Lacking direction: PTI’s Kashmir Policy

Posted originally to Strafasia on 7 December 2019.

Does Imran Khan ignoring the letter of Syed Ali Geelani, veteran Kashmiri freedom icon, epitomize the PTI’s Kashmir policy? Is the PTI truly working for an effective Kashmir policy?

A deeper analysis is required to determine whether PTI’s approach works toward applying pressure on India for its annexation of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). In doing so, whether there is any semblance of a long-term strategy and serious commitment on the part of PTI can be ascertained.

The PTI claims practical progress in lobbying the US for adopting a stance on the Kashmir dispute that pressurizes India and that the ‘global’ narrative on Kashmir is now shifting. The US, of course, is held by the PTI throughout this narrative as the indispensable third party stakeholder.

However, things headed in the opposite direction, with the Indo-US alliance finding constant affirmation.

On 7 August, in what PTI’s support base portrayed as a ‘rebuke’ of India, the State Department tweeted that India had not consulted or informed the US before its 5 August decision to annex J&K, contrary to media reports.

The tweet did not censure India and did not contain, nor was it followed by, a demand or request to reinstate J&K’s ‘autonomy’. The State Department, in fact, backed India’s claim that Kashmir was a ‘bilateral issue’, a notion Pakistan focuses heavily on countering.

While mildly criticizing J&K’s draconian lockdown, the State Department’s general tone on India remains extremely positive, hailing various forms of economic and military cooperation and frequently assuring India the US shares its views on ‘terrorism’. Pakistan is still urged to work on preventing ‘terrorism’ against India and this pressure has not lessened after 5 August.

The State Department at best occasionally employed a ‘both sides’ narrative vis a vis security.. It reiterated the US’ view that ‘terrorist groups’ act from Pakistani soil against the Indian occupation forces in Kashmir.

Thus, Pakistan is still framed as the root problem. Pakistan is not just reprimanded for ‘terrorism’, but made to face down actual consequences (i.e FATF) for it while India is neither threatened with actual consequences nor even reprimanded verbally.

Donald Trump’s half-hearted offers to ‘mediate’ between India and Pakistan predictably led nowhere and have likely been forgotten in Washington itself. Yet, it was hailed as one of the fruitful outcomes of Khan’s US visit, sale of $125 million worth of F-16s  being the other.

Despite it carrying no real practical weight and its only ‘benefit’ being that it irked India somewhat, Trump’s ‘offer’ was presented as signs that PTI was ‘internationalizing’ Kashmir.

The PTI is not unaware of the multifaceted, institutionalized and geo-strategically active Indo-US alliance in the region. What factors, or moves from Pakistan, could possibly outweigh it and make the US lessen its pro-India preference?

Pakistan’s role in facilitating the never-ending Afghan peace talks is sometimes suggested as the ‘trump card’ Pakistan might use to entice the US into acting as a responsible broker in the Kashmir dispute.

The US has clearly not reciprocated and continues to back India. However, Pakistan has not emphasized potential abandoning of support to the peace process if the US does not pressurize India on Kashmir. Barring a one-off statement before 5 August, Pakistan has not threatened to cease pressurizing the Taliban to the talks (if indeed that is what it does) if India does not face practical pressure from the US.

This is, of course, assuming the peace talks are indeed intended by the US to yield peace and departure from Afghanistan. Many signs point toward this not being the case. Whether Pakistan abandoning its role in the process would even compel the Taliban to quit talks with the US is also not a surety.

Pakistan has thus, despite full cognizance of the extent of Indo-US strategic convergence, sustained continued focus on the US and tried to play within the parameters the US has set for Pakistan over the last few decades.

It has sought to re-enter the limited space it found itself in during the Musharraf era where reliance on the US meant Pakistan could not challenge a regional status quo which benefited India at its expense. This adds a failure to learn from history to the shortcomings of the PTI’s current approach.

Pakistan during the tumultuous early 2000s did nothing to reduce the US’ leverage as stakeholder in the Indo-Pak conflict and paid the price for it with severely limited options versus an India with greatly expanded strategic options to damage Pakistan.

US-NATO presence in Afghanistan gave India room to sponsor and support Baloch separatists and even extremist terrorists against Pakistan, causing diversion of military resources and effort to its western front to secure. Absence of US scrutiny on India’s role in supporting terrorism, complete focus on Kashmiri resistance groups’ alleged backing by Pakistan as ‘terrorism’, US media bias toward India and a rapid Indo-US strategic partnership which evolved from 2007 onwards portrayed a sad picture for Pakistan in terms of the US role in the Indo-Pak conflict.

What has changed since then, to justify the PTI’s faith in the US as a stakeholder for Kashmir? After all, the US and India are closer than ever to each other. Why then, for the sake of escaping a status quo imposed by the US whereby Pakistan is handicapped, has PTI not hedged its bets elsewhere? Relatively recent history dictates the need for Pakistan to force the idea of Kashmir as an international issue and India as the aggressor to stakeholders not themselves allied with India.

The PTI has evidently done the opposite of this. Even with the Indo-US alliance demonstrably involved in weakening Pakistan and strengthening India while it takes its criminal policies in Kashmir to new heights, Pakistan seems to not be getting the memo.

The FATF is correctly seen in Pakistan as a weapon of coercion against it wielded by the US and India. A lot of stress is laid in meeting its requirements with regard to drafting new laws on counter-terror financing, which Pakistan has been doing, but there is no hinting at the PTI understanding the need to seek an end to constant FATF pressure since it in essence is a boon to India.

There have been no steps taken, before or after 5 August, in lieu of the extraordinary circumstances prevailing with India to make clear to the US or the ‘international community’ that Pakistan will adopt drastic measures if FATF’s politicized targeting of Pakistan continues.

Pakistan could threaten to shut down the NATO transit route to Afghanistan should the FATF blacklist it, considering the FATF is assisting India’s criminal annexation of J&K by unjustly pressurizing Pakistan and enabling India in its plans to escalate to open war.

Numerous Indian officials have made this threat publicly. This makes it incrementally easier for Pakistan to use India’s annexation of J&K as a pretext to make clear it is ready to use such drastic measures to remove irritants such as the FATF from the equation. The US would then be compelled into reconsidering whether partnering with India in the FATF fiasco yields results for its ‘contain-China’ partner in India that would make a logistical disaster in Afghanistan worth it.

It also helps that J&K’s annexation intruding upon territory claimed by China will make China a likely supporter of Pakistan’s in such endeavours.

Additionally, the US would not have to bear any damage to the Indo-US alliance by relenting from such hostile Indo-US initiatives against Pakistan as FATF, in consideration of the heightened tensions post-5 August. It would remain intact in the Indo-Pacific naval rivalry with China, India would continue gradually replacing the Russian monopoly over its defence imports with the US and Israel and India would not ‘punish’ the US in any way if it were to heed Pakistan’s warnings in any way.

A defensive threat against FATF coercion by Pakistan would raise the stakes and make unavoidably obvious to the US – especially President Trump himself – that its partisanship in the Indo-Pak conflict is now not only extremely impractical but also a danger to its own interests in the region.

However, for this to take place, the PTI needs to first acknowledge the existence of that partisanship. It must abandon its ill-fated and baseless claims of bettering Pakistan’s position with the US and the ‘world community’.

While not hinting at any practical steps Pakistan might take, PM Khan has even adopted a visibly tame, mild rhetoric on Kashmir which incorporate an element of pandering to the ‘international community’ which for PTI clearly means the US. An example of this can be his numerous declarations that Pakistanis joining the resistance in J&K will be ‘the enemy’ and thus assuring everyone that Pakistan will not take measures drastic enough in confronting India.

The PTI clearly has no plan on Kashmir and by virtue of the resulting vacuum where its long-term strategy should be, it has fallen back on the traditional US-centric worldview of Pakistan’s foreign policy establishment despite this approach yielding it nothing at all.

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