The release of LeT founder Hafiz Saeed from house arrest, primarily because the Pakistan government never placed the incriminating evidence on his terror-related activities before court, re-establishes the harsh reality that Pakistan is a rogue state determined to carry on with its proxy war against India and that our strategy of dealing with it has to reckon with the fact that beyond a point the world at large would not fight that battle for us. The new convergence struck by India with the Donald Trump presidency on opposition to all terror groups “across the Islamic spectrum” is, no doubt, a great success when contrasted with the ambiguity of the Obama administration’s response towards India-specific groups like LeT, JeM and HuM, fostered and instigated by Pakistan’s “deep state”. Trump has finally done away with the distinction between “good terrorists” and “bad terrorists”.
The immediate US reaction to the release of Hafiz Saeed was to call upon the Pakistan government to re-arrest him forthwith for prosecution and thus validate the Indo-US shared understanding of Islamic terror as a common threat. A White House statement, however, declared that “the United States seeks a constructive relationship with Pakistan, but expects decisive action against militant and terrorist groups on Pakistani soil that are a threat to the region”. The US, understandingly, wants to do business with Pakistan primarily for its possible help in the American handling of Afghanistan. This fits in with the initial remark of James Mattis, US Defense Secretary that Pakistan will be tested “one more time” for measuring up to US expectations. The learning from all of this is that the international community might unitedly “voice concern” over the doings of Pakistan—and this is welcome—but it is entirely for India to frame the strategy of “action” against this hostile neighbour.
The mindset of the Pakistan army, which, in effect, rules the country, is conditioned by three factors. First, it knows that President Trump had little patience for any kind of Islamic militancy. The US preoccupation with the “war on terror”, which was essentially a combat between the Islamic radicals of the Al Qaeda-Taliban combine and the US-led West, and US’ misplaced dependence on Pakistan in that fight, might have earlier made US policymakers look the other way on India’s complaints about cross border terrorism. By the time Donald Trump became President, the double faced nature of Pakistan in the “war on terror” had been exposed and the American policy towards Pakistan shifted from appeasement to putting the latter on a leash.
Secondly, Pakistan is cleverly trying to save its value for the US on the Afghan front—its role in getting an American citizen and her family released from the captivity of Haqqani group says it all. Americans are allergic to the Haqqani network, which has links with the Taliban. But they seem to have missed the point that Pakistan’s ISI too is mixed up with this group, and also to an extent with Taliban, and uses this equation to retain its hold on Afghanistan. Pakistan is testing waters in the new US Presidency, hoping that Trump’s decision to leave it to the Pentagon to take decisions on Afghanistan and the historical empathy that US generals had with their Pakistan counterparts, would give it enough leeway to manoeuvre the situation in that country. India has to watch out for the game of wits that the Pakistan army is playing with the Americans, apparently drawing strength from the Sino-Pakistan military alliance on the one hand and the strategic interest evinced by a major power like Russia in the happenings in Afghanistan, on the other.
International community might “voice concern” over Pakistan, but it is entirely for India to frame the strategy of “action” against this hostile neighbour.
The last factor, and this works to the advantage of Pakistan, is that the OIC led by Saudi Arabia is now even more firmly on the side of the US politically, particularly after a strong caution was administered by President Trump to Muslim states on his maiden visit to Riyadh. The problematic aspect of this US-Saudi relationship from India’s point of view is that Pakistan is pivotal to the OIC. Gen Ziaul Haq was a leading light of this bloc and recently a former army chief of Pakistan was made the head of the Islamic Military Coalition of the OIC. While Pakistan is able to provide an umbrella to both Islamic radicals and LeT extremists, who had been funded by Saudi Arabia, the OIC connection gives it a protective cushion against US sanctions.
US policymakers must understand that the Islamic radicals are “revivalists”, who carry the historical and ideological legacy of the jihad launched by the leading Ulema (including Abdul Wahab) in the early 19th century to clear Western encroachments on “Muslim land”. These ulema contended that the political decline of Islam was on account of the deviation of Muslims from the “pure” religion that existed in the time of the Pious Caliphs. Even today the radicals, under the Al Qaeda-Taliban combine on one side and the ISIS on the other, are able to whip up faith-based motivation to a point where the youths on suicide missions become an instrument of their new asymmetric “war” against the US-led West.
India has already drawn the red line on the question of holding a dialogue with Pakistan, adhering to the stand that terror and talks could not go together. Narendra Modi’s embrace diplomacy has done a lot and ensured that internationally India’s decision to go after the terrorists infiltrated by Pakistan agencies into India militarily, and even chase them beyond the LOC, was appreciated by the US and other democracies.
Pakistan today is prone to being swept off by Islamic extremism as the anti-blasphemy protests at Islamabad show. The army there is being empathetic towards militants of all hues. India must step up the campaign against terrorist violence in the name of Islam. It has succeeded doing so on several international forums like BRICS and ASEAN. Diplomatic efforts apart, however, India has to remain prepared to deal with both Pakistan and China on the borders, in the air and sea. The world opinion is with India in its pursuit of national security and global peace.
D.C. Pathak is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau.