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Brutal calamity should draw our sympathy but there is no space for a bleeding-heart strategy on Pakistan

Author: Sreemoy Talukdar
Publication: Firstpost.com
Date: September 9, 2022
URL:      https://www.firstpost.com/opinion-news-expert-views-news-analysis-firstpost-viewpoint/brutal-calamity-should-draw-our-sympathy-but-there-is-no-space-for-a-bleeding-heart-strategy-on-pakistan-11213191.html?s=03

It will be a strategic failure on India’s part to look at bilateral ties solely through a moral prism

The catastrophic floods in Pakistan have led some Indians to suggest that New Delhi should take the initiative to mend fences, fix the current bilateral “impasse and resume dialogue”. We never learn. The motley crew of eternal optimists, ‘Aman ki Asha’ brigade, ‘South Asianists’, spin doctors and ‘syncretic ethos’ peddlers in India need periodic reality checks. There is no place for a bleeding-heart policy on Pakistan — a nation whose very existence was conceptualized on anti-Indianness and that vows to wage eternal war against India.

Pakistan aims to dismember India in the north and in the west and yet, despite a thousand cuts, we still haven’t gotten over our penchant for fighting terrorism with idealism. Here’s the hard truth, the amorality of which makes liberals pinch their nose: the more Pakistan suffers from economic and political destabilisation, the better it is for India’s security environment.

That is not to say that we don’t sympathize with the millions in Pakistan who are suffering from the twin shocks of a brutal natural calamity and a bankrupt Pakistan state’s incompetence and apathy. We do. And we are ready to help. The situation in Pakistan is grim. Its Sindh province has received 466 per cent more rain than average, triggering a cataclysmic chain of events that has resulted in the deaths of nearly 1,200 people, displacement of 33 million people and at least $10 billion worth of economic damage.

According to a Reuters report, 1.6 million houses, 5,735 km (3,564 miles) of transport links, 750,000 head of livestock, and more than 2 million acres (809,370 hectares) of farmland have been swept away. “It is water everywhere as far as you could see. It is just like a sea,” says Shehbaz Sharif, the beleaguered prime minister of Pakistan.

Prime minister Narendra Modi extended India’s “heartfelt condolences” to the families of victims and those affected by the floods. Various international aid agencies fighting to restore a semblance of normalcy in Pakistan have called for a relaxation on imports from India to fight a grave food crisis, and for a moment it seemed Islamabad would allow better sense to prevail.

Pakistan’s finance minister, Wharton-graduate economist Miftah Ismail who wants the nation to “live within its means” told local media last month that Pakistan is mulling importing vegetables and other essential edible items from India. With crop-producing provinces such as Baluchistan, Sindh and parts of Punjab badly affected by floods, vegetable prices underwent a 500 per cent appreciation, putting tomatoes, potatoes and onions out of common people’s reach. Importing essentials from India to mitigate the crisis should have been a no-brainer.

Yet, in a measure of Pakistan’s sheer delusion and perverse incentive framework, no sooner did Ismail make the comments that Sharif shot down the suggestion of his Cabinet colleague, telling media that “there won’t have been problems about trading with India, but genocide is going on there and Kashmiris have been denied their rights”, and that he’s “ready to sit and talk with Modi” on Kashmir.

Despite being subjected to such barbs, India refused to take the bait. In an indication of its commitment towards Neighbourhood First policy and credibility as a first responder in regional crisis, New Delhi let it be known through official channels that its offer of aid still stands, and it is ready to send pre-cooked meals, tents, medical supplies, and rubber boots as part of relief material.

A Business Standard report published on 4 September notes that “while foreign ministry officials of both nations were initially in touch, Pakistan has maintained zero communication on the subject”. The report goes on to quote MEA officials, as saying “the issue has become hostage to Islamabad’s political calculations. As of now, we don’t see much movement on the matter as it stands.”

This was confirmed by Islamabad that made it clear that imports from India are “not under consideration.” So there.

What are these ‘political calculations’ that prevent Pakistan from taking India’s help even when it is in dire straits? Pakistan — that feels hemmed in and squeezed out of options by the change effected by the Modi government in the constitutional status of Kashmir in 2019 — desperately wants to force India back to the dialogue table. In absence of any real leverage to do so, and increasingly imperiled further by its collapsing economy, the last thing that the harassed Sharif government wants is to appear “soft” on India. It would open one more avenue for a marauding Imran Khan to exploit.

Bruised, battered and pauperised by the floods, Pakistan still refused to accept aid from India or to even temporarily relax trade curbs because it fears that these steps may be interpreted as a normalization of India’s move on Kashmir.

That hasn’t stopped a section of Indian media, however, from virtue-signaling and displaying cherubic naivete. Solemn editorials call for both “New Delhi and Islamabad” to “put aside their domestic considerations, and seize the moment” because “it would be both tragic and ridiculous if the enmity between the two countries would not allow them to work together at a time such as this.” Some call for resumption of dialogue. Some perceive a “thaw” in bilateral ties.

Pressing India to help a country that stubbornly refuses our help is a strange affliction. New Delhi has offered sympathies and indicated that it is ready to assist, but the call must be taken by Islamabad. It can’t be helped if Pakistan chooses delusion over rationality. All that the cries for unsolicited help do, is send across a message of weakness — that the Indian state is soft and incapable of holding on to its red lines. Milk of human kindness won’t make Pakistan change its attitude or policy on Kashmir.

This ties to a larger point on Pakistan that, despite the facts on the ground, causes willful blindness among some Indians forever hopeful of a resumption of “normalcy” and of getting rejoined at the hip. There is no point talking with Pakistan. No amount of concession or rational engagement will change the equation or nudge it towards a reasonable posture because unlike our approach to the bilateral relationship that is predicated on peaceful coexistence, resumption of trade and other ordinary facets of ties, Pakistan’s gaze is revanchist, driven by a pathological need to dismember India and acquire Kashmir. It has taken India decades and several wars to come to terms with this asymmetric threat perception.

It will be a strategic failure on India’s part to look at bilateral ties through a moral prism. Pakistan might be in trouble but both in ideology and praxis it is led by an animus towards India that governs all its actions. To wish for stability in Pakistan or to attempt a move towards normalcy in ties through a conciliatory posture is to aid an intractable adversary. It is detrimental to our security, political and geopolitical interests. It is also a moral (as well as a strategic) failure because the state’s raj dharma and primary duty is towards the well-being and protection of its citizens — not pursue mythical mollification of a terror-sponsoring state.

Besides, we need not be driven by moral compunctions because bankrupt coffers and perilous state of existence notwithstanding, Pakistan has mastered the ‘boom-bust’ cycle, living off loan to loan, which Sharif euphemistically calls “characteristic reliance”. Its flip-flop behavior on trade with India, too, fits a pattern. This pattern, in turn, indicates increasing domestic instability and an intensification of civil-military and even intra-military discord.

In March 2021, when Imran Khan was still in power, a panel called ‘Economic Coordination Committee’ of the Khan cabinet decided to import sugar, cotton and cotton yarn from across the border through land and sea routes, in a move that was touted as revival of trade ties. It took just one day for Khan, who had presided over the earlier meeting that approved the import, to do a complete U-turn and declare that trade with India “could not resume and relations could not normalize” unless Kashmir “got back its constitutional status and the Kashmiris were granted their right to self-determination.”

Clearly, something happened within that 24 hours beyond a comical volte-face. Analyst Sushant Sareen of ORF posited that it is possible “that the army, or at least Bajwa’s cabal within the military, was open to, and even pushed for opening up some trade with India…” Sareen puts the abortion of the move to either “some very powerful section within the army” going against it, or even Khan defying Bajwa.

A year on, that rivalry has intensified. Khan has been ousted from power, and he has declared war against the Bajwa faction of the military. The former prime minister has portrayed the Sharif-led coalition government as ‘western stooge’ and has successfully tapped into the popular discontent fueled by a failing economy, soaring inflation and deep suffering inflicted by Pakistan’s worst flood in decades. As Khan’s popularity soars and his party wins key by-elections — the army’s iron grip over Pakistan’s polity has come under unprecedented challenge.

Bloomberg reports that retired army officials have attended pro-Khan rallies in recent months and there are “signs that Khan still retains plenty of silent allies in the military even if he’s fallen out of favor with the army chief, Bajwa.”

Pakistan is now plagued with profound economic woes that has led to political instability, and civil-military friction. It is reaping the harvest of a neurotic fixation with an expansive geopolitical agenda involving Afghanistan and Kashmir to gain power parity with India at the cost of economic growth and development. The powerful military, which still enjoys outsized influence over elected governments and polity, has seen its influence steadily erode at not being able to deliver either Kashmir or prosperity.

As C Raja Mohan writes in Indian Express, “India’s transformed relations with the US, the resolution of Delhi’s dispute with the global nuclear order, and getting the West to discard its temptation to mediate on Kashmir enormously improved India’s diplomatic position. But the most consequential change has been in the economic domain… If India has inched its way into the top six global economies, Pakistan today is broke.”

The depth of Pakistan’s bankruptcy is stunning. The nation, which recently received a funds infusion of $1.1 billion under an IMF programme — part of a $7 billion assistance package — has seen a surge in external debt obligations with repayments this fiscal rising to $24 billion from about $14 billion two years ago. This, coupled with its fast-depleting forex reserves that fell 6.6 per cent on a weekly basis to $7.83 billion in August 2022, lowest since 2019 places the country’s finances in a precarious position. Pakistan has been further hamstrung by devastating floods that seen price gains at 47-year high and a damage repair bill of $10 billion. Drowning in debt, Pakistan will now find it even harder to implement the unpopular austerity measures that accompany IMF assistance.

The combined effect of these factors has meant that Pakistan’s hand against India has been considerably weakened. Sustained economic growth has enabled India to move up the global power ladder and garner concomitant geopolitical clout, while Pakistan’s anemic growth has robbed it of the muscle to back its own geopolitical agenda. External variables have aided this trajectory, but the core difference lies in the economic domain.

This is a desired end state for India when it comes to managing the Pakistan challenge because a weak, disjointed, and penniless Pakistan will find it increasingly difficult to fund terror. India has been able to raise the costs for Pakistan to use terror as a state policy, and the FATF mechanism has put further constraints on Pakistan’s terror-financing tactics. Its assertive posture on Kashmir may never become less strident but Pakistan will face a perilous choice in reallocating meagre resources to pursuing nefarious agendas inside India.

That said, it must be noted that despite its inherent weaknesses, Pakistan will not be allowed to fail. One, it has learnt to monetise its “too dangerous to fail” myth that still sells well in the West — enabling a steady line of credit. The failed state will keep getting enough incentive to keep failing. Second, is has become adept at managing what scholar C Christine Fair calls ‘a very stable instability’.

Fair points out in Foreign Policy that “Pakistan emerged from the 1971 war stronger and more capable of projecting its interests despite the loss of half of its population, precious natural resources, and considerable landmass. Moreover, Pakistan has survived the most grievous of natural disasters without any of the predicted adverse second-order effects. It’s time to put to rest the idea that Pakistan will collapse—or fears collapsing.”

Additionally, a host of actors — among which some are India’s strategic rivals — are deeply invested in Pakistan’s survival and its ability to balance India. China, for instance, sees Pakistan as a low-cost option to tie down India in South Asia and work on India’s faultlines that Pakistan is uniquely placed to exploit.

Yun Sun, director of the China programme at the Stimson Center think-tank in Washington, writes in War on the Rocks that the delicate balance of power between India and Pakistan increasingly getting skewed in favour of New Delhi hasn’t escaped Beijing’s attention.

“If Pakistan is no longer able to act as China’s balancer of India in South Asia, China’s most direct remedy is the strengthening of Pakistan’s power… However, if that strategy is not successful in the near future, China could step in with more direct involvement in the form of further security assistance.”

The CEO of Baykar Technology, Turkey’s top armed drone manufacturing company whose armed drones have served Ukraine well in its fight against Russia, recently told Nikkei Asia newspaper that while it sells its TB2 drones to 23 countries around the world including Pakistan, it shall never sell these devices to India, because “our priority is to share our capabilities with brotherly countries that we have strategic relations with” such as Pakistan.

And then there’s the United States. The Joe Biden administration announced on Wednesday that reversing a Donald Trump-era decision, it has approved a $450 million F-16 fighter jet fleet upgradement programme to Pakistan, its “important counterterrorism partner”. Analysts say advanced radar and missile capabilities of the nuclear-capable F-16 fleet will give Pakistan an edge over India. Washington’s move to arm a terror state raises fresh questions on US reliability.

The timing of the announcement has also raised speculation that this was a ‘reward’ for Pakistan making available its airspace for the Biden administration to take out Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was lodged in a safe house in Kabul.

Pakistan has and will survive by exploiting its indispensability — be it strategic rivalry, its role as balancer of India, brotherhood of ummah or as a provider of access to Central Asia, and even in its perilous existence and weakened diplomatic position, it will retain the ability to make life difficult for India.

It is evident that there is no place for a bleeding-heart policy when it comes to Pakistan. India must work towards widening the economic chasm and power gap with Pakistan and force a gradual change in Islamabad’s terms of engagement.

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