Losing the war narrative

Updated 11 Oct, 2016 01:09am
Nawaz Sharif speaks during the 71st session of the UNGA, where he demanded for an investigation into atrocities committed by Indian forces in Indian-held Kashmir | AP
Nawaz Sharif speaks during the 71st session of the UNGA, where he demanded for an investigation into atrocities committed by Indian forces in Indian-held Kashmir | AP

Since testing nuclear weapons in 1998, Pakistan has lost while India has gained international standing. Competing successfully with India’s nuclear weapons programmes was supposed to advance Pakistan’s stature and security, but it has not. Pakistan’s ability to gain standing and avoid growing isolation depends on its ability to understand why its talking points have lost traction. Blaming this loss on the size of India’s market is far too convenient an explanation. Profits matter greatly, but economics do not explain why Pakistan has lost the benefit of the doubt abroad. Washington’s dominant narrative is that Pakistan’s misfortunes lie in its policies toward its neighbours and the means employed to pursue them. Pakistan’s talking points will not become persuasive unless it changes this narrative.

Pakistan has been unable to change this narrative by changing the subject to the plight of Kashmiris. The outside world understands that India has made a mess for itself in the Kashmir Valley. And yet, the United Nations (UN) Security Council has not passed a meaningful resolution on Kashmir since 1957. There are much bigger messes in this war-torn world and the international community has not tried to clean them up, either. The UN and key foreign capitals care more about the prospect of a clash between India and Pakistan than about Kashmir. Every time major powers have gotten involved to prevent a clash between India and Pakistan over the past quarter-century, they have sought to reaffirm the status quo in Kashmir, not change it to Pakistan’s liking.

Since 1998, crises between India and Pakistan have been triggered by events that can be traced back to Pakistan, or to the Pakistani side of the Kashmir divide. The perpetrators of these attacks are widely perceived abroad to be militant groups, sympathetic to the Kashmir cause, that have found shelter and support within and from Pakistan. The international community is far more worried about their ability to spark a crisis or a war than about the plight of Kashmiris.

A pattern for attacks by such groups is now well established. These attacks happen either when Indian and Pakistani leaders seek to improve relations or when relations are deteriorating. The pattern of how major powers react to these attacks is also clear: it was established after the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament and the 2008 Mumbai attack.

There was plentiful evidence in both cases that the perpetrators enjoyed safe havens in Pakistan and had close ties to Pakistan’s military and intelligence services. Judicial prosecution did not happen after the attack on the Indian parliament and was half-hearted and unsuccessful after the 2008 Mumbai attack. Pakistan blamed this failure on India for not handing over more evidence — evidence that was not admissible in Pakistani courts.

Foreign capitals reached the conclusion that Pakistan’s decision makers were unwilling or unable to bring the militant wings of anti-India groups to heel — an impression that was subsequently reinforced when the perpetrators remained free to give speeches, gain recruits and collect money.

This is why – after the attacks at Gurdaspur, Pathankot and Uri – Washington and other foreign capitals have not been persuaded by Pakistan’s claim that there is insufficient proof of the usual suspects being guilty. In the court of international public opinion, the burden of proof shifted from New Delhi to Islamabad after the attack on the Indian parliament and the Mumbai attacks. Because Pakistani authorities have not taken overt steps to shut down the offices of certain militant groups after promising to do so, Islamabad has lost the benefit of the doubt abroad.

The usual suspects are presumed guilty abroad because alternative theories advanced by Pakistan are not persuasive beyond Pakistan’s borders. One theory is that disaffected Kashmiris carried out these attacks without any help from Pakistan. However, disaffected Kashmiris need help to carry out sophisticated attacks against Indian military installations. Homegrown Kashmiri disaffection is now very much a reality, but it is taking other forms of protest. Perhaps the modus operandi of disaffected Kashmiris will change in the future, but as of now, they are not the primary suspects.

A second theory, widely shared in Pakistan, is that Indian forces killed their own comrades to change the subject away from the human rights abuses in Kashmir and pin the blame on Pakistan. When Pakistanis advance this theory, foreign capitals react in utter disbelief.

The most plausible explanation abroad for attacks on Indian military outposts is the most obvious one: that these attacks are carried out by groups based in the Punjab that hate India and hate what is happening in Kashmir. These groups have forward deployed cadres on the Pakistani side of the Kashmir divide and they cross the Line of Control with the knowledge, if not the active support, of local military commanders.

Foreign capitals understand and appreciate the counter-insurgency campaign Pakistan has waged against the Pakistan Taliban. For fifteen years, well before this campaign began, Pakistani officials argued that taking on the militant wings of anti-India groups must be pursued very slowly and carefully. Foreign capitals do not see appreciable evidence that such action has begun. Until they do, Pakistan cannot expect to alter negative perceptions abroad.

Because no overt, substantive actions seem to have been taken against militant anti-India groups, it is natural for foreign capitals to conclude that these groups continue to be viewed as “strategic assets.” Outside observers will not be persuaded that Pakistan views these groups as strategic liabilities, unless overt actions are taken against them.

Pakistan cannot shift international perceptions with the same old talking points; only different actions can shift foreign perceptions. Nor will trying to change the subject to Kashmir help, because foreign capitals are far more concerned about groups that have found safe havens in Pakistan than about the plight of Kashmiris. If the reasons for Pakistan’s diminished international standing and growing regional isolation do not change, Pakistan cannot expect understanding and sympathy from abroad.

The writer is one of the co-founders of The Stimson Center, a public policy and research institute in Washington DC