest attack (similar to that proposed after the Pathankot attack in January this year) was rebuffed by Pakistan, with suggestions that Sharif’s pointed omission of any reference to Uri in his UN address was intended precisely to rule out all prospects of such cooperation.
But there are risks in Pakistan overplaying its defiant posture. Of most immediate concern is the threat of Pakistan’s international isolation in the event of evidence pointing to the involvement of Pakistan-based militant groups in the attack on Uri. This would be unwelcome at a time when Pakistan is already under intense pressure from regional powers and the international community for failing to implement the 2015 National Action Plan, which commits the government to crack down on all terrorist groups without discrimination. After an initial period of bonhomie following the election of President Ashraf Ghani in 2014, relations with Afghanistan have plummeted amid accusations that Pakistan is still unwilling to dismantle safe havens on its territory used by Afghan Taliban groups to stage attacks against Afghanistan.
US frustration with Pakistan is also set to boil over. While US Secretary of State John Kerry has been careful to acknowledge Pakistan’s efforts in seeking to curb the activity of militant groups, the US House of Representatives introduced legislation on 21 September aimed at sanctioning Pakistan as a ‘state sponsor of terrorism’. And while China has continued to lend public support to Pakistan there are fears that with $46 billion earmarked for investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – with key sections running through the Taliban hotbed of Baluchistan – China too could soon become less indulgent towards its favoured partner.
And Pakistan has few other friends. The West felt that it needed to assuage Pakistan when tens of thousands of Western troops were in Afghanistan. That policy self-evidently failed, and most Western troops have left. Further, even the Gulf states, Pakistan’s usual lenders of the last resort, seem to be shifting towards India. Pakistan’s decision not to send troops to Yemen (for fear of increasing sectarian tension domestically) may prove the final straw. So at the current juncture, an Indian attempt to isolate Pakistan economically may prove effective.
A further risk stemming from the current mood of confrontation is the threat of disturbing the delicate balance of civil-military relations in Pakistan. While the country’s return to democracy in 2008 has led to some modest gains by its elected leaders, the army’s stock has soared. Many attribute this to the performance of the current army chief, General Raheel Sharif, whose anti-terror campaign has been credited with lowering levels of violence in the country. But his standing is also the product of a carefully managed popularity campaign, which has ensured that the military’s priorities continue to shape public perceptions of Pakistan’s relations with its most important regional neighbour, namely India. With Prime Minister Sharif critically weakened by recent revelations of his family’s unaccounted wealth abroad, he may now be keener still to move in tandem with the military (he is said to have consulted with General Sharif on the telephone ahead of his speech to the UN). If so, this crisis may come to be seen as facilitating attempts to grant General Sharif (who is due to retire in November) an extension. That would also provide a clear indication of where power lies.
And this is ominous for the future. Dialogue between India and Pakistan requires domestic politics to be aligned. An opportunity for dialogue in late 2015 was closed by the attack on the Pathankot air force base in Indian Punjab. Despite his rhetoric, Modi appears to have wanted to travel to Pakistan for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit due later this year, but following the Uri attack he will not go. And the longer this pattern continues, the greater the chance that Indian attempts to isolate Pakistan will succeed.
Dr Gareth Price, Senior Research Fellow, Asia Programme and Dr Farzana Shaikh, Associate Fellow, Asia Programme.