Dealing with Pakistan: India’s Western Neighbour is No Longer a Strategic Priority
Amb Ajay Bisaria

India’s Pakistan policy has evolved over the last decade, from an attempted rapprochement in 2014-15, to a focus on stringent border management and counterterrorism. Even though India’s primary strategic challenge over the next decade would emanate from the north i.e. China- the country’s most recalcitrant western neighbour will continue to pose a sub-conventional security threat.

The Modi era began in 2014 with spirited attempts to recalibrate the relationship with Pakistan, echoing efforts of the Vajpayee era, particularly from 1999 to 2001, to de-risk and stabilise the relationship. After two years of robust engagement, bookended by the visit of Pakistan’s PM Nawaz Sharif to India in 2014 and that of PM Narendra Modi to Lahore in 2015, terrorism triggered a downtrend in the relationship from 2016. The low has persisted for eight years, from 2016 to 2024, deepening in 2019 with a terrorist attack in Pulwama, J&K. India has since 2016 looked at Pakistan through a security lens with greater strategic clarity, pivoting to a firmer counter-terror policy.

A critical component of India's evolving approach has seen the decisive decoupling of an internal J&K policy from an external Pakistan one. With the removal of Kashmir’s special status in August 2019, India reasserted this posture. This decoupling has diminished Pakistan’s leverage over Kashmir, even though India has not ruled out conversations akin to India's dialogue with China over the Line of Actual Control.

In the bigger picture, India persisted through the decade with its ‘neighbourhood first’ policy, with Pakistan ‘exceptionalism’, putting the difficult western neighbour into a separate category. For the BJP government’s inauguration in 2019 for example, countries from the BIMSTEC grouping were invited, rather than from SAARC (as was done in 2014), effectively leaving out Pakistan and Afghanistan. This was a scenario repeated in 2024, with Pakistan pointedly not among the neighbours invited to the NDA government’s swearing-in party.

A Cross-border Challenge to Internal Security

Three quarters of a century after the two countries got independence, Pakistan has remained a key security challenge for India. After failing in three major wars (in 1947-48, 1965 and 1971), two of them initiated by it to change the status quo in Kashmir, Pakistan’s military establishment fashioned and honed a sub-conventional dagger to run through India’s internal fissures. This was the instrument of proxy warfare, designed in the 1970s, to bleed India slowly. By launching proxy terror wars in two border states- in Punjab from the 1980s and in Jammu & Kashmir from the 1990s- Pakistan emerged as both an external and internal security challenge for India.

While the growing military power differential gave India a clear advantage in the conventional realm, the country had no good answer for the sub-conventional proxy terror it faced. India had no clear red lines to deter this imported terror. The threshold of tolerance of terrorism remained ambiguous for its perpetrators and was thus continually tested. Deterrence against terror had largely failed. Terror traumatised not just the border states of Punjab and J&K, but also regions beyond; terrorists brazenly spread their tentacles, deeply affecting the psyche of an entire nation. Only in the seventh decade after independence could India summon the will- and the instruments- to credibly take on the crippling challenge of external terrorism. India’s policy makers were finally willing to tackle imported terror by exporting a sub-conventional response.

In 2016, within a week of the Indian Prime Minister’s visit, a terror attack on the Pathankot Air Force Station in northern Punjab, by suspected Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) militants, seemed to confirm the pessimistic assessment that high level engagement with Pakistan mostly served as an invitation for a terror backlash, mostly with the blessing of Pakistan’s army. Worse, the episode again quashed India’s hope that renewed engagement and conversation would persuade Pakistan to abandon its violent path. India reacted to the 2016 terror attack with patience, even inviting Pakistan’s ISI to be part of the investigation into the incident. But matters went further south that year; Pakistan’s military establishment seemed keen to sabotage the civilian attempts at détente with India. Audacious terror incidents increased in frequency, particularly in Kashmir, which saw a particularly bloody summer in 2016.

An attack on an Indian army camp in Kashmir’s Uri in 2016 proved to be the last straw. Behind the September attacks was again the JeM, now the ISI’s weapon of choice (since its other protégé, the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) was facing the heat since its 2008 Mumbai attack). The response from India came swiftly. The Indian army’s 2016 surgical strikes- multiple attacks on terrorist launchpads across the LOC- signalled to Pakistan that in dealing with cross-border terror, India was now ending the era of handling proxy warfare with strategic restraint, replacing it with a posture of ‘offensive defence’: a willingness to respond beyond its borders.

The air strikes of 2019, in response to the JeM’s massive Pulwama terror attack of 14 February, reaffirmed this resolve. The signal to Pakistan, as also to the global community, was clear. India was now ready for hot pursuit to check terrorism in its home base, even if Indian forces needed to cross the LOC, or even the international boundary.

This response from its larger adversary to punitively or pre-emptively challenge terror at its source now entered Pakistan’s security calculus. Pakistan had ‘assurance’ that India’s response to acts of terrorism above a certain threshold could be proportionate and punitive but could also be massive and pre-emptive. In effect, India’s broader response implied a policy of reduced tolerance of terror, commensurate with - as could be expected in an effective democracy- a lowering of the threshold of public acceptance of terrorism. Reacting to terror attacks in Jammu & Kashmir, India put in place an effective counterterrorism grid within the territory, bolstered by a ‘forward policy’ of tackling terrorism deep within Pakistan. The CT policy was accompanied by a diplomatic posture from 2016 of curtailing structured engagement with Pakistan, popularly dubbed as the phase of ‘no talks with terror’.

For India, the strategic restraint exercised during Kargil in 1999, and after the Parliament attacks of 2001, has now been replaced by a sophisticated counterterror and ‘active defence’ policy. A credible counterfactual to ponder over is that if the air strikes within Pakistan had taken place in 1999 after Kargil, if Uri and Balakot-like actions had been executed by India, and had been factored into Pakistan’s security calculus, the attacks of 2001 and 2008 could have been prevented.

But strategic restraint was vital for India after it turned nuclear in 1998, not just for security reasons (nuclear thresholds and red lines had not been established or articulated) but also for an international reputation of emerging as a responsible nuclear power. Arguably, such restraint was no longer necessary after the Mumbai 2008 attacks. A Balakot-like strike after Mumbai could have prevented more attacks subsequently. Going further back, if India had found an effective response to the proxy war of the 1980s that inflamed Punjab, it could have prevented the conflagration of the 1990s in Jammu and Kashmir; if India had placed a heavy and unacceptable cost on the Pakistan army in response to the terror of the 1990s in Kashmir, it could have created a deterrent for the terrorism that mounted from the turn of the century. Only now has India developed a reasonably credible deterrence against major terrorism.

Room for Creative Diplomacy

A tough posture on terrorism does not necessarily imply an absence of constructive engagement. The diplomatic missions between the countries have remained open through the decade, even though they were downgraded to Charge d’affaires level in 2019. Exchanges through intelligence channels have continued, as have the operational contacts between the armies at the level of Directors General Military Operations (DGMOs). More importantly, the countries have negotiated some crucial confidence building measures despite the overall hostility. For instance, the Kartarpur corridor project for Indian pilgrims to visit the holy Gurudwara 4 km within Pakistan’s territory, was announced in 2018 and went ahead with consultation and coordination between the two countries. It became a reality in 2019 before the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, despite the shocks to the relationship that year: of terrorism and changes in the status of J&K.

Other stabilisation moves have also succeeded in the past decade. A ceasefire situation between the armies on the line of control was negotiated and resumed from February 2021 and has largely held for over four years. An accidental launch of an Indian Brahmos missile into Pakistan in March 2022 was handled calmly by the two sides, with no belligerent reaction from Pakistan. Technical talks prescribed by the Indus Waters Treaty have continued even though the dispute resolution mechanisms are frayed by their abuse by Pakistan.

As Pakistan goes through a poly-crisis with economic, security and political dimensions, at least since 2021, India has largely kept a distance from Pakistan’s internal troubles. India did not comment much on the internal situation in Pakistan or the fraudulent elections of February 2024. Pakistan was not an issue of any priority in India’s election discourse of 2024. In fact, it was not an issue in 2019 either, except that the 2019 Pulwama terror attack put the spotlight on national security and the ruling government legitimately claimed credit for an effective and muscular response to terrorism. Some diplomatic contacts continued under the multilateral Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) umbrella, particularly during India’s presidency of the organisation in 2023, when Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto paid a visit to Goa for a foreign ministers’ confabulation. The countries maintained reasonable tranquillity in their relationship from 2019, with only escalated rhetoric from Pakistan.

Falling Priorities

Today, the two countries have fallen in each other’s strategic priorities. India lacks significant incentives for attempting rapprochement. The strategic priority for India is a border competition with the other Asian rival, China, which consumes both military and policy bandwidth. For India’s ‘neighbourhood first’ policy, a carveout for Pakistan (and for different reasons, for Afghanistan) is now an accepted posture.

For Pakistan, given its internal woes, and the security challenges from Afghanistan, the cost of hostility with India has been escalated, making a quieter eastern border desirable. The default position for Pakistan’s army- attempting revisionism in Kashmir - has, however, not gone away, particularly since it sees India as further ‘integrating’ Jammu & Kashmir and propelling the province towards political and economic normalcy.

At the same time, Pakistan’s civilians have strong economic incentives to resume trade with India, thanks to the severe economic crisis they encounter. This had led to a stated objective of a pivot to geo-economics from geopolitics. On its part, India has little incentive for resuming trade with Pakistan, given the limited economic value it would bring for a growing 3.8 trillion-dollar economy, notwithstanding the advantages of trade for border communities or the long-term benefits of land transit corridors extending to Afghanistan and Central Asia. While resumption of bilateral trade for Pakistan would have significant economic benefits, it would largely be seen as a confidence building measure by India.

India has since 2016 maintained a posture of ‘no talks with terror’ accompanied by one of ‘zero tolerance’ for terrorism. India’s official policy remains that it seeks ‘normal neighbourly relations’ with Pakistan in an atmosphere free of violence, terrorism and hostility. Hence, India had no major structured dialogue with Pakistan since 2016. This posture was reinforced after the Pulwama attack of 2019. Pakistan, on its part, effectively took on a posture in 2019 of ‘no talks with Article 370’, tying up its India policy in knots. Then PM Imran Khan’s subsequent rhetoric and personal attacks on India’s leadership reduced the space for diplomacy for his own government, his successors and even for the permanent establishment: the army.

India’s policy has been largely effective, arguably with an assist from Pakistan’s internal crisis, as also from global conditions. India has faced no spectacular terrorist attack since Pulwama 2019, cross-border infiltration has dropped significantly, and an LOC ceasefire has been held since February 2021. A strong counter-terror policy has also implied a short shelf life for Kashmir-focussed terrorists within Kashmir and elsewhere.

The Terrorist Veto

With elections having been completed in both countries, the bilateral dynamics have changed. New governments should normally have led to fresh thinking and an impulse to stabilise borders. Pakistan’s civilian leaders did make some overtures for stabilising ties, but once again, the army may not be on board.

Even as India’s Prime Minister was taking the oath of office on 9 June 2024, terrorists struck in the Jammu region killing nine civilians. Three more attacks followed in the next three days, establishing a clear pattern of cross-border terrorist attacks on a region perceived to be vulnerable. The gambit may be deliberate and based on several different tactical objectives.

Pakistan is perhaps signalling to Jammu & Kashmir that the recent spectacular success of the electoral process in terms of voter turnouts was not acceptable and must not be repeated. It may have stayed its hand prior to the elections because Pakistan’s army believed that the Pulwama terrorism of 2019 helped the incumbent government in India win the elections that year and a pre-election attack may have had the same impact in 2024. Moreover, the effective counter-terrorism grid in the Kashmir Valley did not allow the terrorists to launch attacks there, and the scale of the attacks was deliberately below the perceived threshold of India’s response. The upcoming Amarnath Yatra pilgrimage, record numbers (over 21 million in 2023) of tourists in the valley and the scheduled J&K elections by September- all strong markers of normalcy-give reason for the sponsors of terrorism to attempt attacks wherever they could succeed. Pakistan may also be pandering to its primary global benefactor, China, to suggest that it was imposing costs on India for having reduced the density of troops in the Jammu sector of the LOC to bolster the LAC against China. Islamabad would also be keen to tell the restive parts of POK that all is not well with their Indian counterparts.

Perhaps, the most important signal from Pakistan’s army was sent to the junior partner in the hybrid government, PML-N President Nawaz Sharif, whose message to India’s PM was to replace ‘hate with hope’. Nawaz Sharif would feel enormous déjà vu. Two of his past attempts at peace-making with India – in 1999 and in 2015 – were met with disapproval from the army and active encouragement to terrorism to stymie these moves. More worryingly for him, they also led to his premature ouster from office.

India is reading these signals clearly. A hardline approach to terrorism would remain India’s primary posture. A verifiable halt to cross-border violence would remain the essential precondition for movement on other issues like trade. Cross-border terrorism will remain the deal breaker for any attempt at stabilising the relationship.

As India goes about grappling with the central strategic challenge of China, it would need to deal with an unpredictable Pakistan, on a recalibrated basis and with strategic patience. It would need to avoid the pitfall of strategic negligence, of the kind Israel showed with Gaza in October 2023. Diplomatic and intelligence channels would need to remain open, for India to keep engaging both the army and civilians across the border, focusing on low hanging fruit but first seeking security guarantees for the future. Any stabilisation process will be challenged by several threats: of escalated terrorism, the increasing China – Pakistan military collusion or the stresses to the Indus Waters treaty mechanism. With a focus on maintaining the security gains of the past decade, India would need to navigate its western front with a combination of strategic patience, calibrated engagement and proactive defence.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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