February 22, 2019
'Washington is telegraphing here is its willingness to support a low-grade, limited use of force meant to send a strong message to Pakistan.'
'Perhaps something along the lines of the surgical strikes in 2016, or perhaps something a bit more -- but not much more.'
(Michael Kugelman is one of the most astute observers of developments in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and all you need to do is read this interview -- and the next part -- and amaze at his understanding of the complexities of the region in which we live.
In the first part of an e-mail interview with Rediff.com's Nikhil Lakshman, Michael -- Deputy Director and Senior Associate for the South Asia programme at the Wilson Center, the Washington, DC-based think-tank -- looks closely at the fog of war enveloping current strategic conversations in the Indian sub-continent and discusses the events that could emerge from the miasma of anger and loathing.)
US national security adviser John Bolton's statement that India has a right to defend itself, made in a call with India's NSA Ajit Kumar Doval on Friday evening -- what do do you make of it?
Bolton's words were strong, and they suggest that Washington will stand behind New Delhi if it retaliates against Pakistan.
The United States has traditionally treaded carefully in its public messaging during moments of high tension in India-Pakistan relations. Bolton's strong words amplify just how far the US-India relationship -- and particularly the defence partnership -- has come, and just how frustrated Washington has become about Islamabad's continued refusal to rein in terrorist groups that threaten its neighbours -- neighbours that happen to be key American friends in South Asia.
Would it indicate that the US understands India's need for retaliation for the Pulwama massacre?
Yes. That's the basic implication of Bolton's statement -- that Washington recognises India's right to retaliate.
This is not to suggest that the United States is encouraging India to escalate to a dangerously high level, where a war become a real risk.
What I think Washington is telegraphing here is its willingness to support a low-grade, limited use of force meant to send a strong message to Pakistan. Perhaps something along the lines of the surgical strikes in 2016, or perhaps something a bit more -- but not much more.
At the end of the day, the United States has a paramount interest in a stable subcontinent. Washington does not want India and Pakistan to go to war, even if it's a conflict that falls short of a hot war.
How does this US position reconcile with Washington's need for Islamabad's help to get the Taliban on board for a solution in Kabul?
Washington has to carry out a very delicate diplomatic dance.
It will want to give robust backing to India, but without jeopardising Pakistan's cooperation in Taliban peace talks.
Let's be clear: If Washington wasn't in the midst of the most encouraging effort yet to negotiate an end to the war in Afghanistan, US support to India -- in terms of rhetoric and action -- would be even stronger.
To an extent, Washington's hands are tied. It can and will throw its weight behind India, but within limits.
This is why, in addition to the stability concerns I mentioned earlier, we can expect Washington to support some type of limited Indian military response to the Pulwama attack, but not much more.
And I imagine that from here on out, much of that backing will be expressed privately, not out in the open.
Does this mean that the US -- despite the recent overtures to Pakistan to enable Zalmay Khalilzad's talks with the Taliban -- is deeply sceptical about Pakistan's assertions about curbing its Deep State and its encouragement for terrorism?
Washington remains sceptical about Pakistan's pledges to rein in terrorists that threaten Afghanistan and India. It is certainly encouraged by Pakistan's willingness to bring the Taliban to the table, and it rightly recognises that Islamabad is too influential to be left out of Taliban peace talks.
Still, just because the US government is heartened by Islamabad's willingness to bring the Taliban to talks doesn't mean its scepticism about the Pakistani establishment's willingness to crack down on terrorists will be magically eliminated.
In fact, Pakistan's robust denials of any Pakistani link to the Pulwama attack -- even though a Pakistan-based, Pakistan-linked group immediately claimed responsibility -- will harden Washington's scepticism.
Do you think Imran Khan is a dilettante leader with no real control over the Pakistan army? Does his past dependence on GHQ Rawalpindi for his political ascent mean that the army clearly controls Islamabad's strategic concerns on India/Afghanistan, and is averse to civilian oversight, more than witnessed during the Zardari and Sharif administrations?
Prime Minister Khan has a complex, albeit unsurprising, relationship with the army. He was once highly critical of the army and participated in the pro-democracy protests against Pervez Musharraf a decade ago.
Only in more recent years, as he became a bigger political player with serious aspirations to serve as premier, has he warmed up to the military.
In Pakistan, any politician who wants to occupy the uppermost positions of power will need to be on the army's good side. And certainly, because of his relentless opposition to Nawaz Sharif and the PMLN party in recent years, the military has warmed up to Khan.
In Sharif, Khan and the security establishment had a common foe.
When it comes to making policy toward India and Afghanistan or any international issue, the Pakistani military will always have the last -- and often first -- word.
While this has caused civil-military frictions in the past, the fact that Khan and the military generally see eye to eye on these issues means that the army taking the lead won't be a problem for Khan.
Indeed, when it comes to the India issue, neither Khan nor the military are averse to modest confidence-building measures with Indi -- think the Kartarpur Corridor initiative -- because the hope is to build enough trust to resume a formal dialogue that can open up negotiations on the status of Kashmir.
At the same time, neither Khan nor the military have any desire to alter the establishment's relationship with Lashkar-e-Tayiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad.
Will we see a short duration military conflict which India will initiate as retaliation for the Pulwama massacre?
Given the scale of the attack, it would be politically unfathomable -- especially with elections just weeks away -- for New Delhi not to respond in some type of a muscular fashion.
Whether there is an actual conflict will depend on how Pakistan responds to any initial Indian military strike -- and that in turn depends on how much military muscle India chooses to use.
Is it more likely be a surgical strike like the one undertaken on September 28-29, 2016, but stop short of war because a war between nuclear armed neighbors could easily spiral out of control?
I would not be surprised to see an initial Indian strike of higher intensity than the surgical strike. This is, again, because of the scale of Pulwama -- much deadlier than the Uri attack that precipitated the surgical strike -- but also because the surgical strike clearly did not solve the problem of Pakistan-based terror groups staging attacks across the border.
If India decides to escalate beyond a surgical strike, we could see more intense levels of air strikes that last a bit longer, though I imagine the targeting -- terrorist infrastructure -- and location -- Pakistan-administered Kashmir -- would be similar to the surgical strike.
There will be much chest-thumping and threat-mongering in India in the coming days, but in the end I can't imagine New Delhi launching an all-out war -- given concerns about capacity and the Pakistani nuclear threat.
Would such a limited military operation address the anger in India over the Pulwama massacre? Perhaps, in your opinion, also boost Prime Minister Modi's electoral standing before the general election?
A limited operation could appease anger in India, and also boost Modi's electoral standing, if it is accompanied by tough non-military measures.
The idea of diplomatically isolating Pakistan is a fool's errand.
Given that Islamabad has friendships with some of the world's most powerful countries, none of whom will want to cut Pakistan off, this is not a viable option. But if New Delhi were to cut off all diplomatic ties to Islamabad and make some noise about revoking the Indus Waters Treaty -- a move that would actually be quite risky for India, if it followed through -- then this could quell the anger of many Indians looking for more shock and awe in the military response.
Do you see American diplomacy -- in an administration allergic to diplomatic activism -- calming tempers in the sub-continent perhaps after such a military strike, to ensure that a full-scale conflict is averted?
If past is precedent, Washington can certainly be counted on to serve as mediator.
This is something US presidents -- including Bill Clinton during the Kargil crisis -- have done very well: Play a relatively hands-off role when bilateral tensions are latent, but jump in as the intermediary when the relationship is plunged into deep crisis.
The problem is that the Trump administration may not have the patience or personnel to carry out such a fraught and delicate mediation process.
To say that there are no George Kennans in the Trump administration is an understatement. To be sure, if the subcontinent's tensions really do spiral out of control, Washington will try to help ease them.
But the issue of who within the administration will take the lead looms large here.
There is also the ever lurking matter of President Trump -- a volatile and unpredictable leader who could well exacerbate rather than ease a dangerous state of affairs. In particularly tense circumstances, one angry tweet could have nightmarish implications.
This is why we should hope that other players -- the British, the EU, the UN -- could also play a major role to help avert a full-scale conflict, if tensions are spiraling out of control.
Could Washington pressure Islamabad to come up with a solution acceptable to the Indians to lower the strategic temperature -- perhaps incarcerate Masood Azhar and his brother Rauf Asghar for a lengthy period of time; perhaps release Kulbushan Jadhav before the ICJ verdict? Will such actions tone down India's response?
I doubt the Pakistanis would release Jadhav, though I can certainly see a situation where Azhar and/or his brother and other relatives are detained.
The problem is that the Indians know that the Pakistanis have detained, or placed under house arrest, terror leaders many times in the past before quietly releasing them. So New Delhi would look at such a move from a we've-seen-this-before lens and denounce it as an insufficient gesture.
Pakistan would need to take major actions -- irreversible steps, as US officials like to say in their messaging -- to ease New Delhi's concerns.
These would entail actions like arresting Azhar, pursuing investigations, and putting him on trial; along with dismantling JeM infrastructure, including its financing mechanisms.
I can't imagine Islamabad taking these types of steps, no matter who -- whether the Americans or even the Chinese -- were to pressure them to do so.
PART 2: 'If fighting stops in Afghanistan, Kashmir could become ground zero for terror groups'