Losing the war narrative

Updated Oct 11, 2016 01:09am


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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

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Comments (22) Closed

Umar Khitab Oct 11, 2016 04:30am

The learned author 's own narrative appears to be oblivious to the Indian backed, spike in killings in Pakistan after the 1998 nuclear explosions. The double standards of the west continue to do more harm than good to the world in general and South Asian region in particular. While the apology, concern and do more rhetoric appears even before any attack in India, not a single word is uttered on the killings of Pakistanis in Pakistan. Research, backed by such policy institues can have a perspective, having a perspective to make India a superpower to fight China may be one but at the expense of never ending human tragedy in Pakistan , shows lack of respect for humanity.

Syed Hussain Akbari Oct 11, 2016 04:50am

So our political elites do not become in heart Pakistanis should not expect any respectable future. The political elites are concerned only about themselves and nothing else.

Feroz Oct 11, 2016 01:33pm

You can fool some people all the time, all the people for some time but never all the people all the time. Logical and rational thinking as explained by this author has not happened because it does not come easily to minds radicalized and indoctrinated with bigotry and hate.

Anay Oct 11, 2016 01:49pm

Well written analysis.

Amit Lunia Oct 11, 2016 02:03pm

Mirror, mirror mirror to the establishment

Surya Oct 11, 2016 05:55pm

@Feroz Good response. However it looks like the Pakistani army is able to fool all the Pakistani people all the time. Unless Pakistan gets rid of its bigotry and radicalization, I dont see a bright future for them. It also means that the Pakistani army must have far less influence in state matters, than they currently do.

Surya Oct 11, 2016 05:59pm

@Umar Khitab Go by facts and not brainwashed information from your army. The Pakistani state has radicalized the population so much, that most countries are afraid to let in Pakistani citizens. The Pakistani passport is probably one of the worst to travel with, because of the extra attention it gets from immigration authorities. Why do you think that it is like that? Every country in the world is worried about Pakistani citizens and wonder if he/she will be the next suicide bomber. Look at every terrorist incident in the world and you will notice a link back to Pakistan. You talk about human rights, when by law your country discriminates against its minorities. The world has a perception about Pakistan and the first word that comes to anyone in the world when they think Pakistan is "Terrorism". Dont let your army brainwash you.

MK Oct 11, 2016 06:14pm

@Umar Khitai: where are Indians killing Pakistanis?

reddy Oct 11, 2016 06:17pm

it is like a jaundiced person seeing whole world jaundiced.I have many pakistani friends but for some reason their logic lags behind their conspiracy theories,which they somehow thrive on despite best evidence or contrary to logic.... Ofcourse I am not saying India doesnt do mischievous things/or doesnt have shadow players but they remain in shadow and less prominent compared to pakistan,where they are the main players and every one in pakistan knows that there is no order in pakistan and pakistani army and politicians enrich only themselves by trying to keep historic issues alive as otherwise half the pakistani army will become jobless.

Reader Oct 12, 2016 03:34pm

Reminds me of the Sher from Mirza Ghalib:

Umra bhar Ghalib yahi Bhool Karta raha, Dhool Chehre pe thi, aur Aina saaf karta raha

Gajanan Apte Oct 12, 2016 10:38pm

@Reader : What Mr. Michael Krepon could not describe in whole article, you could narrate in a single line...

May I conclude that not only articles in Dawn are superb, but at times, comments by the readers equally are of unparalleled quality.

Abraham Haque Oct 13, 2016 12:33am

@Umar Khitab sir the author is talking about the narrative handed to people of Pakistan by jihadis and the army, I as a Pakistani had never found any use for either as a matter of fact in my own circles people know that I personally have said f o r a number of years that Pakistan army has systematically destroyed Pakistan

Different Perspective Oct 13, 2016 01:19am

It is just one side of the story. The author did not mention anything about Indian attacks on Pakistani soil through their proxies in the form of MQM, BLA etc. Why doesn't the International Community review the dossiers, given to them by the Pakistani Authorities, concerning Indian involvement in sponsoring terrorism inside Pakistan? For durable peace, both India and Pakistan need to end the proxy war phenomenon and resolve their issues through clear resolutions under the United Nations.

Arvind Oct 13, 2016 08:11am

Pakistan into a modern, progressive and truly democratic society? - Pakistan thinks as if it is still in medieval period. It can never be Modern! Pakistan people are ruled by backward, nomadic, conservative clergies, it can never be Progressive! Pakistan is ruled mostly by army or under army's directive. Even when the elections take place, they are always blamed to be rigged. Pakistan can never be Truly Democratic Society. By nature, the Muslims like to be governed by autocratic dictator, or a tyrant king. Democracy is not in their blood.

Umar Khitab Oct 13, 2016 08:34am


I am not able to decide whether to reply to your arrogant haughtiness or your don quixotic Indian mindset. The way India has treated its minorities at independence, assassination of Gandhi, annexation of Hyderabad, Goa and other princely states along with recent massacre of Sikhs in 1984. Violence against Christians, Dalits and Muslims from 1977 on wards is well documented. You can deny it but you cant sleep in night. I would love to listen to my Army's propaganda, but wont listen to your Bollywood Style rhetoric. You are making best use of our benevolent liberal speech that you are posting anti Pakistani comments . The world knows how India exported Shia-Sunni conflict to Pakistan and the world, after 1974. When Pakistan hosted the OIC, India felt threatened. Indian significance is blown out of proportion by these lobby based pressure group policy institutes. I have no qualms about your bragging rights, you are free to bloat and gloat.

sri1 Oct 13, 2016 09:38am

@Surya "However it looks like the Pakistani army is able to fool all the Pakistani people all the time" No Surya. Innocent civilians are much better aware of duplicity now, but cannot do a thing. Truth and accountability are the biggest casualties of big money, vested interests and ruthless suppression. Just look at where Cyril Alemaida is now. Or how alternative-narrative speakers like Najam Sethi or Hamid Mir of Geo have been brought to heel now. The only people actually breaking all their chains have been the likes of Hussein Haqqani, Tarek Fateh etc and they are facing real restrictions, isolation etc.

Anir Oct 13, 2016 09:44am

Kudos to Herald for publishing such an article which has completely different opinion than what is believed normally in Pakistan. Unless the leadership in Pakistan sees this view and try to act on them, rhetoric can only pacify people in Pakistan, but cannot improve Pakistan's standing globally.

Prateek Oct 13, 2016 10:43am

It is an established fact that Pakistan has created, nourished and harbored non-state actors and continues to do so. It's not just India saying it but many other countries in the world. It used these strategic assets to influence geo-politics in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Post the Afghan war, these groups have lost ground in Afghanistan and have come south, where they were born. Hence Pakistan has lost control of some of it's own land. They are the ones behind the terror and violence within Pakistan. The Pakistani obsession with Kashmir is leading them to their own oblivion. India has 20 Cr muslims living happily and in peace. So can Kashmiris if Pakistan just lets it go. It's about time. Pakistan has lost trust in the international community and now losing it's face. I sympathize with Pakistani people because they have got nothing to do with this but the Army and the Generals who control Pakistani Policies and agendas. I am glad media and the people are waking up to this now.

K G Surendran Oct 13, 2016 11:37am

It is simply difficult to fathom how Pakistan's international reputation and standing is enhanced with the presence of terror papas like Hafiz Saeed, Masood Azhar and others the list which unfortunately is a virtual whos who of the terror world. The Paksitani establishment shamelessly continues to live in denial, plays the victim card to boot, even though Osama was found and killed in his lair in Pakistan and Ajmal Kasab and his team originated from Pakistan. The worst losers of this strategic warfare has been the people of that country who unfortunately happen to be suffering the most.

Deepa Oct 13, 2016 01:20pm

The sentiment behind attacking the Indian military personnel is somewhat understandable, given the plight of the innocent, unarmed Indian Kashmiris. But ultimately, such attacks set back the cause of Kashmir. If the parliament in Pakistan is taking a diplomatic offensive and using the humanitarian approach by going to UN, it is a disservice to have rogue militant actions also taking place. Mind you, India's armed occupation of Kashmir actually started largely after militant infiltration into Kashmir from Pakistan in the late 80s. Kashmir was supposedly relatively peaceful before then.

P R IYER . Oct 15, 2016 09:31pm

Looks like the writers from Pakistan are on one side while Indians on the other .I do not understand how the normal people of Pakistan believe that the 2008 Mumbai attack was caused by Indians themselves or the attack on Indian Parliament was a handiwork of Indians . It is only with total blindness that will help accepting such logic .Pakistan is in a denial mode . What was the percentage of Hindus in Pakistan at the time of partition and what is it now . How have Muslims grown in India. And why did Pakistan lose Bangladesh .

Samit Oct 16, 2016 09:10am

Very well written sir . I ended how can a government lie do much ?