By Prasad Nallapati
Pakistan continues to be on high `military alert’ although the Balakot episode receded to background and India deeply engrossed in a long, grueling election campaigning for the world’s largest democratic undertaking.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is reveling in showcasing its “muscular” policy toward Pakistan while the opposition, equally vehemently, questioning some of its unsubstantiated claims.
Narendra Modi’s government carried out air attacks on February 26 on Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) camps at Balakot heights in what it said a `preventive anti-terrorist operation’. The JeM had earlier claimed responsibility for killing over 40 Indian paramilitary personnel at Pulwama in a suicide attack in Jammu and Kashmir. The terrorist group is controlled by Pakistan’s army and its intelligence wing.
Pakistani establishment too was upbeat for having retaliated the air raid by shooting down India’s MiG-21 Bison in the ensuing dog fight and capturing its pilot, Wg Cdr. Abhinandan Varthaman. Its spin doctors had even ridiculed the Balakot attack as no more than `eco-terrorism’, suggesting that the bombing could only destroy a few trees on the hill side.
Rawalpindi’s brave public posture, however, belies its growing insecurity and inability to rein its fast slipping reputation.
Pakistan’s air space remains closed for civilian air traffic for more than a month now forcing airliners to take long and expensive detours. Its Air Force is conducting extended drills, with air defense units on maximum alert. Armed forces, posted across the western borders in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan provinces, have been moved to the eastern border. Terrorist camps have been shifted further deep inside the country.
There is obvious fear of further “surgical strikes” from Modi government, notwithstanding his preoccupation with the two-month long election campaigning season. No chances are being taken by Pakistani military establishment despite heavy cost of maintaining high alert on the border.
Meanwhile, the country’s security and financial environment is fast deteriorating, placing heavy toll on its meagre resources. Baluch resistance groups found an opportunity to drill fear into remaining paramilitary forces and blast infrastructural facilities, which are often seen to be benefiting ruling Punjabi elite rather than the local people. Pakistani Taliban (TTP) saw the pressure off on them to slowly regain control of the tribal areas.
Inflation reached a five-year high last month, having gone up by 9.41 percent year-on-year, indicating high current account and fiscal deficits. Emergency financial support packages received from Saudi Arabia, UAE and China, though helpful, are unable to stop the slide. Finance Minister Asad Umar has been raising frantic calls for early signing of the IMF deal to prevent economic havoc, but the negotiations have not yet been completed.
Australia has cut its foreign aid to Pakistan as part of general cuts to its aid program to finance its own infrastructure projects.
China-funded CPEC projects are all running behind schedule and much of the earlier projections have been scaled down. Increased Baluch armed attacks added a new uncertainty further aggravating the security situation around project areas in the unruly province.
A team of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which just concluded its review of Pakistan’s compliance with its undertakings of closing gaps on terror funding and money laundering, remained unsatisfied with its actions so far.
There is visible exasperation on the part of Foreign Minister Qureshi who commented, “Pakistan could be blacklisted by the FATF due to lobbying by India.” He estimated that the county could suffer $ 10 billion loss annually if it remains in the watchdog’s grey list. The Karachi Stock Market has already lost over 20% value over the last year due to the measure.
China may have saved Pakistan once again from being defeated in the UN 1267 sanctions committee to list JeM head Maulana Masood Azhar as global terrorist, but it turned out to be a short-lived joy. The US, supported by the UK and France, has taken the direct route to the UN Security Council and circulated a draft resolution on placing Azhar on the terrorist list.
China is found scrambling to find a shade to hide from being shamed and appears to have reluctantly come around to work out a way to resolve the matter. How long does China put its credibility at stake to protect Pakistan’s terror infrastructure is to be seen.
Pakistan is fast losing friends who it thought would protect its interests at any cost. If it continues to believe that it can get away fooling the international community on its terrorism policy, it will soon come to a shock. It is not only getting internationally isolated, but its economy is fast collapsing.
After all, the Modi’s policy of isolating Pakistan among world community seems to be working. There is universal international approval of India’s right to launch counter-terror strikes into Pakistani territory as was demonstrated by the recent Balakot air attacks and an infantry surgical strike across the Line of Control (LoC) in Pakistan occupied Kashmir in 2016.
India has also exposed limits of Pakistan’s nuclear bluff, which has so far been used to continue its unhindered support to terrorist groups to destabilize not only Jammu and Kashmir state, but India at large.
The fear of more surgical strikes is unnerving Pakistan and it cannot afford to keep its military forces on full alert forever.
There lies India’s strength and Pakistan’s fault lines.
Pakistan has now started paying a price for its support to terrorism and it is up to them to either continue to tread the same path and suffer unbearable pain or change the course for a better future for itself and the region at large.
It is very unlikely that Rawalpindi will ever be willing to give up its `veritable arm’ of terror in its attempt to inflict a `thousand cuts’ to bleed India even if it were mean `to eat grass’. The call for dialogue is only a ploy to lull India and play for time.
Limited but focused surgical strikes deep inside Pakistan, at every opportune moment, is the new normal for India. Modi’s BJP is expected to return to power after the elections, as per the projections, and if so, this policy is only likely to be more sharpened.
Prasad Nallapati is President of the Hyderabad-based think tank, the Centre for Asia-Africa Policy Research and former Additional Secretary to Government of India.