Peshawar school attack: Empathy is fine but will Pakistan change its attitude to terror?

The cold-blooded mass murder of 132 children, among others, by the Pakistani Taliban has rightly drawn a huge wave of sympathy from Indians, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Pranab Mukherjee reaching out to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in his country’s hour of tragedy. But the sympathy has also brought forth the usual foolishness from peaceniks of every hue. On Twitter, #IndiaWithPakistan is, even now, trending just below #PeshawarAttack.

We should not mix up sentimentalism with substance. In terms of the larger India-Pakistan relationship, Peshawar does not change anything. Repeat, anything.

It is one thing to empathise with Pakistan’s civil society over this terrible human tragedy, quite another to believe that the deep Pakistani state is overnight going to change its anti-India colours or stop sending mass murderers across the border to kill our people. Even a few days ago, when the Pakistani army was busy prosecuting its fight against the Taliban in North Waziristan, jihadis groups were paying us a visit in Jammu & Kashmir.

Peshawar school attack: Empathy is fine but will Pakistan change its attitude to terror?


For the Pakistani army, terrorists are those who fight them, not us. The Pakistani state has systematically nurtured terrorists on its territory both for use in Afghanistan and in India. Terrorism is a part of its security doctrine, and this doctrine is decided not by the civilian government, but by the army and the ISI independently of elected politicians.

A close look at what Nawaz Sharif said after the Peshawar attack (read here), and the statement put out by the Pakistani foreign office after the killings ended, should offer clues. Sharif said: "Operation Zarb-e-azab will continue until terrorism is completely wiped out from the country. We have had talks with Afghanistan about jointly fighting the menace of terrorism.”

Note: Sharif is offering to fight jointly terror with Afghanistan, not India.

Now, consider what the Pakistan Foreign Office said: “These terrorists are enemies of Pakistan, enemies of Islam and enemies of humanity. The Pakistani nation stands united in condemning this heinous crime and remains resolute in its commitment to eliminate terrorism from the soil of Pakistan.”

Note: The Foreign Office wants to fight “enemies of Islam”, not terrorism per se. It also wants to “eliminate terrorism from the soil of Pakistan”, not its neighbours, especially India.

Clearly, the Pakistani foreign policy of differentiating between “good terrorist” and “bad terrorist” is intact even after the Peshawar attack.

So anybody who thinks this is the psychological movement to push forward with their own woolly notions of "Aman ki Aasha" or for forward movement on contentious issues with Pakistan will be making a serious mistake. The history of Pakistan suggests that there is almost no room for optimism on this score. With every setback and every positive opening - after 1965, 1971 and 1999 - Pakistan has re-emerged with more hostility towards India, not less. So it will be after Peshawar.

As South Asian strategic affairs expert C Christine Fair notes perceptively in her book, Fighting to the end: The Pakistani Army’s Way of War, Pakistan defines defeat very differently from normal countries. For Pakistan, defeat would be an inability to defy and fight India, not military or diplomatic defeat.

Writes Fair: “Pakistan's antagonism with respect to India cannot be reduced to the bilateral dispute over Kashmir... Pakistan's defence literature clearly maintains that Pakistan's army also aims to resist India's position of regional dominance and its slow but steady global ascent….” Further: “The likelihood that Pakistan's military or even civilian leadership will abandon the state's long-standing and expanding revisionist goals and prosecute a policy of normalisation with India is virtually nil.”

So, to believe a tragedy like Peshawar will change the Pakistani attitude to India is to believe something that has not happened in 67 years of antagonism will now miraculously happen.

On the other hand, consider how strengthened the Pakistani army would be after Peshawar. In the last one year, the army first neutered Nawaz Sharif by using Imran Khan and a Canada-based cleric to undermine Sharif's popular mandate so that he is forced to kowtow to the army.

The Pakistani army has always been popular with its people, but after Peshawar the people will back it more than ever, since it was armymen's kids who were killed in the Taliban attack. The army, for its part, has been taught that if they mess with the Taliban, they will get it where it hurts.

So what do you think will happen now?

Despite protestations to the contrary, the Pakistan will try and finish the Taliban, the probability is that “the army will ease off its operations in North Waziristan, where the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has its strongest base. And, basking in public sympathy, it will focus on terrorism directed at India. The world will be told that all this terrorism exists because India will not talk to them on Kashmir, and our own "useful idiots" will parrot this mindlessly, undermining our strategic understanding of the situation and our collective will to fight Pakistan-based terror.

Sympathy for the victims should not blind us to the importance of strategy and national will.

While some people think we should not talk to Pakistan till it ends terror, I believe talking can never do harm. At best, cancelling the occasional schedule of talks is good for political messaging. Talking is good because it sends the world a message of reasonableness on our part. However, what we should not do is talk about giving concessions to Pakistan without clearly understanding what they are offering to give us. This time, they should put what they are offering on the table for forward movement in the relationship. We should not “give” without a lot of “take”.

Pakistan often scores by claiming to be the one always willing to talk while we are shown as whimsical people who don't want to even talk, abandoning dialogue on the slightest pretext (a 26/11 here, a decapitation of soldiers there). For Pakistan these are “minor” things.

We have to be smart, and talking endlessly and firmly without offering concessions is one way of being smart. It will force Pakistan to wonder what it is getting out of it, and if it calls off the talks instead of us, it will be shown up as the unreasonable state - which is really the case.

When it comes to Pakistan we can never lower our guard or listen to peaceniks. Our policies should be entirely guided by realism and long-term strategy. We have to play for the long haul - which has never been our strength. Time we changed that.

We cannot view Pakistan with rose-tinted spectacles ever. We need an iron fist in a velvet glove always.


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Updated Date: Jan 20, 2016 17:09:28 IST

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