Pakistan's Shaheen II test an attempt to project strength, but fails to account for post-Balakot realities

With the results finally in, and congratulatory messages pouring in from all over the world, exhausted politicians and their supporters are likely to take a while to discern some notable developments next door. Not that at least one wasn’t really ‘in your face’. But the point is the assessment of all the obvious and the not so obvious issues that are like to arise, and soon.

The first was the obvious test of a two stage Shaheen II missile, said to be ‘Medium Range’ of 1,500 kilometres and based on a Chinese design. That missile can cover most of India, and unless Pakistan is looking to hit Turkey, that’s all the range it needs to make it into a strategic weapon. Missile tests are usually planned well in advance with notices issued for all flight activity and ships in the vicinity. Pakistan had, at any rate, extended the over flight ban till end May, apparently as a cautionary measure till the end of elections.

 Pakistans Shaheen II test an attempt to project strength, but fails to account for post-Balakot realities

Pakistani Shaheen II. Wikimedia Commons.

But the firing of this missile into the Arabian Sea, just a day before elections were to end seems to be far too much of a coincidence. The press release issued by Major General Asif Ghafoor DG (Inter-Services Public Relations) carefully mentioned that the missile could carry both “conventional and nuclear warheads” which is an interesting point. Apparently, Islamabad wants to convey that it is ready to use these missiles during war: a fallout of the story run by Reuters that India was planning to launch some six missiles at Pakistan, and that Islamabad threatened to launch three times as many. That story quoted “sources” in Islamabad, including a western diplomat.

Clearly there are some ‘strategic’ moves being made here, by not just Pakistan, but also others.

A second development was the appointment of a new high commissioner, Moin-ul-Haq, to New Delhi just recently. Not just that, the outgoing High Commissioner Sohail Mahmood has been elevated to foreign secretary. The New Delhi post is a coveted one, despite or probably because of the difficulties attached to it. Unsurprisingly, past high commissioners generally went on to become foreign secretaries. Riaz Khokkar and Salman Bashir come readily to mind, while others were favoured political appointees.

The outgoing ambassador would certainly have had enough opportunity to showcase his ability to defuse the volatile situation. Just weeks after being summoned to the Foreign Office in Delhi and issued a demarche, Pakistan was making specific gestures to bring down tensions. It quickly announced its intention of releasing some 360 prisoners, most of whom are fishermen. That kicked off on 7 April, with these catspaws to a bilateral game being sent back through Wagah.

And two weeks after the terrorist strike, the two sides were talking about the modalities of setting up the corridor between Kartarpur in Pakistan and Gurdaspur in Punjab. All this despite the posturing and clamour was continuing on social media as well as on election platforms. Islamabad simply walked around the Pulwama strike and came up with a passage to Delhi. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh could not have been more nonplussed.

The outgoing ambassador did not leave without a cue to this successor. In his final interaction with Indian media he noted, “Sustained engagement and structured dialogue would enable the two countries to understand mutual concerns and differences, resolve outstanding disputes and build the edifice of durable peace, security and prosperity in the region.” This diplomatic mouthful is supposed to indicate that Pakistan wants to restart engagement whatever the odds. It will be the new ambassador’s job to make that push palatable. That’s not going to be easy.

Apart from the fact that the recent elections focused rather heavily on Pakistan and its terror tendencies, the bureaucrat sitting in the foreign ministry is ask a fundamental question: what is the likely deliverable of a resumption of talks? Certainly files of more than a decade ago — when the "composite" talks last took place — can be dusted off and pored over. The composite dialogue at the time had a 'basket' of issues to be discussed, which included among other confidence building measures, an end to terrorism and the Kashmir issue.

In the four years that this dialogue took place (2004 to 2008) a rather surprising number of issues were successfully dealt with, including the beginning of the train and bus service, revival of long extinct trade routes, and the setting up of a judicial commission to look into the humanitarian issues with respect to the arrests of fishermen and other civilians. The whole was pulled up short by the Mumbai attacks of 26 November, 2008. That was the end of the formal talks. During the UPA period, a second track dialogue took place intermittently to no discernible effect. Now it seems the decks are being cleared — in Pakistan — for a fresh dialogue process with India.

Into this comes another report and a rather quick denial. On 19 May Pakistani media reported that Prime Minister Imran Khan was considering appointing a new national security advisor to resume back channel diplomacy. Earlier, under Nawaz Sharif, Lieutenant General Naseer Janjua as NSA held several rounds of quiet dialogue with his counterpart Ajit Doval. It seemed that the Pakistani prime minister was serious about talks, since getting the army to talk to the (entirely civilian) establishment in New Delhi was vital.

Two days later, however, another rather curious report not only denied that any NSA was being appointed, but also chose to state that the entire NSA apparatus had been dismantled, with its 27 or so officials repatriated back to their units or cadre. Whether this means that the Pakistan Army is refusing to get involved in the talks, or whether it is Imran making a push for independence in foreign policy is unclear. It could equally be that the army is letting the civilian government do the talking, while they pull the strings from behind. It could even be a little of all three.

So here’s the thing. Pakistan is undoubtedly girding itself for talks, with the missile test intended to send a signal of resolve and strength. Or so it thinks. The new government under a revitalised BJP is likely to view that with annoyance. Modi is not one who likes grandstanding in others. Second, talking to Pakistan means investing political capital rather heavily, and no politician — however barrel-chested — want to go on a risky path, when he has so much more on his plate.

Third, a spanking new foreign secretary and high commissioner however well intentioned, can't inspire confidence unless there is a definite signal of the army’s acquiescence. That’s the reality. Else, it will be partial walk back to another phase of desultory talks, followed by the inevitable terrorist attack: with one difference.

The Balakot strikes pushed the force envelope to a new frontier. Any talks have to deal with the reality of that new line in the snow. The Pakistani Army knows this. But for dialogue to start, it needs to find a way to communicate this to India. In simple words, Pakistan has to acknowledge that things have changed, and deal with it: and not use missiles as flag bearers. That calls for a rare degree of diplomacy not seen yet. One can but hope.

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Updated Date: May 25, 2019 16:19:43 IST