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Coalition of the concerned

By Suhasini Haidar

Multi-pronged diplomacy is vital to compel Pakistan to end its support for terrorist groups


In the wake of the Pulwama attack on February 14, the government has iterated once again its plan for the “diplomatic isolation” of Pakistan. The idea, which was first articulated after the 2016 Uri attacks, is a non-starter, as was underlined by the visit of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman to both countries earlier this month, just a few days after Pulwama. In Pakistan, the Prince called himself “Pakistan’s Ambassador” in his country, and issued a joint statement praising Pakistan for its fight against terrorism. Clearly, a more considered diplomatic strategy, less full of rhetoric, must be chalked out by the government in response to cross-border terrorism.

To begin with, the government would do better to repackage its idea of “isolating Pakistan” into one of building a more inclusive ‘coalition against terrorism emanating from Pakistan’. In the past couple of weeks alone, Iran and Afghanistan have faced terror attacks on their security forces along the border with Pakistan — and several other countries, which have also faced such attacks or see the presence of Pakistan-based groups on their soil, would be willing to join ranks on this. The truth is, in today’s interconnected world, it is vainglorious to expect countries to join a unilateral plan for isolation.

Despite the U.S.’s considerable might, it has been unable to get most countries, including India, to sever ties with Iran and North Korea, for example. The impact of such a campaign is also doubtful: after years of trying to isolate North Korea, the U.S. is pursuing talks with its leader. While isolation might work as a campaign slogan for domestic audiences, it is quickly rebuffed each time a country engages with the nation one is trying to isolate. An inclusive coalition is more likely to move nations at the global stage as well. The success of the efforts led by the U.S. and other countries to ‘grey list’ Pakistan at the Financial Action Task Force or of French efforts for a United Nations Security Council statement on Pulwama points to that.

Second, India must focus on the case against Masood Azhar, which pre-dates the case against 26/11 mastermind Hafiz Saeed. In a first, the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) claimed responsibility for the Pulwama attack in a suicide bomber video that has not thus far been disputed by its leader Masood Azhar. Azhar has been on the U.S.’s radar since 1992, when he was a leader of the banned terror group Harkat ul-Ansar, and worked with jihadi groups in Sudan and Bangladesh. His release after years in Indian prisons in exchange for hostages on board the IC-814 flight should on its own merit his banning and prosecution — not just in Pakistan, but in all the countries whose nationals were on board that Indian Airlines flight, as well as the stops that flight made: in Nepal, the United Arab Emirates and Afghanistan.

Third, India must prepare for a pushback from Pakistan, most likely in terms of internationalising the Kashmir issue, and linking it to progress in Afghanistan. This is what Pakistan’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, Zahid Nasrullah, did when he said that any attack by India would “impact the momentum” of the peace talks in Afghanistan. His words were heard beyond Kabul, in Washington and Moscow. On February 18, members of the Taliban negotiating team were due to meet U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Islamabad. The talks were called off after Afghanistan objected to the Taliban team’s travel to Pakistan, and rescheduled for February 25 in Doha. It remains to be seen how much countries trying to negotiate with the Taliban will need Pakistan’s leverage to make progress on those talks. U.S. President Donald Trump sees them as the precursor for plans to pull out most troops in combat in Afghanistan before his re-election bid for 2020.

Next, the government must prioritise action over words, when it comes to moves against Pakistan’s sponsorship and hosting of the JeM. The measures taken thus far — cancelling Most Favoured Nation status, maximising use of Indus waters, denying visas to Pakistani sportspersons, etc. — have little real impact on Pakistan and certainly none on the military establishment. Instead of priding itself on extracting statements of condemnation from various governments in the world, it is better for New Delhi to use India’s considerable diplomatic leverage to ensure action that would shut down the JeM and the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) permanently and bring their leaders to justice. In this regard, mere statements and bans have not worked for more than two decades, and the government must consider other options, especially with the countries that carry the most leverage and access in Pakistan: China, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

It is puzzling that the U.S. has been able to carry out drone strikes on a whole host of terror group leaders on Pakistan’s western front, but never once targeted camps and infrastructure belonging to the JeM and the LeT, despite their well-established links to al-Qaeda. India must also press the U.S. to place travel sanctions on specific entities in the Pakistani military establishment unless visible action is taken against the JeM, whose leaders hold public rallies and issue videos threatening India.

Contrary to popular perception, the Trump administration’s moves to cancel funds to Pakistan last year is not the toughest action the U.S. has contemplated: in May 1992, then U.S. President George H.W Bush had directed his Secretary of State James Baker to send a stern letter to then Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif threatening to designate Pakistan as a “State sponsor of Terror” for its support to Kashmiri and Sikh militant groups.

A similar line of talks must be pursued by New Delhi with Riyadh — which once was a donor to Pakistan’s Islamist institutions, but now is wary of funding extremism — to withhold any funds that may trickle down to charitable wings run by the JeM and LeT. With China, it is surprising that the issue of a simple ban at the UN Security Council has not been made India’s chief demand from Beijing. It is hoped that this will be rectified soon when the next proposal to ban Azhar is brought to the UNSC, and during Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to China this week for the trilateral Russia-India-China meeting. More than the ban, however, India must ask China for action against any entities dealing with the JeM in Pakistan, given that China is the partner with the most influence in Pakistan today, and one with the most to lose from terror groups in Punjab operating along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Finally, India must look to its own actions on the diplomatic front with Pakistan. Calling off a formal dialogue process for more than a decade has clearly yielded no desired outcome. South Asia as a region, and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) process too have suffered the consequences of this disengagement, without yielding any desired outcomes. A measured, steady and non-political level of dialogue is a more effective way of impressing India’s determination to root out terrorism than the present on-again, off-again policy. As the nation prepares for a possible military response to the Pulwama attack, it is important that New Delhi consider its diplomatic response carefully, particularly taking into account both the historical and regional context of its moves.