No winners in this battle
A journalist who has covered both sides of the India-Pakistan faultline explains why ties between the two are so strained
In a relationship like the one India and Pakistan have shared over the past 70 years, there are few moments for reflection, few pauses to take stock of winners and losers. Yet, it is this task journalist Myra McDonald sets for herself in the book Defeat is an Orphan: How Pakistan Lost the Great South Asian War. In order to do so McDonald focuses on the period since the turn of the century (1999-2015), coming to her conclusion that India has the upper hand and victory in a war that has been played with every version in the book: overt, covert, using Army regulars, and with proxies, as well as the diplomatic, economic and above all, the moral war.
The Kandahar trail
The book begins in December 1999 with the hijack of IC-814 from Kathmandu, a flight that took its 178 passengers and their nation on the worst possible nightmare ride to Kandahar. At the end of that week, India had suffered several blows, its government brought to its knees in front of the world, who agreed to release Masood Azhar, who went on to build a thriving terror empire that attacks India to this day, along with Al Umar chief Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, who directs attacks inside Jammu and Kashmir, and Sheikh Omar Ahmed Saeed, the man convicted for the killing of Daniel Pearl and who organised the funding for the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. in 2001.
While these were heavy blows, the unkindest cut was the response of the international community that watched the week’s unfolding horror without offering assistance, nor did it feel the need to hold the terrorists, their welcoming Taliban hosts in Afghanistan, or Pakistan, that gave those terrorists a hero’s welcome back to account for it.
McDonald, who was based in India from 2000-2003, and has written an excellent work on the Siachen conflict (Heights of Madness) provides a well-thought out epilogue as well, bringing the book up to date with the impact of the ‘surgical strikes’ announced by the government after the Uri attack in 2016, and of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. As a journalist who has covered both sides of the India-Pakistan faultline, McDonald is even-handed, albeit clearly more sympathetic to India’s case, which leads her to her conclusion of where ‘defeat and victory’ lie. Lest anyone doubt her ability to turn the critical eye on India’s actions, her chapter on the flawed and unjust investigation and trials of those suspected to have conspired in the Parliament attack of 2001 is important. One is left wondering if such a shoddy process is the Indian government’s way of covering up for its own lapses, and its own poor preparation, and whether India is in denial of its vulnerability as much as Pakistan is in denial of its diabolical duplicity.
There are, however, lapses in McDonald’s narrative that are unfortunately common to other accounts of India-Pakistan relations, both western and Indian.
To begin with, there is the temptation to see the relations in a time prism: that begins after the nuclear tests of 1998. In the jacket-blurb of the book, it speaks of how India and Pakistan ‘restarted the clock’ after they both held nuclear tests and as a result Pakistan used ‘militant proxies’ with ‘reckless reliance’ thereafter.
The truth is Pakistan’s ‘reckless reliance’ on proxies did not begin in 1998, but all the way back in 1948, during the first Kashmir war. Later, the use of Sikh militants who hijacked planes to Lahore in the 1980s, or the D-Company that has lived in Karachi after the Mumbai blasts in 1993 were all part of a similar strategy.
Before Uri, there was Pathankot; before that there was Mumbai 26/11, the train bombings, the Parliament attack, IC-814 and so on.
Another lapse, shared with other writers on the subcontinent, is to describe the international community, and in particular the U.S., as naïve players, who mistakenly choose to pursue a South Asia policy that unwittingly allows Pakistan its terror war on India. The U.S. is neither naïve nor foolish. If it has pursued a certain course for decades, then that must be seen for what it is: a policy.
While the author painstakingly details the lead-up from the IC-814 hijack to the 9/11 attacks, she doesn’t probe why the CIA missed all the links between the Jaish-e-Mohammad and al-Qaeda and the Taliban pre-2001. Similarly, on the curious case of David Headley, now convicted in the U.S. for his role in planning the Mumbai attacks, the book fails to investigate why the U.S. government entered into a plea-bargain with him for his life without even informing Indian authorities, forcing the Indian government to do the same in 2015, or to let him travel to India in March 2009, months after the Mumbai attacks, when he was under U.S. surveillance.
In Pakistan, the U.S. has undertaken unilateral drone strikes against several terrorists suspected of harming U.S. citizens, but has never turned its gaze on Hafiz Saeed with any seriousness. Even a much touted $10million ‘bounty’ turned out to be a reward for information against Hafiz Saeed, as McDonald records, which the U.S. intelligence agencies should have in plenty.
Indeed, if Pakistan has ‘lost’ this war for parity with India through ‘a thousand cuts’, there seems little evidence of introspection within. While defeat might mean the notional loss of U.S. trust, Pakistan will always be an important interlocutor for the U.S. when it comes to Afghanistan.
The diplomatic isolation of Pakistan that McDonald describes is only one part of the story. The other part is Pakistan’s link-role in China’s OBOR (One Belt One Road) plans, that is bringing even Russia into a closer embrace. For all its self-defeating tendencies, Pakistan is an orphan with a lot of backers. For India, faced with more important wars with poverty, illiteracy, water shortages and other, there are no winners in this battle for South Asia.
Credit: The Hindu