Existential crisis

Existential crisis
India and Pakistan are on the brink of another war after the terrorist attack on an army camp in Uri in Kashmir. Public pressure has compelled India to weigh punitive options, in turn compelling Pakistan to get ready to retaliate. Both countries are already crossing swords at the United Nations General Assembly  in New York. Much the same sort of situation arose in 2001 following an attack on India’s parliament by Kashmiri jihadis allegedly infiltrated by Pakistan, and in 2008 by Pakistan based jihadis who breached the shores of Mumbai and wreaked havoc for 60 unending hours. On each occasion, however, armed conflict was avoided by some sensible and coolheaded thinking on both sides, aggressively mediated by the US. What will happen this time round?

It’s a precipitous situation. First, regardless of what Pakistan says, the world is convinced of “a Pakistani hand” in the Uri attack, as in 2001 and 2008. Second, unlike in 2001 and 2008 when the US was actively engaged in propping up Pakistan in its own self-interest because of 9/11 and then Afghanistan, this time Pakistan is relatively isolated because it is not supporting the US mission in Afghanistan. In fact, India has now become a strategic partner of the US in its anti-China pivot to South-East Asia while Pakistan has been reduced to a frustrating transactional player. Worse, the US Congress has moved a bill to declare Pakistan a terrorist state.

Some observations are important. This isn’t the first time the Indian army has been attacked by Kashmiri freedom fighters in the last three years since the latest Kashmiri intifada began. Why then has Uri become a turning point?

The answer is simple. First, Uri comes in the wake of the Gurdaspur and Pathankot attacks this year that were allegedly carried out by jihadis infiltrated from Pakistan. But Indian restraint at the time was built on the understanding between Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif not to allow such incidents by vested interests to derail the peace dialogue, buttressed by advance information provided by Pakistan to India about possibly similar attempts in the future. However, that mutual trust has since evaporated (and both incidents are now being seen by India as serious premeditated provocations) because Pakistan has been compelled to speak up for the Kashmiris following the violent repression unleashed by India’s security forces in the Valley. Second, the level of Indian army casualties in Uri (18) is significantly higher than in all such incidents put together, putting the army and BJP government on the spot. Third, it comes at a time when the world is beginning to notice massive human rights violations by Indian security forces in Kashmir, making India especially prickly at this moment in time.

Some Indian hawks are advocating limited tactical strikes across the Line of Control against defined training camps or infiltration sites for Kashmiris. But others are fearful of retaliation escalating into a full-fledged war that slides into nuclear threat. So they are advising diplomatic moves to isolate and censure Pakistan while upgrading the tit-for-tat proxy war in Balochistan – Brahamdagh Bugti’s asylum in India following Mr Modi’s independence Day speech claiming all of Azad Jammu Kashmir, Gilgit and Baltistan and invoking the rights of the Baloch is an indicator of the direction that the Doval Doctrine against Pakistan is taking. Therefore, we can be reasonably sure of continued tensions and even measured conflict in the months ahead.

The Modi government will surely exploit this situation to divert attention from its mounting troubles at home and plug its hardline anti-Pakistan posture to gain an edge in the forthcoming elections in Punjab and UP. But the Sharif government in Pakistan will be besieged by the national security establishment and might lose focus on its development projects that are pegged to ensuring a second victory in the 2018 general elections. This developing Indo-Pak conflict could also darken the existing shadow on civil-military relations to the detriment of Mr Sharif. Indeed, the demand for an extension in the service of General Raheel Sharif might become potent on the ground that a change in army command midway through a serious conflict with India would impair the fighting prowess and motivation of the Pakistan army. In other words, just as Kargil triggered suspicions and distrust between Mr Sharif and General Pervez Musharraf and led to a violent parting of ways, it is not inconceivable that Uri might trigger something similar between General Raheel Sharif and PM Nawaz Sharif.  If that happens, it would be calamitous for Pakistan. Severe internal political divisions in an environment of regional hostility, international isolation and domestic economic stagnation will imperil its very existence as a nation-state.

All this is not lost on Pakistan’s internal and external enemies. So we may expect them to upgrade their level of hostility. By the same criterion, however, we must demand of our political parties and civil-military leaders to set side their differences and put their shoulders to the task of protecting, reforming and stabilizing Pakistan at a moment of existential crisis.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.