By Rajan Kumar
In an unprecedented show of solidarity with India, the global community expressed deep anguish and outrage over the terrorist attack on a convoy leading to the death of more than 40 soldiers of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir. Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a Pakistan-based terrorist organisation, claimed responsibility for this dastardly attack. This was perhaps the worst attack on the military in several decades of insurgency in Kashmir.
The images of dismembered, charred and mutilated bodies of soldiers, circulated through social media, sent shock waves across the globe. India upped the ante by demanding a quick and decisive action from Pakistan against JeM chief Masood Azhar or face the brutal reprisal. Prime minister Narendra Modi announced that he had “given the armed forces a free hand to punish the masterminds of the suicide bombing”. Pakistan, as usual, denied any involvement and its prime minister Imran Khan retorted- “Pakistan will not think of retaliating, it will retaliate” in the event of an Indian strike.
As the ongoing war of words continues, the possibility of Indian retribution cannot be ruled out. The NDA government which takes pride in muscular and militaristic nationalism will not subvert its reputation by delaying action against the terrorist groups or those supporting them from across the border. Considering the parliamentary election just around the corner, the government cannot afford to be seen sitting pretty and waiting for the opportune moment. It has a very small window of opportunity, and its patience is wearing thin. It needs a new narrative- real or surreal.
The government has unleashed an intensive flurry of diplomatic activity, but given the divisive nature of international politics, it cannot attain the desired objective of isolating Pakistan. Most of the states condemned the terrorist act and have offered help to India. But the extent and level of support beyond words vary drastically. The countries and organisations which matter on this issue were cautious in issuing statements against Pakistan.
The United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the most significant international body on security, condemned the attack as “heinous and cowardly” and urged the international community to hold the perpetrators, organisers and financiers of JeM responsible for this act. This decision assumes significance as China always opposed India’s bid to designate Masood Azhar as a global terrorist under 1267 Sanctions Committee of the UN Security Council. Azhar was released from Indian captivity in 1999 during the BJP-led NDA government in a swap deal for the passengers of Flight IC 814 taken hostage to Kandahar. He was the mastermind of the attack on Indian parliament in 2001, and Pathankot terrorist attack in 2016.
Strong words of condemnation and unequivocal support came from France and Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin in his letter to the Indian prime minister offered support and underlined the need for an intensive bilateral collaboration to counter terrorism. The national security advisors of Russia and France spoke to their India counterpart Ajit Doval for coordinating counter-terrorist measures. France decided to bring a resolution at the UNSC in support of India’s efforts to declare Masood Azhar as a global terrorist. This received high attention and appreciation in India. But neither France nor Russia can put much of pressure on Pakistan. Russia is negotiating with the Taliban and is aware of Pakistan’s relevance for it. France has a very limited diplomatic influence on Pakistan.
The United States condemned the attack and reprimanded Pakistan for providing safe haven to terrorist groups. US President Donald Trump described this attack as “horrible” and asked Islamabad to take appropriate action against those responsible for this “heinous act”. But it is unlikely that the US will go beyond issuing some verbal warnings and sharing some intelligence. It is constrained by two strategic concerns in the region. First, the US is negotiating with the Taliban which is likely to come to power in the near future. Considering the influence of Pakistan’s army over the Taliban, the US is unlikely to either censure or alienate Pakistan. Second, the US is wary of possible conflagration between India and Pakistan which may jeopardise the regional security in South Asia.
The influence of the US over Pakistan has diminished remarkably owing to the rising economic and strategic dependence of the latter on China. The US at best is playing a balancing act where its support for India goes hand in hand with a concern that the simmering tension should not result in a real war. Trump described the evolving situation between India and Pakistan as “very dangerous” and alluded to his efforts to de-escalate the rising crescendo of retaliation. It would be “wonderful if they (India-Pakistan) get along”, he said. France and the US are working hard to diffuse the pressure through back-channel diplomacy.
China and Saudi Arabia, the two countries which could exert maximum influence on Pakistan, were restrained, reluctant and ambiguous. Saudi Arabia is the source of Wahabi ideology, finance and a gateway to West Asia for Pakistan; and China is the big-brother providing geopolitical protection, missile and nuclear technology and investment. China condemned the terrorist attack but failed short of either naming or reprimanding Pakistan. Nonetheless, a significant departure from its erstwhile policy was evident when it did not object to JeM being designated as a terrorist organisation at the UNSC.
Indian diplomacy needs to send a message across to China in no uncertain terms that a conflict between India and Pakistan can severely disrupt its China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in Pakistan, a flagship project of Xi Jinping’s the Belt and Road Initiative. China needs to restrain Pakistan from providing direct or indirect support to various terrorist groups.
The visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to New Delhi, just after the terrorist attack, created awkward situations for the diplomats of both the states. He was on a visit to restore his image that was dented by the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi embassy in Ankara. While most of the media stories focussed on the picturesque ModiSalman hug and the MoU of roughly $100 billion signed between the two states, some reports highlighted the unholy nexus between Saudi finance and terrorism in the West and South Asia.
Prince Salman sought to maintain a delicate balance between Pakistan and India. In Pakistan, he supported the de-politicisation of the UNSC 1267; in India, he condemned the terrorist attack in Kashmir. Saudi support for al-Qaida and the Islamic State has contributed to the destabilisation of the entire region from Afghanistan to Syria.
Indian diplomacy did not expect much from Saudi Arabia on the issue of Pakistan and instead tried to fetch commitments on economic trade and investments. In return, India has been invited as “the guest of honour” to the Organisation of Islamic Countries’ (OIC) meet in Abu Dhabi on 1-2 March. Saudis are believed to have played an important role in this invitation.
To sum up, while the international opinion is hugely in favour of India, this might change with an escalation of the conflict. Washington and Paris are working hard to assuage India and diffuse tensions on the border. China is also averse to an Indo-Pak confrontation due to economic reasons. Under these circumstances, it is a tightrope walk for the Modi government between ratcheted up public expectations of firm action, and the mounting international pressure to avoid confrontation.
(The author is Associate Professor at School of Internation Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. Views are personal)