Shashi Tharoor: Despite Modi Rhetoric, Isolating Pakistan Not Easy

Don’t risk losing moral authority on foreign policy by suggesting scrapping of Indus treaty, writes Shashi Tharoor.

7 min read
Hindi Female

In the wake of the Uri assault that took the lives of 18 Indian jawans, Indian commentators have been in understandable outrage, suggesting various rather dramatic courses of action against Pakistan — ranging from “surgical strikes” against terrorist training camps in PoK or even at Muridke near Lahore, to the abrogation of the Indus Waters Treaty to bring the Pakistani economy to its knees.

Yet, the unpalatable truth is this: India has a number of options — diplomatic, economic and military — but most of the feasible ones have been tried before, notably in the aftermath of the major terrorist attack on 26 November 2008 in Mumbai.

The ones that have not been tried — notably reprisals on terrorist bases in Pakistan —are fraught with major risks, notably of escalation, with unpredictable consequences. There are few realistic and effective options for retaliation left.


Yet, doing nothing is clearly not an option. The idea that malign men in Pakistan can, with impunity, strike Indian targets at will every few months, exchanging the lives of a few terrorist dupes for the sadistic pleasure of sneering, as India helplessly flails around in seething impotence at its inability to strike back, is galling to most Indians — above all to the hyper-nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which had campaigned on a rhetoric of robust response to Pakistani provocation.

Clearly, India must find a way of raising the costs of such behaviour for Pakistan, in the hope of discouraging Islamabad from doing it again.

Also Read: 10 Things Modi Said in His First Speech Post Uri


Isolating Pakistan Globally Would be Difficult

In his speech at the BJP conclave in Kozhikode last night, the PM threatened to isolate Pakistan in the world as a state that exports terror. This is precisely what New Delhi did when the killers from Pakistan took 166 lives in Mumbai on 26/11 eight years ago, though the isolation (and accompanying diplomatic pressure on Islamabad) inevitably wore off after a few years.

Pakistan is manifestly unwilling or unable to control the terrorism emanating from its own territory, and so it is relatively easy to point fingers at it.

But ‘isolation’ is a bigger challenge for New Delhi this time: Firstly, because Uri involved fewer victims than Mumbai; secondly, because they were soldiers, not civilians as in 26/11; and thirdly, because various countries have bilateral reasons not to isolate Pakistan.

The US needs Pakistan because of Afghanistan, and China has major strategic interests there, especially a $46 billion economic corridor that is China’s single biggest overseas development project. As long as major powers choose to stay engaged with Pakistan, overlooking its misbehaviour, diplomatic isolation will have its limitations as a policy.

Don’t risk losing moral authority on foreign policy by suggesting scrapping of Indus treaty, writes Shashi Tharoor.
Unlike 26/11, diplomatic isolation of Pakistan post Uri would be tough. (Photo: Reuters)

Responding to Pakistan Post Uri

  • Despite Modi hinting at further isolating Pakistan, policy of isolation will have its own ramifications.
  • As long as China continues to invest in Pakistan with economic interests in mind, global isolation would be difficult.
  • Surgical strikes not a feasible option either as one should be prepared to contain the fallout of retaliation.
  • Scrapping the Indus Waters Treaty fraught with risk as India will lose moral authority of putting pressure on Pakistan.
  • Lackadaisical approach of the defence ministry evident with no action being taken on the report submitted after the Pathankot attack.
Don’t risk losing moral authority on foreign policy by suggesting scrapping of Indus treaty, writes Shashi Tharoor.
Narendra Modi at BJP’s national council meeting at Kozhikode on Saturday. (Photo: The Quint)

Surgical Strikes Not a Feasible Option

‘Surgical’ airstrikes seem superficially attractive, not least because, in Eliot Cohen’s marvellous formulation, they are an option rather like modern courtship — they offer the possibility of gratification without commitment. You fly from a great height, drop a few bombs and come back home, without taking the issue any further, leaving your victims to contemplate the smoking ruins.

But surgical strikes have a disconcerting habit of not remaining as surgical or limited as their proponents would like. All you would hit is a few tents and minor targets, which can easily be rebuilt. But what do you do if one of your planes is shot down in the process?

What about Pakistani retaliation, which is sure to be swift and perhaps disproportionate? At what point do you stop the punishment that will inevitably provoke more reprisals? And what about the international opprobrium you will incur for violating the LoC or worse, breaching an international frontier?

Also Read: Exclusive: Uri Avenged As Spl Forces Cross LoC, Kill 20 Terrorists


Military Adventurism Fraught with Economic Cost

Above all, what about the ancillary risks of further escalation? India’s overriding priority is economic development, which requires foreign investment and a peaceful climate for economic growth. How does that square with the military adventurism being advocated by our armchair generals? Investors, naturally, do not like to invest in war zones. Can we afford to drive away the funds without which we cannot pull our people out of poverty?

Don’t risk losing moral authority on foreign policy by suggesting scrapping of Indus treaty, writes Shashi Tharoor.
Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs, Vikas Swarup. (Photo: IANS)

Revisiting the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty

The possibility of India revisiting the Indus Waters Treaty signed with Pakistan in 1960 has also aroused some strategists, and even MEA spokesperson Vikas Swarup, who said pointedly that “any cooperative arrangement requires goodwill and mutual trust on both sides”.

Under the treaty, India has control over three eastern rivers — Beas, Ravi and Sutlej —and Pakistan the western rivers of the Chenab and Jhelum. Swarup darkly hinted that it was in jeopardy: “For any such treaty to work, it is important there must be mutual trust and cooperation. It cannot be a one-sided affair.”

But the treaty under which the waters of the Indus and its five tributaries are distributed between the two countries is not purely a bilateral affair; it was brokered by the World Bank, whose involvement will be automatically triggered if India unilaterally abrogates it.

The idea that India, as the upstream country, can stop the flow of waters to 65 percent of Pakistan’s geographical area, including the entire Punjab province, create droughts and famines, and bring Pakistan to its knees, overlooks the swift international condemnation that will follow the moment we even begin to initiate such an action.

Nor can it be done like turning off a tap; various measures would be required to ensure that Indian cities do not get flooded with the water that is no longer flowing to Pakistan.

Also Read: Did MEA Hint at Rethinking Indus Waters Treaty With Pakistan?


Will Lose Moral Authority by Scrapping the Indus Treaty

And then, we would set a precedent and we would be loath to see China follow on the Brahmaputra, where it is we who are downstream. We have long been a model state in our respect for international law, and our adherence to morality in foreign policy, even offering humanitarian assistance to Pakistan after earthquakes and floods.

Starving people by cutting off their water would be profoundly unworthy of us. This is why the treaty has, as Omar Abdullah recently pointed out, survived four wars and a unanimous resolution of the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly calling for its scrapping.

Under the existing Treaty provisions, however, India is entitled to make use of the waters of the western rivers for irrigation, storage, and even for producing electricity, in a “non-consumptive” manner, through “run-of-the-river” projects that do not reduce the ultimate flow to Pakistan.

Oddly enough, we have never taken advantage of these provisions, which are exactly what the Chinese say they are doing with their frenetic dam building on the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra, upstream from India. If we were simply to do what we are allowed to under the Treaty — we are entitled to store up to 3.6 million acre feet on the western rivers — it would be a more effective signal to Pakistan than arch statements from the MEA.

Don’t risk losing moral authority on foreign policy by suggesting scrapping of Indus treaty, writes Shashi Tharoor.
Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar meeting with the soldiers injured in the Uri attacks, 19 September, 2016. (Photo: Twitter/ @manoharparrikar)

Strengthening Our Security Framework

So what can we do? Using artillery to destroy Pakistani forward posts along the LoC, preferably the ones near Uri that must have facilitated the infiltration, is a low-risk option, though there will certainly be some retaliatory shelling, probably containable if we don’t overreact to it.

And, there is always the fantasy depicted in the Bollywood film Phantom — the targeted assassination of jihadist leaders by shadowy covert operatives, amid total deniability by India. This will make those who despatch terrorists think twice and even if they threaten retaliation, the strengthening of our protective police and intelligence capabilities is overdue, and should proceed on a priority basis.

Finally, we must demand accountability for the failure to strengthen the perimeter security of our defence installations after the Pathankot attack in January. The report of the Committee headed by former Army Vice Chief Lt Gen Philip Campose has been lying with the Defence Ministry since March, but no action has been taken on its recommendations. This is criminal negligence, and heads should roll for it.

If our Defence Ministry had done its job, and if all the technology available today had been deployed to protect our bases, the fence at Uri would never have been breached and 18 Indian jawans would be alive today.

In place of all the blustery demands for bombing and scrapping of treaty, some diligent and responsible action at home from our own government is what we need most of all.


(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached at @ShashiTharoor)

Also Read:
Modi’s Kozhikode Masterstroke Reflects Maturity in Pakistan Policy

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