Subcontinent on the Brink of War: Why the Present Standoff Is Different

While Pakistan's army has harboured jihadis for decades, the desire for gains in the impending Indian elections adds to the volatility of the crisis.

About two decades after the Kargil war, the subcontinent is again on the brink of war. One miscalculation by either India or Pakistan can plunge the region into a massive misfortune.

What is qualitatively different between Kargil – the last large-scale conflict between the two nuclear-armed neighbors – and today, is the rapidly evolving nature of the conflict. In Kargil, Pakistan had already taken the initiative and committed both its regulars and jihadi mercenaries to the conflict. India, taken by surprise, had no choice but to respond and, to do so forcefully.

The conflict was a fait accompli, so to speak, for the then Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government. This inherently absolved it of the worries about an escalation and its fallout. The BJP government then, did not have the luxury of choosing the time, place, targets and scale. It had to do what it had to do. The theatre and the required response had been defined for them by the Pakistani incursion.

The February 14 Pulwama attack on the Indian military, claimed by the Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), on the other hand, has put the BJP’s incumbent government in the hot seat. It has to decide the type, timing and scale of the response, and then live with its domestic and diplomatic consequences.

What the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi does – or doesn’t do – could not only make his domestic political fortunes sink or swim, but can also change the broader regional paradigm for the foreseeable future.

The Modi Doctrine

The Modi Doctrine, though never christened or defined as such, had envisaged not only India’s engagement and collaboration with the Asian and western powers, but also asserting its preeminence as a regional, if not an international, power.

If the 2016 Uri attack had challenged Modi’s macho man, hyper-nationalist, muscle-brandishing imaging, the Pulwama bombing has put a serious question mark on it. Pakistan and its jihadist quislings have little to gain in tactical, strategic and geopolitical terms from the Pulwama attack, other than to keep the Kashmir pot simmering.

But PM Modi stands to lose face and possibly an election in three months if he is seen as a weakling. As The Wire has pointed out, just like the so-called surgical strikes after the Uri attack were no deterrent, a half-hearted attempt to recalibrate the red lines vis-à-vis Pakistan would reinforce the status quo ante, not redefine it.

Also Read: Pakistan’s Obligations to IAF Pilot in Custody Under the Geneva Convention

The undeclared Indian objective behind the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) foray into the Pakistani mainland was to underscore that despite the nuclear capabilities of the two countries, a conventional deterrence – without crossing the nuclear threshold – against jihadist terrorism, was still possible.

India’s claims to have bombed a JeM madrassa in Balakot and killing over 300 jihadists or their abettors are bloated and unverifiable. What Pakistan’s director general of Inter-Services Public Relations (DG ISPR), Major General Asif Ghafoor, conceded though, was that the IAF planes penetrated clear into Pakistan-proper, dropped bombs and returned home safely.

By this concession, the general also painted the Pakistani military into a corner, the only way out of which was a retaliatory response. Inevitably, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), which has long history of cleaning up after its ground compadres mess things up, sprang into action and inflicted on the IAF its first losses. It purportedly also lost one of its own aircraft.

PM Modi faces an imminent loss of face after the PAF brought down two Indian MiG-21s. One Indian pilot was captured and paraded on camera by the Pakistani army, thereby making him a public curiosity. This also most likely violated international law of war.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: PTI

Volatile nature of conflict

The actions by the two belligerents have so far been relatively reciprocal. But they also underscore the highly fluid and volatile nature of this conflict and the potential for it to spiral out of hand. At the time of writing, Pakistani airspace was largely closed in anticipation of an Indian response.

For better or for worse, PM Modi has tied his domestic political destiny to the outcome of the current crisis. This is what differentiates the current morass from the past standoffs, skirmishes and outright wars between the two countries. While all overt wars were fought when a military dictator ruled Pakistan, India has always had a statesman at the helm at those times, whether it was Jawaharlal Nehru in 1947-48, Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1965 or Indira Gandhi in 1971. Even in the undeclared Kargil war of 1999, India was steered by Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s steady hand.

The difference between the Indian leadership of then and now is that the past leaders were concerned about a political legacy of peace and stability, not an electoral glory. The desire for gains in the impending Indian elections, adds to the volatility of the current crisis. While one can call the belligerents’ actions across the Line of Control (LoC) as kinetic, they are on the precipice of an all-out war.

It is, therefore, difficult to see PM Modi climbing down from the escalation ladder, without extracting any perceptible gains against Pakistan. The political – not military – logic suggests that India would escalate till there are diminishing returns from such a proposition.

While India lacks a clear military, technological or economic supremacy over Pakistan, it has managed to leverage its diplomatic advantage rather well.

Other than the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC), the world at large has sided with India and endorsed or accepted its action against the JeM camps in Pakistan as a counter-terrorism measure. Even the OIC is hosting the Indian external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, as a guest of honor this week.

While the Pakistani PM Imran Khan, buoyed by the downed IAF planes and captured pilot, appeared to be delivering a calm and calculated message of dialogue, the diplomatic milieu informs us that India still has significant wiggle room left to have the last military word.

Also Read: Donald Trump Promises ‘Reasonably Attractive’ News on Indo-Pak Escalation

Whether PM Modi chooses another strike or even a broader conflict would largely be dictated by his domestic political objectives rather than a desire to actually redefine and reinforce the red lines.

Contrary to popular belief, the nuclear threshold need not be approached, let alone crossed, in a conventional military standoff. While Pakistan loves to brandish the nukes, the cold, hard reality is that they deter a nuclear Armageddon but not a conventional war. The possibilities for conventional escalation are endless and range from broadening of the conflict across the LoC, the working boundary south of it, or the international border further down south.

Pakistan’s playbook on Kashmir

The path that India chooses remains to be seen, but the Pakistani playbook on Kashmir has clearly not changed in 70 years. The fundamentals of Pakistan’s Kashmir strategy have been: “defreeze” the Kashmir issue; foment an ostensibly indigenous insurgency in the Valley; and “internationalise” the conflict.

From fielding a tribal militia in Kashmir in 1947-48, to deploying irregular infiltrators in the 1965 Operation Gibraltar, to a massive jihadist incursion in Kargil, to the Pulwama attack, Pakistan has used proxies to prosecute its foreign policy goals. While it has failed to fuel its objectives, it has precipitated tremendous regional instability and a massive jihadist blowback inside Pakistan.

Absent a concerted and sustained regional and international response, Pakistan is unlikely to correct course. A US expert on South Asia, Stephen Cohen, once quipped that Pakistan negotiates with the world while holding a gun to its own head. I have maintained that it is much worse: Pakistan comes to a negotiating table wearing a nuclear-armed suicide vest.

While any sane person would wish to avert any and all wars, once and forever, at times it is imperative to call a nuclear bluff. President John F. Kennedy did that and prevailed against the erstwhile USSR in the Bay of Pigs nuclear standoff.

Security agencies inspect the site of the Pulwama suicide bomb attack. Credit: PTI

The onus for making peace

The onus for making peace should not be on law-abiding states but on the rogue armies and puppet regimes that flout those laws. In the current instance, the responsibility for initiating and escalating hostilities rests squarely with the Pakistani army, which has harbored jihadi terrorists of all shades for decades.

The calls for peace must start with asking the Pakistani generals to jettison their perennial policy of deploying jihadis as force-multipliers or more accurately as the expendables. In the aftermath of the Pulwama attack, the Pakistani DG ISPR has proclaimed a couple of times that Pakistan and India are democracies and democracies don’t go to war with each other.

What is imminently lost on the Pakistani army’s spokesman is that the sine qua non of democracy is civilian control of the government, as well as foreign and domestic policies, and the armed forces – none of which has happened in Pakistan even when the country has had democracy in name.

Also Read: Could Sharing Live IAF Flight Locations Online Compromise Pilots’ Security?

The Pakistani army justifies its existence and the massive budget allocations to it by perpetuating conflicts beyond the country’s borders. And in doing so, it severely weakens the Kashmiri cause. The first casualty of the current hostilities was the plight of the Kashmiris. While the Indian excesses in Kashmir draw sporadic attention, concern and condemnation, the JeM-type terror undermines and delegitimises the genuine grievances of the Kashmiri people.

As a firm a believer in the twin rights of self-determination and secession, I’m of the view that people in nation-states and multi-ethnic, multi-religious states are even more entitled to exercise those rights, be it in Kashmir or in Balochistan. Only Kashmiris have the right to decide what they want to do with their beloved Kashmir and their destiny.

As a prominent Kashmiri, PM Jawaharlal Nehru, told the Indian Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1947: “[T]he issue in Kashmir is whether violence and naked force should decide the future or the will of people?”

The short answer to Nehru’s emphatic question is that the will of the people should decide the future of the people – everywhere and always. It should never be decided by the barrel of a soldier’s gun or the suicide vest of a jihadist terrorist.

Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist; he tweets @mazdaki.