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2016 was a bad year for Indo-Pak ties. What lies ahead?

Though 2016 started on a high note for bilateral ties between India and Pakistan, the Pathankot, Uri and Nagrota attacks and the ‘surgical strikes’ quickly soured relations.

india Updated: Dec 27, 2016 14:18 IST
Rezaul H Laskar and Imtiaz Ahmad
Rezaul H Laskar and Imtiaz Ahmad
Hindustan Times
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. (PTI)

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise visit to Lahore on December 25 last year to wish his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif on his birthday, the overwhelming feeling was that the only way bilateral ties could go was up despite simmering tensions on the LoC.

Within days, the brazen terror attack on Pathankot airbase put paid to the optimism. The attack also marked the beginning of a cycle of terrorism that continued till the assault on an army camp at Nagrota in November, capping one of the worst years for bilateral ties in recent memory.

And things could get worse in the coming year, according to experts in both countries, with little expectation that the two sides can find common ground on dealing with issues ranging from terrorism to Kashmir.

The optimism, which began when Modi invited Sharif to his swearing-in ceremony in May 2014, peaked after external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Islamabad a year ago, when the two sides agreed on a new comprehensive dialogue.

But the process never got off the ground because of the string of attacks on military facilities at Pathankot, Uri and Nagrota. A planned meeting of the foreign secretaries in Islamabad fell through after Pakistan rejected India’s contention that talks should focus on terrorism.

The attack on the Uri army camp was followed by India pulling out of the Saarc Summit in Pakistan and surgical strikes across the Line of Control, which sparked intense exchanges of fire between troops of the two sides. Pakistan was also angered by Modi’s reference to rights violations in Balochistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, especially during his Independence Day speech.

Read | PM Narendra Modi greets Nawaz Sharif on his birthday

“Modi has been very tactical and made some smart moves, such as inviting Sharif to his swearing-in and going to Lahore. He’s done the right things to show you can’t trust Pakistan,” Ajay Behera of the Academy of International Studies at Jimia Millia Islamia told Hindustan Times.

“Unlike Mumbai, where civilians were targeted, Pakistan has shifted to hitting military installations,” he added.

In Pakistan, experts said, there were some who always expected bilateral ties to deteriorate sooner or later under Modi. The unrest in Kashmir after the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani also added to the deterioration in relations.

“Much of this has to do with civil-military relations in Pakistan,” said analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi. While the situation in Kashmir was a “good reason” for Pakistan to react, the real issue was “friction between Sharif and the military high command”, he said.

The Pakistan Army insists its moves are aimed at getting the civilian government to perform according to the constitution, but politicians say the military’s intentions aren’t always noble.

Read | New Pakistan Army chief thinks Gen Bikram Singh is ‘very professional’

“They claim to be fighting corruption and poor governance but what they are doing is playing on popular sentiments to put pressure on the government to extract major concessions,” said a senior politician who did not to be named.

Besides pushing for concessions such as tax breaks for army-run businesses and hikes in defence spending, the army has also pressured the government to downgrade relations with India, keeping in mind Sharif’s desire for regional peace and better ties with India.

“The army thrives when relations are bad. One can tell with the statements issued by the (military’s media arm) as cross-border firing took place,” said Abid Hussain, a local journalist, who added the media was “managed” by the military “and told what to write when such incidents occurred”.

The powerful security establishment continues to push militant groups for operations across the border while the ruling PML-N has links with organisations that cause havoc along sectarian lines within Pakistan.

“When the Sharif government puts pressure on the JuD and other ISI-sponsored organisations, the army goes after militants that are political allies of the government,” said a senior military official. “It’s a mess,” he added.

The outlook for the coming year, the experts agreed, wasn’t very promising. Elections in key Indian states such as Uttar Pradesh and the PML-N going into election mode ahead of Pakistan’s 2018 polls would “reduce the space available” for talks, said Commodore (retired) C Uday Bhaskar, director of the Society for Policy Studies.

Pakistani analysts believe relations with India can improve only if Islamabad sorts out its own state of affairs. Two close aides of Sharif – interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan and de-facto foreign minister Sartaj Aziz – are perceived to have helped further the security establishment’s agenda as they are close to the military.

This only makes it harder for Sharif to act. “In many ways Sharif continues to be a cornered prime minister,” said Rizvi.

India too needs to firm up its Pakistan policy, which has been inconsistent for far too long, experts said.

“Some steps have been taken, such as not allowing concessions taken for granted by Pakistan – like talks with the Hurriyat…But we need a clearly articulated Pakistan policy,” said Behera.

Bhaskar said it was unclear whether the rearrangement of the Pakistan policy – from Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore to the raising of Balochistan – would pay off. “It’s not clear how effective it’ll be, or what kind of results it’ll lead to. The picture has become more complex and murkier,” he said.

A week after PM Narendra Modi visited Lahore, a group of terrorists stormed the Pathankot airbase on January 2. The siege of the facility, blamed on the Pakistanbased JeM, ended after four days and four attackers and three security personnel were killed. Pakistan offered to help in the investigation and a Pakistani team, including an ISI officer, visited the airbase but nothing emerged from the probe.
19 soldiers were killed on September 18, by terrorists who sneaked into an army camp at Uri in Jammu. Four attackers were killed and, once again, the JeM was blamed for the strike. The attack added to tensions along the LoC and exchanges of fire intensified. India responded to the attack by pulling out of the Saarc Summit to be held in Pakistan in November.
40 militants were reportedly killed on September 29, after the Indian Army’s special forces conducted surgical strikes along the LoC in retaliation for the Uri attack. Subsequent reports suggested several LeT facilities had been targeted. Following this, the Indian film industry decided to ban Pakistani actors and technicians.

A group of terrorists targeted an army camp at Nagrota in J&K on November 29 and killed seven soldiers, including two officers. Three attackers were killed in a gun battle. The attack was carried out just three days after Pakistan made overtures to India for talks.

The new Pakistan Army chief, Gen Qamar Bajwa, is an old Kashmir hand and one of the reasons he was chosen is that the military wants to shift focus from counterinsurgency operations to India. The new ISI chief, Lt Gen Naveed Mukhtar, once wrote in a paper about Pakistan adopting "aggressive measures" to counter India’s role in Afghanistan. The two generals could turn up the pressure on India.
The wild card in the pack is US president-elect Donald Trump, who has said he would be happy to mediate on the Kashmir issue if he was asked by India and Pakistan. Vice president-elect Mike Pence has spoken of Trump using his "deal-making skills" to resolve issues such as Kashmir. While Pakistan will welcome such a role, India would never agree to it.
India and Pakistan could make one last ditch effort to hold talks but this, analysts say, appears unlikely given the domestic political compulsions of the two governments. Pakistan’s efforts to internationalise the Kashmir issue and wrangling over the Indus Waters Treaty has further complicated the picture.
Heightened tensions between the two sides persist, especially along the Line of Control (LoC), where a 13-year-old ceasefire is already under severe strain. There could be further exchanges of fire and skirmishes, which would add to the concerns of the world community. Pakistan, which has made no moves to counter anti-India terror groups such as JeM and LeT, could continue to aid infiltration efforts by terrorists and this could trigger further surgical strikes by India.

First Published: Dec 27, 2016 14:17 IST

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