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Monday, October 10, 2016

Political Slugfest Over Strikes

This is a follow up of my previous post on changing dynamics in India-Pakistan relationship after the terrorist attack on India military base in Uri, in which I tried to confine my views to conflict analysis rather than politics but now the whole issue seems to be spilling into domestic political landscape. Ironically, Indian government's offensive including the surgical strike was political in nature, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj's terse statement in the UNGA, scrapping of SAARC summit scheduled to be held in Islamabad after five out of eight members boycotting it, talks about Indus Water Treaty were all part of a multi-pronged offensive. But politics here meant political offensive against Pakistan and political pressure on international community to persuade Pakistan to mend its ways. Yet things now seem to be going in the other direction. 


I concluded my last post arguing it is time India scale up psychological warfare, especially concentrating on propaganda (propaganda need not carry negative connotation as long as it is not black propaganda and is part of psychological warfare). Now looking at media reports,it seems Pakistan is a step ahead in propaganda war which is evident by the way there is a clamour for proof, especially video footage and pictures of the operation. I doubt if most Indians consider the government's claim as fake, Indian Army wouldn't allow 19 of its martyrs go unavenged. But if there is doubt over the claims of the surgical strike having taken place, it is largely because hyper-nationalistic and unsourced narrative put out by popular Indian news channels are presented a contrasting view by many reputed global media publications, some of which have affirmed the raid but have differed on the scale of offensive and body count. 

This is largely because of Pakistan, which has been psychological war against India ( PSYWAR is a part of fourth generation warfare ) since a long time seized the opportunity to go on a propaganda war. Psychological warfare techniques including manipulating value system of people for strategic and tactical operations and Pakistan has fair amount of experience in it. For instance after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan manipulated belief system of various peoples to wage jihad against the Soviet Union on behalf of the USA. Today the very same jihadis are fighting the US and the West which point to the fact that the "jihad" had nothing to do with religious belief and was purely instrument of US-Pak military interests. Even in Kashmir it has been feeding the same jihadi propaganda to youths to fight the Indian security forces on its behalf knowing fully well that there can be no political solution to the Kashmir dispute (as according to UNSC resolution which it keeps raising) unless it first withdraws troops from PoK which it certainly won't. 

Thus, Pakistan's retaliation India's surgical strike came through media manipulation, taking local and foreign journalists to locations where Indian media had alleged that the attacks had taken place notwithstanding the fact that India claimed a surgical attack on launch pads of terrorists which wouldn't have left much tell-tale signs in the aftermath. Further, as Indian Express has reported,eyewitnesses have cited dead bodies of militants being taken in trucks early in the morning for secret burial. This is the first properly sourced news report that gives some credible information on the surgical strike. I don't think the government should release video tapes and/or photographs, apart from giving away operational details may not be effective as Pakistan may label them as doctored.

There must be better ways to deal with Pakistan's propaganda and through white propaganda but the BJP appears to be happy having satisfied its core constituency. The whole narrative  has become exceedingly one-dimensional, with the political and diplomatic offensive and even the strategic shift in India's Pakistan policy having been ignored and jubilation over the tactical operation dominating public discourse. Chest thumping among the members of the ruling party and especially the defence minister's Hanuman analogy implying that the Indian Army had forgotten its might until his government reminded them of it through this attack is, frankly insulting to the army which has been fighting terrorism and cross-border infiltration incessantly and has won four wars against Pakistan, including the mammoth 71 War and the recent Kargil war. If the opposition is miffed, it is understandable, after all the armed forces belong to the nation as a whole and not the ruling party. And all this coming in after the BJP's appeal to not politicise the army operations. 

Amidst the politicking ahead of state elections, new found Modi government's newfound Pakistan policy seems to be losing ground to electoral rhetorics. The opposition parties are not helping at all, Sanjay Nirupam of the Congress in particular, by calling it a fake attack escalated the domestic politicking over the new offensive. Arvind Kejriwal's approach was more nuanced (though not apolitical), saluting the Prime Minister for surgical strike but at the same time asking him to counter Pakistan's propaganda,however the BJP and sections of media openly hostile to AAP interpreted and presented it to the public as casting doubt on the statement of the DGMO on the strikes. Now AAP seems to be upping the ante,especially keeping in view the Punjab elections coming up round the corner in what is becoming a political slugfest over a daring and effective Indian Army operation.

Interestingly, in the last few days there has been reports of Pakistani lawmakers and civil society doing a bit of soul searching on why their credibility in the international community has hit rock bottom and how exactly the non-state actors (euphemism for terrorist groups) are helping the Pakistani state. As is evident from the reaction to the overt surgical strike,neither country seems inclined to escalate the situation into even a limited conventional war, this has perhaps ignited a spark and should lead to Pakistan's civil society question on the need of its military having primacy over the state's foreign policy. Most likely, the Pakistan military industrial complex wouldn't allow the sentiment to grow into a reckoning force and that is where India's media management efforts should be focused.

Modi in his Kazikhode speech, post Uri attack, did appeal to the Pakistani public to think on these lines as he has done previously too. It would be prudent now to use international platforms and media management to get this message across the border more clearly. With Pakistani media being equally hyper-nationalistic it is going to be a difficult task but India does have immensely more political clout now to amplify this message for both Pakistani and international audience. Except for China, other world powers should welcome any effort to curtail powers of Pakistan army and ISI and by extension jihadi groups, if they really are concerned about Pakistan's nuclear weapons falling into the hands of jihadi groups. 

However,it is unlikely that given the domestic political bickering, India can wage a white propaganda war at least until the state elections are over and by then things might have changed drastically. But for that the politics over the strikes have to end and the BJP being the party in power has to take the initiative. Sure, PM Modi showed strong political will in bringing about a major strategic shift in India's approach towards Pakistan and has won accolades for it. He knew exactly how to limit the attack so that a befitting response was given to the enemy and personally refrained from rubbing Pakistan's nose on the ground to give a face saver to Pakistan establishment which is in the interest of everyone. BJP's functionaries have not been as mature. Squeezing the military success to gain maximum political mileage may work to its advantage but their is also the risk of the surgical strike being seen as an operation made for political gains and not purely for nation's security which would certainly not be in the national interest. 

But what is also important is that while concentrating on domestic politics there is a strong probability of taking eye off the game. As I write, Pakistan supported and vehemently anti-India Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Afghan President Ghani have concluded a peace deal for cooperation which is also seen as an attempt by Pakistan to limit Indian influence in Afghanistan. It is unclear if Hekmatyar's inclusion is going to harm India's interests (given Hekmatyar's penchant for switching sides) but what is clear is that Pakistan isn't sitting quietly in the quest for strategic depth it once commanded. I am not sure if India possess the capability to prevent such alignments but given our newfound attitude of aggressive diplomacy it is not beyond realm of expectation. Further the international community and the media don't appear to be putting on pressure to reign in terrorists like Hafeez Sayeed from freely operating and even addressing the public in Pakistani cities. 

Since the time I have been following foreign affairs, Pakistan now seems to be in its weakest position politically and in the realms of psychological warfare. Further, I wouldn't know if the government is pursuing the diplomatic offensive with the same aggression as it did before the strikes. PM Modi is an ambitious man and would like to leave behind a legacy in the form of being the leader who forced Pakistan to reign in its terrorist proxy through a multi-pronged offensive but without even a limited conventional war. And as leader of a democratic country like India its would be exceedingly difficult to achieve the objective if political bickering over army operations continue to rage and with the ruling party being equally if not more proactive in it. It damages the larger narrative that India needs to export which is an important part of political/psychological warfare.  

Update: Here is an interesting piece on a confrontation between Pakistani civilian government and military leadership. Of course, the Pakistani establishment has called the article fabricated and placed the writer Cyril Almeida on Exit Control List i.e. travel ban. 


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