India smells a trap in Imran Khan’s ‘offer for talks’

Modi delivering Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar prize today

Even as Pakistan President Imran Khan wants to talk peace with India, diplomatic experts on this side of the border see the offer as a ruse meant to allow Pakistan’s ISI to continue to use terror groups against India.

Khan has been at pains over the last two days to explain that problems between the two countries cannot be resolved through force, but only through talks.

As an act of ‘goodwill’, he said today, Pakistan will send Indian pilot Abhinandan Varthaman home to India on Friday.

However, Indian experts do not see Imran Khan’s offer as a sincere one, but as a ploy meant to allow the Pakistani intelligence agency ISI to continue to use its terror assets to ‘bleed India by a thousand cuts’, while avoiding a direct confrontation.

After tasting defeat thrice in conventional warfare, Pakistan thirty years ago adopted a strategy of using trained terrorists to fight a continuous war against its eastern neighbor, while it overtly maintains that it has nothing to do with these terror groups.

The strategy has paid rich dividends for the country, as it has been able to cause much damage inside India using proxy groups such as Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and so on, without fighting even a single large-scale war since then.

Pakistan’s success has been made possible by successive Indian governments that have taken the country’s ‘nuclear threat’ at face value.

Pakistan repeatedly says that it will use nuclear bombs against India if India initiates a conventional war against the country.

However, the current Indian government under Narendra Modi has overturned this traditional strategy.

Instead, for the first time in history, India sent jet fighters into Pakistani territory earlier this week in response to a terror attack by JeM in Pulwama that killed over 40 soldiers.

The sudden shift in strategy seems to have caught the Pakistani military establishment by surprise. If India sticks to the new policy, Pakistan can expect to be hit by Indian bombs and missiles every time there is a terror strike in India. Such a policy will negate the traditional advantage of using proxy groups like LeT and JeM instead of engaging in a direct fight.

This is a development that Pakistan is keen to avoid. Instead, it wants to continue to use terror groups to carry out the actual attacks, while officially continuing to hold ‘peace talks’ with India.

“What India wanted to do was to send a message,” said journalist and political commentator Vir Sanghvi, participating in a television program on India Today.

“The message was, we won’t keep dealing with diplomatic channels. The next time there is an attack on India, we will go to the organization that attacked us, to their terrorist hideouts and take them out. I think we’ve sent that message and it was well received by the world.

“Not one country, as far as I can recall, condemned us, not even China. Everybody said, let’s not increase tensions, but nobody said you’ve violated Pakistan’s sovereignty because the world recognizes that terrorism emanating from Pakistan is a problem.”

Jayadeva Ranade, former Additional Secretary to Government of India and a member of the country’s National Security Advisory Board, says the release of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman is part of Pakistan’s attempts to turn back the clock to the way things were.

“They will try to use the release of Wing Commander Abhinandan to soften India,” he said. “That is not going to work, because right from the beginning, the government of India has been very clear that that is a separate issue and the dismantling of terror is a different issue.

“Pressure that was brought on Pakistan has worked in this case, and pressure needs to be continued to be brought on Pakistan to achieve the objectives for which this entire thing started,” he added.

G Parthasarathy, a noted expert of international affairs and a former high commissioner of India to Pakistan, too warns the Indian government against falling for the peace talks trap. He sees the ‘peace talks offer’ and Abhinandan’s release as a tactical move, rather than a sincere one.

“I would think the ISI is going to try to keep this tactical. That is why I say, keep the pressure going,” he said. “Don’t act unreasonable or make loud sounds of war and all that.”

Instead, Parthasarathy advises the Indian government to use its diplomatic resources to bring pressure of Pakistan to go back to its traditional methods of waging a proxy war against India.

He also points out that Pakistan is increasingly facing its own challenges in trying to maintain its terror strategy.

“Pakistan is today fighting on three of its four borders,” Parthasarathy said, referring to its border with Iran, Afghanistan and India.

“[First,] it let loose what people are calling Saudi-funded Jehadis from Baluchistan, killing 25 Iranian National Guards. Iran reacted. The border is tense.

“Two: In Afghanistan, apart from what is happening on the Afghan side, there is, on the Afghan border [inside Pakistan], a serious Pashtun movement picking up, which is of concern to them… Add to this the fact that apart from these tensions, the Taliban has got a new leader under Mullah Baradar, who is no lover of Pakistan who jailed him for four years…

“The army realizes that this is too much, fighting on three fronts. Most importantly, the Americans used the moneyed Arabs to turn the squeeze on Pakistan, and they need the American money. Foreign exchange reserves were down to $6 billion. The economy is in trouble… They are stuck in trying to please the Arabs by having the Mujahideen attack Iran. They are in a bad bind, diplomatically and financially,” he added.

He also highlights that Pakistan could end up losing control over some of the terror groups.

“These things have their own momentum. They could run into trouble with their own jehadis. The Pashtuns who have turned against them were the very guys who were used to have the Taliban,” he pointed out.

For now, the Modi government seems to be on the same page as these analysts.

Speaking at a function after Imran Khan announced his country’s decision to release Wing Commander Abhimanyu “as a goodwill gesture”, Modi hinted that this week’s incursion was only a ‘pilot’, indicating that future terror attacks will lead to India launching more vicious attacks on its Western neighbor.

Speaking to scientists at an award distribution function, Modi made the following comments in what many see as a reference to this week’s change in India’s strategy towards its western neighbor:

“You are people who spend your entire lives in laboratories. You have a tradition of first conducting a pilot project. After the pilot project, it is made scalable. So, what we’ve done now is a pilot project. The real [exercise] is yet to be done.”

BJP spokesperson Nalin Kohli too echoed similar sentiments about the air strikes. Also speaking on India Today, Kohli said India has changed its strategy when it comes to dealing with foreign-funded terror attacks.

“It has gone to a new level, in terms of the Air Force and what they’ve done in Balkot,” he said.

“It was not expected, that India would do what they did. The Pakistanis have realized that their blackmail of being a nuclear state has outlived its time. We have called their bluff and said that we are not going to be black mailed by that. If we are going to protect Indian citizens, we will do what we need to do. That is an important red line.

“The second part to it is that India is not also buckling to the standard ‘let’s get back to the table’ kind of scenario, which is what was tried, very regrettably, by Pakistan in the first instance with Wing Commander Abhinandan,” he added.

He pointed to the series of terror attacks that India has suffered in recent years, including the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, the attack on the parliament, the attack at Pathankot, Uri, Chittisinghpura, Bombay blasts, Delhi blasts and so on.

Kohli also said it was up to Pakistan to deal with its parallel strike force.

“Who knows what the number is – 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 absolute mad men, fully armed, willing to go out and kill anybody for whatever be the reason. What do they do with this mechanism? Dismantling them..after indoctrinating them with poison for decades [will be difficult].

“You can’t turn them into normal human beings overnight. So you have a situation that Pakistan has made and has to suffer…We can’t be bothered and we should be bothered only with what happens within our borders. If they’ve created the problem, they have to solve it themselves. If it impacts us, we certainly reserve the right to take action,” he said.