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'Modi will continue the engagement with Pakistan'

Last updated on: January 03, 2016 21:09 IST

'Diplomatic engagement will continue even as India keeps all its options open with respect to discretely targeting the Pakistani military and its terrorist proxies.'

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Lahore, December 25,  2015.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Lahore, December 25, 2015.

Ashley J Tellis, the Mumbai-born scholar and thinker on strategic affairs, was one of the architects in negotiating the India-US nuclear deal during the Bush administration.

Dr Tellis -- who served in the US State Department and the National Security Council and is now a Senior Associate at the Washington-based think-tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace -- answered Nikhil Lakshman/Rediff.com's questions on the prospects for the India-Pakistan peace process after the attack at the Indian Air Force's Pathankot station on January 2.

Do you believe the India-Pakistan rapprochement process will continue despite Saturday's attack at Pathankot? Why do you say so?

I think the India-Pakistan engagement recently jump-started by Prime Minister Modi will continue because Modi has staked so much on building bridges with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif right from the moment of taking office.

His surprise visit to Lahore on Christmas Day only reaffirmed his interest in engaging Sharif -- I think this much has been well understood.

What has been often missed, however, is the two-track nature of Modi's strategy towards Pakistan: Engaging the civilian government in Islamabad, while retaliating militarily against the Pakistani army and various militant and underworld groups operating against India.

Until the Ufa meeting with Sharif, Modi's engagement with Pakistan's civilian government was somewhat inconsistent, resulting in the on-again, off-again diplomatic dialogue.

After Ufa, I think Modi resolved to sustain the engagement with Sharif's government indefinitely because there was a clear realisation that although Sharif's control over his 'Deep State' -- meaning, the military and the intelligence services, which controlled among other things various terrorist proxies -- was weak, Sharif's desire for better ties with India ought to be nurtured and rewarded.

The fact that Modi actually likes Nawaz Sharif personally only strengthened this conviction. So all this adds up to my expectation that Modi will continue the process of engagement he has recently accelerated.

I would not call it a rapprochement just yet -- if a rapprochement occurs, it would be the end result of a long process of engagement which results in a resolution of many difficult bilateral problems, including Jammu and Kashmir.

We are nowhere near that yet, but diplomatic engagement -- which keeps lines of communications open, provides a certain stability to India-Pakistan relations, and keeps foreign powers from excessive interference in subcontinental affairs -- will continue, even as India keeps all its options open with respect to discretely targeting the Pakistani military and its terrorist proxies as appropriate.

The Obama administration is said to have leaned on both New Delhi and Washington to resume talking to each other after the deep freeze last August. What guarantees, in your opinion, did they give either nation to resume talks?

The Obama administration, like every administration before it, has urged both sides to persist in their bilateral dialogue. But I do not believe for a second that this administration's entreaties had anything to do with Modi's recent efforts to reach out to Pakistan.

That was entirely his own doing, and it is consistent with the evolution of his two-track strategy.

Most Indian commentators believe Prime Minister Modi has undertaken the greater gamble by going to Lahore and agreeing to restart the talks. The consequences of failure and more attacks like Pathankot could be disastrous politically for Mr Modi and his BJP. Do you believe the India-Pakistan talks have a chance of success? What would you deem as success?

The visit to Lahore was indeed a gamble in one sense -- it surprised the international community -- but it was not a gamble if you believe my judgment that Modi decided a few months ago that he would maintain a consistent engagement with Pakistan's civilian government to the degree possible.

I do not think that Modi has any illusions about what the Deep State or various Pakistan-based terrorist groups are capable of. The events at Pathankot have proved that again.

Not engaging with Sharif, however, neither makes the Pakistani military more cooperative nor weakens the ambitions of various Pakistan-based terrorist groups, whether or not they are controlled by the Deep State.

So the process of engaging Sharif's civilian government must be separated from the challenge of dealing with Pakistani terrorism.

In an ideal world, of course, this would not be the case: A government should be responsible for actions undertaken by its agents or its citizens. But we have learned from long experience that unless the entire international community is willing to enforce this principle where Pakistan is concerned, India by itself does not have the resources to do so.

Hence, engaging Sharif despite the frequent terrorism represents a necessary accommodation to the ugly realities of Pakistan: Modi has to deal with the best representatives of that State, while reserving India's coercive capabilities for dealing with the true antagonists as and when appropriate.

I don't believe this approach will be disastrous for the BJP any more than it was disastrous for the Congress government before it. Although the BJP's muscular rhetoric about protecting India may appear to make it more vulnerable, I think the Indian people have a very good sense about the limits of the possible: They have lived with Pakistani terrorism for over three decades.

So short of something truly catastrophic occurring, I think they would be inclined to give it the BJP the benefit of the doubt so long as they see the Modi government pursuing sensible policies at home and vis-a-vis Pakistan,.

In this context, I have modest expectations of what any Indo-Pakistani dialogue can actually achieve. In the near term, the best it can do is to make progress on economic cooperation, allow for greater people-to-people interaction, and preserve the lines of communications between the civilian leaderships on both sides.

And if we are lucky, it will slowly raise the levels of mutual confidence so as to permit both governments to begin a discussion about their thorniest political disputes over time.

Two years ago, you felt a Pakistan-inspired terror attack in India could lead to a nuclear conflict in South Asia. Do you still feel so?

Could another 26/11 attack provoke India to launch an attack against Pakistan and prove a nuclear attack in retaliation?

What is your worst case scenario? How can the US help avert that catastrophic possibility?

I have never believed that a Pakistani-inspired terror attack invariably ends up in a South Asian nuclear conflict if India retaliates militarily in response. In fact, the space between a terrorist attack and a nuclear denouement is quite large, certainly larger than many other American commentators seem to believe.

India has a range of options for retaliating against any major terrorist attack emanating from Pakistan, none of which would trigger Pakistani nuclear responses.

But as the United States has been slowing learning since 9/11, none of these options are likely to eliminate the scourge of terrorism decisively either.

Prime Minister (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee understood this clearly in 2001. Hence, he used the 2001-2002 military mobilisation to leverage US diplomatic intervention to put pressure on Pakistan. He succeeded for a while, but in this business all victories are fleeting.

The US can -- and should -- help India deal with Pakistani terrorism for multiple reasons: Washington has a strategic interest in preventing an escalation of tensions in the subcontinent; India and Pakistan are both friends of the United States; and if the United States truly cares about Pakistan beyond counterterrorism, it would help Islamabad to confront the terrorism that is often (though not always) supported by its own State actors.

Unfortunately, the knee-jerk US approach traditionally has been to think of ever more creative ways of bribing the Pakistani military.

I think the record of success accruing to this strategy thus far has been less than impressive. And if carrots are the only tricks left in the US toolkit, failure is inevitable -- with the only question being, on what timeline.

Who, in your opinion, are the forces most hostile in Pakistan to a better India-Pakistan relationship? And why are they so inimical to the prospect of peace?

The Pakistan army and the ISI would take first place on the list -- their grievances are many and deep-rooted, but at the core they see India as an ever-present threat to Pakistan's security.

It is not what India does that threatens them (though that too is relevant), but what India is: Larger, more capable and successful, and rising in international politics.

All these attributes, they believe, threaten Pakistan's security and its quest for parity of treatment with India.

Beyond the military, there are scores of sub-State groups as well as segments of the Pakistani citizenry that nurse various grievances against India for different reasons, but these elements would be inconsequential were it not for the succor provided various State organs in Pakistan.

Could terror attacks like 26/11 or Pathankot have occurred without the Pakistan military's approval? Do you believe the Pakistan government or army no longer controls non-State actors like the Lashkar-e-Tayiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed? Or is that belief hogwash?

In principle, terrorist attacks emanating from Pakistan inside India can occur without the explicit approval of the Pakistan army or the ISI.

The days when the Pakistan military exercised -- or could exercise -- tight control over all their terrorist proxies is over. Today, these groups have considerable autonomy, and sometimes collaborate with groups that are even at war with the Pakistani State.

The ISI no longer has detailed control over the day-to-activities of even its preferred clients, except when circumstances demand that it attempt to exercise such control.

But there are clearly high levels of association and liaison maintained with key groups such as Lashkar-e-Tayiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and the Haqqani network.

Because the control exercised by ISI over these proxies is flexible, it is important to examine each incident carefully through post-attack investigations and forensics in order to determine the nature and extent of the direction, involvement, and support involving Pakistan's official State organs.

It is hard to offer any conclusions that are either true or reliable a priori on these questions.

Do you believe Pakistani's strategists' concern about the Modi government's focus on South Asia and the possible isolation of Islamabad, and maybe a tougher policy towards Pakistan -- after the realpolitik of the Manmohan Singh years -- has led to the current policy of belligerence, to keep New Delhi off balance?

There is nothing in the events at Pathankot that suggests that these are exceptional, given the history of the last fifteen years.

Pakistan has bragged about its nuclear weapons more than once last year. Pakistan Defence Minister Khwaja Asif mentioned in July (before the Ufa summit) that 'If we need to use nuclear weapons for our survival, we will.' Sartaj Aziz's warning in August that Pakistan is a nuclear power appeared provocative enough to get the State Department to issue a reprimand of sorts. How do you interpret these statements?

Again, I see this as quite consistent with Pakistan's rhetoric since 1998. On occasion, it goes somewhat over the top, but these statements conform to the broad trend since Pakistan formally established itself as a Nuclear Weapons State.

Why is Pakistan raising the specter of nuclear conflict? Did all that talk get Washington worried enough to speak to Prime Ministers Sharif and Modi, as also General Sharif?

There is nothing new here as far as I am concerned -- and I doubt such talk raised any particular concerns in Washington beyond the admonition that Pakistan should take a deep breath and chill out.

The revelation that Pakistan could become the nation with the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world in five or ten years -- did it surprise you?

How has Pakistan gotten away with increasing its nukes without raising alarm bells in Washington? Why does Pakistan need 120 'Hiroshima-size warheads' (and 350 warheads eventually)?

This is not a particularly new insight. The US government has been aware of this possibility for about a decade now, when it was understood that Pakistan was planning to build new plutonium production reactors.

Given Pakistan's paranoia about India, the United States and Israel, its security managers believe that they can never have enough nuclear weapons.

And after entering the era of fissile material plenty, there is truly no end in sight: Pakistan will keep building whatever nuclear weapons its designers can imagine because it is driven by a threat perception that is impossible to falsify by any reference to reality.

Will these warheads be available, if need be, say to a patron like Saudi Arabia should the need arise?

Your guess is as good as mine.

Israel and the world has been concerned about Iran's nuclear programme. Should the world not be more concerned about the size of Pakistan's nuclear programmne, the possibility that terrorists may get access to it, the likelihood that a mullah general may take charge of the Pakistan army, someone who may be less concerned about no first use and other elements of nuclear etiquette?

The Obama administration has certainly been concerned about some of these issues, but no one has found any good solutions yet. I would not use Iran as a baseline of comparison here, however: Iran's nuclear ambitions represent a violation of its NPT obligations, Pakistan's programme does not.

To the degree that Pakistan's programme is of concern, it is a political and strategic problem for India, the United States and Israel, but it is not a problem that constitutes a fundamental challenge to the global nuclear regime.

Hence, it is harder to muster the international concern that was evoked by Iran, even though any catastrophe involving Pakistan's nuclear weapons would be far more consequential in its effects.

Both Pakistan General Khalid Kidwai speaking at Carnegie last April and Pervez Hoodbhoy writing in Dawn in August referred to the Indian Army's Cold Start Doctrine. General Kidwai mocked the doctrine, referring in detail to Pakistan's nuclear programme. Professor Hoodbhoy believes the Cold Start Doctrine gave the Pakistan army the excuse to 'jack up' the numbers of its nukes.

How do you assess the impact of India's Cold Start doctrine on Pakistan military thinking? What steps did the Pakistan army take to thwart this doctrine?

It is unclear to me what precise effect Cold Start had on Pakistan's nuclear programme. I think Pakistan's paranoia is so acute that whether Cold Start existed or not, the fundamental asymmetry in Indian and Pakistani military capabilities, coupled with Pakistan's deep suspicions about India's malicious intentions towards Pakistan, would have driven Rawalpindi to an enormous nuclear expansion in any case once the chokepoints in its fissile material production cycle were removed.

How do you see the ISI's current role in the Pakistan army? Is covert operations against India, in Afghanistan still its exclusive domain? Has it grown even more powerful in recent times or was it put on a leash of sorts after 26/11, so as not to incite the Americans? Do you foresee an ISI-inspired major terror attack in India like 26/11? Or is that kind of terror op deemed too expensive for Pakistan internationally?

I don't see the ISI's role as having changed at all: it still has both internal and external functions, the latter involving both Afghanistan and India but going beyond both.

I think 26/11, and the revelations that followed, highlighted the strong connections between ISI and LeT. But it also flagged the risks of an unbridled terrorist campaign against India for Pakistan's own interests.

The US, for its part, has tried to remind Rawalpindi of that quite consistently. For a while, the ISI did try to keep its proxies on a tight leash, but whether it can or will do so 'forever' is not obvious.

Do you see the possibility of an India-Pakistan short duration war, as some observers believe? Or is that extremely unlikely?

Over two decades ago, when I was at (the think-tank) RAND, I concluded long before the 1998 nuclear tests that India-Pakistani security competition for the foreseeable future would be characterised by 'ugly stability' -- subconventional violence that would persist at varying levels of intensity because both unlimited and limited conventional conflicts were risky for both sides.

I think that conclusion still holds true -- obviously, India could be compelled to embark on short-duration military reprisals, if Pakistani terrorism inflicts mass or conspicuous casualties.

Short of such eventualities, however, New Delhi has more important things to do if Modi's dream of India becoming a leading power is to be realised.

In fact, the greater danger to my mind is not that Pakistani-terrorism against India might push New Delhi towards a limited war, but towards subconventional retaliation, with great risks for Pakistan's own stability and India's international reputation.

What are the five things you can expect from Pakistan this year?

If only my crystal ball were that clear!

Nikhil Lakshman