In his infamous op-ed in The New York Times, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan took to the predictable nuclear blackmail to draw the world’s attention to Kashmir. “World War II happened because of appeasement at Munich. A similar threat looms over the world again, but this time under the nuclear shadow,” he wrote.
The very next day, his foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said in a BBC Urdu interview that war was not an option to deal with the Kashmir issue. He also seemed to soften his position on bilateral talks with India. Imran Khan, in contrast, had categorically said that there would be no talks until India reversed its 5 August decision to “annex” Jammu & Kashmir.
Changing its tune on war-mongering, Imran Khan has now himself said that Pakistan won’t initiate a conflict with India: “Both Pakistan and India are nuclear powers and if tension escalates, the world will face danger… I want to tell India that war is not a solution to any problem. The winner in war is also a loser. War gives birth to host of other issues.”
He didn’t say, as initially misreported, that Pakistan was changing its nuclear policy to no-first-use, but there is nevertheless a shift from “two nuclear-armed states get(ting) ever closer to a direct military confrontation” to “we will never ever start the war”.
There have been other interesting shifts in Pakistan’s strategy. It expelled the Indian High Commissioner, an act that often accompanies military tensions. But when it came to closing Pakistani air space to Indian commercial traffic, Islamabad decided not to do so for the moment, suggesting that the two countries aren’t scrambling to launch their fighter jets yet.
No terror attack yet
Imran Khan’s first response to the Modi government’s changes in the constitutional status of J&K was to threaten India with Pakistan’s real nuclear arsenal, terrorists. He said, “incidents like Pulwama are bound to happen again… I can already predict this will happen. They will attempt to place the blame on us again…”
When the Pakistani establishment wants to make a point, a big terror attack can happen very quickly. The 26/11 Mumbai attacks happened just a few days after then Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari said his country would not be the first to use nuclear weapons against India, a policy change not backed by the military establishment. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise visit to Pakistan, a terror attack on an Indian Air Force base took place within a week. Narendra Modi gave up on bilateral negotiations since then.
This time, however, Pakistan openly warned of a terror attack, but nearly a month later we are yet to see it. Many have said that’s because Pakistan is under global spotlight and pressure, negotiating with Donald Trump, the IMF, and the FATF at the same time even as it manages a precarious economy. Some analysts feel a terror attack will take place after the United Nations General Assembly’s 74th session concludes in September-end.
After the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, India did not respond militarily to Pakistan despite immense domestic pressure to do so. Similarly, India did not cross the Line of Control during the Kargil war, did not respond militarily to the Kandahar hijack in December 1999, and did not actually go to war after Parliament attack in 2001 despite threatening to do so.
The idea was to look like the more responsible state between the two and use the opportunity to lobby against Pakistan globally. This ‘strategic restraint’ was aimed at destroying Pakistan’s reputation at the international stage, painting it as a ‘terror state’, and isolating it in the international fora. Such a strategy aims to impose non-military costs on a country, such as its relations with other countries, its foreign aid and investments, its tourist inflows and the worth of its passport. Narendra Modi changed the policy of strategic restraint with a surgical strike in 2016 and an air strike in 2019.
In the ongoing clampdown on Kashmir, Pakistan now sees an opportunity for sweet revenge. It is belatedly but calculatedly changing its tune on war-mongering so that it doesn’t look like the bad guy in the story. Pakistan-backed terror attacks are often aimed at creating global headlines to ‘internationalise’ Kashmir. But they often fail to do so. Now that India is itself ‘internationalising’ the issue, why would Pakistan need a terror attack?
This is why the Pakistani offensive is not limited to Kashmir. Pakistan wants to paint Modi’s India as an authoritarian regime where religious minorities are unsafe and unequal. As part of this strategy, Imran Khan and his government are repeating ad nauseam keywords, such as “RSS”, “fascist”, “Hitler”. In his NYT op-ed, Imran Khan devoted four of the 18 paragraphs to the rise of Hindu nationalism in India, even expressing concern for Christians and Dalits.
In his speeches, he repeatedly talks about lynchings by cow vigilantes, and now the National Register of Citizens in Assam. He and his foreign minister are even paying tributes to Indian secularism, which Pakistan once rejected. From UNICEF meets to Bernie Sanders talking about Kashmir, Pakistan’s mega offensive on the contentious issue is getting a wide play.
The party has only begun
The Modi government seems to have decided to risk India’s international image with its Kashmir decision. The idea seems to be that India’s standing before the world is strong enough to survive the onslaught of protests on Kashmir by human rights-types. Don’t they need India’s markets?
As the Indian economy finds itself in the middle of a slowdown, India is further reducing its global bargaining power by weakening its position on Kashmir.
While the constitutional changes may be defensible as India’s personal business, the global press won’t be stopped anytime soon from worrying about an unprecedented lockdown of 80 lakh people India claims are its own.
Pakistan is having a great time punching at India’s image as a democratic country with a big market everyone loves. The party is far from over. The more India delays lifting the clampdown in Kashmir, the more the Kashmir story will drag on in the international press.
The clampdown can’t continue forever. If not tomorrow morning then next summer, it will have to be lifted. The longer it takes, the more it will anger the people. If not now then maybe two years later, but Kashmir is bound to erupt in large-scale protests and violence. Pakistan is waiting for the headlines that will scream the climbing death toll. No matter how the story proceeds, it is India that looks like the bad guy here. Patriotic Indians should ask themselves: what did we achieve apart from the schadenfreude over Kashmiri humiliation?
Views are personal.