Did Imran Khan miss his CMC moment and lose Kashmir?

By Syed Sharfuddin*

If the 1999 Kargil war was the botched Bay of Pigs invasion for Islamabad, the unprecedented step taken by New Delhi on 5 August 2019 to annex and divide the occupied state of Jammu and Kashmir was no less than the U2 plane discovery about USSR placing nuclear missiles inside Cuba in 1962 only 150 miles away from the US mainland.

For a change let us place the current Indo-Pakistan tensions in the setting of the cold war years of 1960s between two nuclear rivals, the US and the former USSR, each of which embraced the doctrine of mutually assured destruction wholeheartedly in the belief that this was the only mad way to avoid the annihilation of human race the world should never see. In that uncertain decade, both countries jealously guarded their respective zones of influence: the US in South America and the former USSR in Central Asia. Both countries also courted other countries, especially in Eastern and Western Europe respectively and the newly independent former colonies as a measure of their foreign policy success.

If the 1999 Kargil war was the botched Bay of Pigs invasion for Islamabad, when Pakistan’s military command failed to recapture the territory lost to India in the 1971 war, the unprecedented political step taken by New Delhi on 5 August 2019 to annex and divide the occupied state of Jammu and Kashmir was no less than the U2 plane discovery that USSR was placing nuclear missiles inside Cuba to bring its attack capability only 150 miles away from the US state of Florida.

Back then in 1962, it was a decisive event in the history of the US-USSR relations. President John F Kennedy had to take the tough decision to either allow it to happen but with a strong diplomatic protest and UN and international pressure to keep Moscow away from any misadventure, or call Nikita Khrushchev’s bluff by threatening to go to any extent, including the prospect of a nuclear war against the USSR. In this nerve wrecking display of brinkmanship backed by military will and a determination not to give up, the USSR blinked first and agreed to remove its missiles from Cuba, provided the US did not attack Cuba. Nikita Khrushchev also demanded that the US withdraw its nuclear missiles from Turkey, which posed a threat to the USSR. The Kennedy administration agreed to the first Soviet condition publicly, but decided to meet their second condition quietly. The world breathed a sigh of relief that the crisis, which started on 16 October was over after 13 breath holding days on 28 October 1962.

Could it be that India’s far reaching measure in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir on 5 August 2019 was no less than the Cuban Missile Crisis (CMC) moment for Prime Minister Imran Khan, which tested his ability to act decisively in times of extreme crisis and also checked out if Pakistan had the resilience and courage to challenge India in the same tone and manner as the US had done the USSR in 1962?

Could it be that India’s far reaching measure in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir on 5 August 2019 was no less than the Cuban Missile Crisis (CMC) moment for Prime Minister Imran Khan, which tested his ability to act decisively in times of extreme crisis and also checked out if Pakistan had the resilience and courage to challenge India in the same tone and manner as the US had done the USSR in 1962? The reaction time for this response was short, lasting only few days when Indian political opposition, as well as Indian public opinion was deeply divided on the BJP government’s surprise action in Kashmir. The jailed and house-arrested J&K National Conference leadership, which had since 1947 consented to stay with India as part of the accession agreement, signed by Maharaja Hari Singh on 26 October 1947 with reservations, was regretting its decision to have discarded the two-nation theory. The world anxiously waited to see how Pakistan would react to this development in a disputed territory with India on which it has never compromised both diplomatically and in the battlefield. Even within the BJP leadership there were fears that this action was too precarious and may start a war with Pakistan, coming soon after the show of nerves in the aftermath of the downing of two IAF planes by PAF on 27 February and the return of the captured Indian officer on 1 March as a gesture of goodwill by Pakistan.

There were clear messages on social media pointing to India’s action on Kashmir following the 2018 tweet of Subramanian Swamy, which was re-tweeted by Indo-Israel Friendship Association.

As days passed, it became clear that India’s fears were misplaced. Pakistan did not read the signs of what was to come on 5 August and that the annexation of J&K was going to become a reality. Pakistan also did not have a contingency plan which could be unrolled hours after the ordinance was signed by the President of India revoking the special status of the disputed state of J&K guaranteed under Articles 35-A and 370 of the Indian Constitution for 69 years. Pakistan was also unprepared to call India’s bluff with a hard call of going to any extent on Kashmir and demanding a roll back of India’s action. Prime Minister Imran Khan and his Foreign Minister were late in the joint session of the Pakistan parliament to condemn the Indian move, which was a tell tale sign that they were busy in emergency meetings convened to discuss how to react to the new development.

The Prime Minister was overheard in parliament asking the opposition leader: “what do you want me to do?” “Should I declare war against India”? This said everything about what Pakistan was going to do about the illegal annexation of Kashmir by India – anything but war.

The Prime Minister was also overheard in the parliamentary session asking the opposition leader: “what do you want me to do?” “Should I declare war against India”? This said everything about what Pakistan was going to do about the illegal annexation of Kashmir by India – anything but war. The meeting of the National Security Committee confirmed on 7 August that Pakistan will use diplomatic means, multilateral diplomacy, trade boycott and high pitched protests to react to the situation but it will do nothing practical to claim the entire state of J&K as Pakistan’s territory in its constitution, or use the nuclear card credibly to force India through the international community to reverse this step and find a bilateral means of resolving the dispute without changing he status quo of the state of J&K.

While Imran Khan weighed the economic cost of war for Pakistan, he ignored the fact that it was the only credible threat he could get away with internationally because Kashmir remains a flash point between India and Pakistan.

Exercising the CMC moment would have meant Prime Minister Imran Khan addressing the Parliament on 6 August and calling on India to immediately retract its steps in Kashmir or be ready for Pakistan to go to any extent, including the prospect of a nuclear war to restore status quo ante. This could have been followed by PAF resuming flight patrolling, movement of a couple of infantry divisions from the western to the eastern border, and Pakistan test-firing a long-range and a short-range missile capable of delivering nuclear payload. Such demonstrable steps would have resulted in all the major powers sending special envoys to Islamabad calling for restraint and forcing New Delhi to reverse its steps in Kashmir. The prospect of a mushroom cloud hovering over their tall business empires and commercial and tourism sites would have sent all the Gulf states in panic, preventing them from conferring any national awards to the Indian Prime Minister and suggesting that they back him on Kashmir.

Under these tense conditions, the UNSC would have acted loudly with a resolution on Kashmir calling on both India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir dispute peacefully, failing which they could themselves authorise the UN to intervene in Kashmir under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. In the negotiations brokered by an ever ambitious President Trump, India would have agreed to withdraw its troops presence from the state of J&K on the condition that Pakistan also do likewise from Azad Kashmir. A demilitarised conflict territory would then be amenable for a referendum to decide the future of the Kashmiri people by Kashmiris themselves. But that was not to be.

While Imran Khan weighed the economic cost of war for Pakistan, he ignored the fact that it was the only credible threat he could get away with internationally because Kashmir remains a flash point between India and Pakistan and the world is not ready for a nuclear war between the two enemy countries.

After three weeks of noisy media statements; hundreds of social media posts; a routine meeting of UNSC members on the situation in Kashmir, which released no statement and no call for another meeting; three international human rights organisations objecting to the gross human rights violations in Indian Held Kashmir but stopping short of questioning India’s occupation of the territory in violation of the UNSC resolutions; deep divisions within the OIC block in responding to Kashmir’s annexation; silence of the Commonwealth and G7 on the new development; and Pakistan’s own admission that Pakistan does not desire a war with India but will deliver full response in responding to an aggression, India is emerging more confident and assertive on Kashmir and might start the next phase of changing the social fabric of Kashmir by rounding off the Kashmiri opposition using electronic surveillance, relocating RSS cadres and continued armed repression in Kashmir.

What stopped the government from taking its own constitutional route to claiming the whole of J&K as Pakistan territory in defiance of the dubious instrument of accession of October 1947?

Some searching questions remain, including the title of this essay, which asks: Did Imran Khan miss his CMC moment and lose Kashmir? Are wars won with weapons and men or with strategy and good timing? Did his army chief tell the Prime Minister that Pakistan was not ready for a war on Indian held Kashmir? Was there an intelligence failure to foresee the action of 5 August 2019 and prepare contingency planning? There were clear messages on social media pointing to this action following the tweet of Subramanian Swamy, which was re-tweeted by Indo-Israel Friendship Association on 22 June 2018. What stopped the government from taking its own constitutional route to claiming the whole of J&K as Pakistan territory in defiance of the dubious instrument of accession of October 1947?

Or is it that Pakistan’s CMC moment will come only if the integrity of Azad Kashmir is threatened. Or it may never come because this is another time and another world-order in which economic interests overtake foreign and security policy, including principles, rule of international law and old historical records and unfulfilled international commitments.

London 27 August 2019

*Mr Syed Sharfuddin is a former diplomat and a former Special Adviser for Asia in the Political Affairs Division of the Commonwealth Secretariat, London, UK (2000-2006).