Thursday, 16 April 2015

The Lakhvi Triangle, by Whitney Kassel

The Lakhvi Triangle, by Whitney Kassel, 16 April 2015
The first few months of 2015 offered a glimmer of hope in the long, twisted history of the India-Pakistan rivalry. On February 11, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to wish Pakistan luck in the cricket World Cup, and to offer to send his new Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar to Islamabad for talks. But just two months later, the Lahore High Court’s approval of Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi’s release from prison on April 10 thoroughly tanked any near-term prospects for improved relations between the two countries. Lakhvi is the 55-year-old operational head of the Kashmir-focused Islamic militant groupLashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and alleged mastermind of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

The court’s decision has left Indian leaders fuming and has drawn criticismfrom the U.S. government. A deterioration in Pakistan’s relations with either nation will be detrimental to regional and global security and, in the case of bilateral India-Pakistan ties, the ultimate stability of both countries. A recent Atlantic Council report estimates that an expansion in bilateral trade between India and Pakistan could generate up to $400 billion in just a few years, while freeing resources currently tied up in bloating defense spending and improve access to resources like water and electricity. The stakes in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship are also high, with the Washington supplying billions of dollars in military and economic aid to Islamabad each year in hopes of eliciting critical counterterrorism cooperation and the facilitation — both political and logistical — of NATO’s projected withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Many Asia policy-watchers in India and across the world are pointing to the growing importance of the India-China rivalry. They are inclined to dismiss the India-Pakistan conflict as a kind of 20th-century relic, with a dysfunctional and debt-ridden Pakistan continuing to obsess over its neighbor’s supposed designs on regional hegemony while India has found bigger fish to fry in economic development and the larger long-term threat to the east. But while Pakistan’s preoccupation with perceived Indian meddling in Afghanistan and elsewhere can indeed verge on the delusional (not to mention self-destructive), the friction between these warring sibling countries is still a very real issue, and one that could quickly escalate — no small hazard when dealing with two nuclear-armed states.

Modi came into office in May 2014 with a fairly hardline stance on Pakistan (save a seeming gesture of goodwill in inviting Sharif to his inauguration), a position that was controversial but ultimately aligned with a large portion of Indian popular opinion. Since 2001, much of the Indian national security community has watched in confusion as the United States tried desperately to forge a “strategic partnership” with Pakistan in the name of bilateral cooperation on the war in Afghanistan and counterterrorism, despite numerous, damning indications that Pakistan was playing a double game by providing support to Afghan Taliban groups. Modi’s approach, therefore, while not completely entrenched, seemed to embody a sense of frustration and reflect India’s deep distrust that Pakistan would ever engage on issues of terrorism and bilateral relations in good faith.

Many Indians were shocked, therefore, when Modi reached out to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in February in what appeared to be a retreat from several of India’s previously set “red lines.” In August 2014, Pakistani leaders met with the Kashmiri separatist group Hurriyat Conference just days before scheduled foreign minister-level talks between the two countries. Modi saw this as a snub in the face of a potential rapproachment, and promptly called off the meeting. But this time, Modi reached out despite Pakistan’s continued contact with Hurriyat, including a meeting between Hurriyat Conference chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and the Pakistani High Commissioner in New Delhi, Abdul Basit, the day before Modi’s call to Sharif.

It was hard, then, back in February, to resist speculating over the reasons for Modi’s about-turn, given that his outreach to Sharif came just days after Obama’s visit to India. The press and observers in both countries widely assumed Obama had put Modi up to the call, a perception fueled by the White House’s comments before the visit that Pakistan was a top agenda item. The call angered many in India, who felt the move put Modi in an embarrassing and unwise position by simultaneously acceding to the United States’ behest and capitulating to a dangerous and intransigent rival. Others insisted nothing had — or would — change on Pakistan’s end, and remained certain that extending an olive branch was a fool’s errand.

Even supporters of Modi’s friendlier stance towards Pakistan were skeptical that such a step would ultimately lead to any real shifts in existing and deeply rooted antagonisms, which many perceive, at least in the case of Pakistan, to be built into the very socio-political fabric of the country. Ideas about the precise ways in which strains of Islamic fundamentalism and anti-India sentiment are intertwined and self-reinforcing across different segments of Pakistani society vary according to the observer and his or her background or bias (few, if any, analysts of these slippery issues ever appear to be truly impartial). But in India, if not in Pakistan itself, it seemed likely that those forces would derail any hopes for reconciliation. 

On the Pakistan side, of course, there also remained deepdistrust as to Modi’s true intentions.
On the Pakistan side, of course, there also remained deep distrust as to Modi’s true intentions.

Lakhvi’s release thus came as disappointing but not entirely unexpected news to many Indians who, again, expect that certain actors in Pakistan will behave in ways that preclude peace with India. Pakistani authorities, on the other hand, cited legal reasons for Lakhvi’s release, claiming there was insufficient evidence to support his continued detention; much of the evidence in the case is considered sensitive, and thus hasn’t been made available to the press or public. Pakistan’s Foreign Office also stated that Indian authorities failed to provide critical assistance and evidence regarding the Mumbai attacks, making it difficult for Pakistan to prosecute Lakhvi, a claim disputed by Indian officials

Assessments on the Indian side have, of course, been far less forgiving. Prime Minister Modi, currently touring Europe, kept his comments vague but undeniably critical, stating, “All nations should commit that they will not provide shelter to terrorists but punish them.” The United States and several other nations made similar comments. But the Indian press, government officials, and even some within Pakistan itself expressed strong suspicions as to exactly what was behind the release, and few seemed convinced by Pakistan’s procedural explanation.

The majority pointed to the possibility that Pakistani security services, by most accounts the most powerful actors in the country, exerted pressure on or even withheld evidence from the courts to protect Lakhvi. LeT, Lakhvi’s terrorist outfit, has long been considered an ally and even beneficiary of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), making his release appear to confirm Indian claims that Pakistan continues to pick and choose which terrorist groups to attack and which to protect and foster as potential foreign policy instruments — in this case against India, primarily in Kashmir.

While this seems the most likely scenario, there may be a broader impetus for the security services to undermine any potential rapprochement with India. Ayesha Siddiqa, an economist and respected analyst of Pakistani politico-military affairs, and others, have asserted that the Pakistani military, and its army in particular, has an incentive to maintain the country’s adversarial stance towards India to preserve its place as the preeminent and most powerful institution in the country. 

In this argument, the army’s economic clout and prestige depend on its status as the nation’s savior, and the leeway given to it by the Pakistani people is largely built on their fear that without the Army’s protection, India will annihilate them.

In this argument, the army’s economic clout and prestige depend on its status as the nation’s savior, and the leeway given to it by the Pakistani people is largely built on their fear that without the Army’s protection, India will annihilate them.

This is, of course, a controversial stance, and the reality is likely some combination of these factors, including an element of the Pakistani government’s answer, namely a bureaucratic or legal failure to put forth adequate evidence against Lakhvi. Whatever the reason or combination thereof, however, Lakhvi’s release will undoubtedly serve as powerful ammunition for those in India who believe that any kind of talks with Pakistan are not only a waste of time, but potentially dangerous.

Sunshat Sareen, a consultant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi who was critical of Modi’s “u-turn” on Pakistan before news broke of Lakhvi’s release, undoubtedly considers his words from late February to be little less than prescient now: “The past record suggests that every time India is engaged in a dialogue with Pakistan, there is a spike in incidents of terrorism. This is partly because talks serve as a buffer to any possible offensive action that India might contemplate in retaliation. It is so much easier to call off talks than to take offensive action. Talks create space for Pakistan to export terrorism.” Releasing Lakhvi is not a terrorist act in itself, of course, but such a step from Pakistan in the face of a potential improvement in relations does seem to fit fairly well within Sareen’s prediction.

The decision on Lakhvi also fuels India’s argument to the United States that their attempts to engender cooperation from Pakistan are futile and naive, as Pakistan will not truly change its stripes unless there is a wholesale change towards leadership that can keep the military in check. Having recently approved a $952 million sale of helicopters and missiles to Pakistan, the United States clearly remains invested in its counterterrorism partnership with Pakistan, an understandable stance given the need for Pakistan’s cooperation to both successfully withdraw from Afghanistan and to keep tabs on al Qaeda senior leadership still residing in the tribal areas. With the release of Lakhvi, however, critics in both India and the United States are already calling for greater oversight and perhaps even a suspension of U.S. military aid to Pakistan. It is unlikely that Lakhvi’s release will be enough to shut down the pipeline of U.S. military assistance, given the importance of that bilateral relationship. But it certainly tips the scales towards those who hold Pakistan’s commitment to counterterrorism in doubt. In the case of India, it will almost certainly preclude any further talks for some time to come.

No comments: