The deadly spiral

COVER STORY


War is the unfolding of miscalculations, Barbara W. Tuchman, a contemporary military historian, observed. If India and Pakistan find themselves on the brink of a major confrontation, you could add misadventures, misgivings and misunderstandings to the list. The leaders of the two countries tend to look at managing relations between them as akin to playing poker, apart from strategy and skill, they employ brinkmanship to win rounds.

Till Pulwama, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and the deep state believed they held all the high-value cards to challenge India. They had the Terror card, which they regularly used to bloody effect. The Kashmir card to create disaffection in the Valley. The Muslim card which they flaunted to keep the West at bay. The Nuclear card to prevent India from striking them hard whenever they made us bleed. The Afghan card to buy America’s compliance. And the China card which they frequently used to trump Trump.

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in May 2014, India has worked steadily to neutralise these cards and nullify the advantage Pakistan believed it had. Modi built strong friendships with Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the Central Asian states to defuse its Muslim card. To Pakistan’s dismay, for the first time in decades, India was even invited to attend the meeting of foreign ministers of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) as a guest of honour. India invested heavily in Afghanistan to ensure it became a player in Pakistan’s backyard, much to its chagrin. India also strengthened its strategic partnership with the United States and kept China engaged with a mix of friendship and firmness.

DON’T MESS WITH ME’

On terror and Kashmir, though, Pakistan was proving to be resilient. After the Uri attack in September 2016, India gave it a tight slap by carrying out a much-publicised surgical strike in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). In doing so, Modi signalled that he was willing to use kinetic force, if needed. Smarting under the attack, the Pakistani deep state plotted a comeback. One of its proxies, the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), carried out a suicide bomb attack on a CRPF convoy on February 14 in Pulwama, in which 40 Indian security personnel were killed. With the Indian general election just two months away, there was an even greater imperative for Modi to strike with speed and force.

When India did strike, it did so with spectacular effect. On February 26, 12 days after the Pulwama attack, Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter jets hit a major JeM training camp in the Khy­ber Pakhtunkhwa province, deep inside Pakistan territory. The Ministry of Ext­ernal Affairs (MEA) termed it a non-military pre-emptive strike to thwart the terrorist outfit from plotting another attack. The MEA claimed that India had decimated the camp headed by Maulana Yousuf Azhar, brother-in-law of JeM chief Masood Azhar. It did not reveal any death toll but maintained that a very large number’ was eliminated. Foreign secretary Vijay Keshav Gokhale pointed out that one of the reasons India executed the strikes was because Pakistan had not acted against JeM and other terror groups despite India providing it information about their presence in the recent past. India assured the international community that it did not wish to see a further escalation and would continue to act with responsibility and restraint.

In the immediate aftermath, the strike considerably enhanced Modi’s image apart from his electoral prospects. No other Indian prime minister since 1971 has authorised air strikes deep inside Pakis­tan territory. By hitting JeM, Modi has avenged the killings of the CRPF personnel. He has also scored by getting major powers, particularly the US, to agree that India had the right to strike in self-defence, evidenced by the lack of international criticism after the strike.

India showed restraint in not target­ing Pakistan’s military installations and signalled that it had made a one-off strike. Yet, it has set a new threshold for future terror strikes, indicating to Pakistan that any punitive action it would take in future will no longer be confined to PoK. India also calculated that Pakistan would find it difficult to retaliate because if it tried to strike a military formation or hit any civilian population, it would be condemned internationally. India would also regard it as an act of war.

What added to India’s initial confi­dence was that Pakistan stoutly denied that there were any casualties or that a JeM camp existed on the spot. It was a narrative similar to the 2016 surgical strike where Pakistan had steadfastly maintained that the Modi government’s claims were false. Modi and his team, however, had expected Pakistan to retaliate in some fashion, especially as the Indian Air Force had intruded into Pakistan’s airspace and struck deep inside its territory.

In the event, they were caught by surprise at the speed with which Islamabad hit back. Within a day of the Indian strike, Pakistan Air Force fighter jets intruded into Indian airspace in Jammu and Kashmir. When Indian fighter jets scrambled to repulse them, Pakistan was able to strike down a MiG 21 and capture its pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, whose parachute brought him to ground in PoK. Meanwhile, India claimed to have downed one of the Pakistani jets. But it was hugely embarrassed that one of its pilots had fallen into Pakistani hands.

Photo by Rohit Chawla and Vikram Sharma

GAME OF ONE-UPMANSHIP

A somewhat triumphant Imran Khan went on Pakistan TV claiming that Islamabad only wanted to demonstrate that it could deliver a riposte. With the euphoria over the Indian strike evaporating after the Pakistani retaliation, the Modi government would have been tempted to hit back. As the face-off turned even more dangerous and the threat of war loomed, major powers like the US, Russia and China cautioned the two countries to exercise restraint and not escalate hostilities. The Modi government is again confronted with a hard choice. If India strikes again, it is likely to lose international support, particularly that of the US, which has made it clear that it would not be in anyone’s interest to ratchet up tensions further. India had convinced the world about Pakistan’s perfidy and tactically there was no need to hit back. Yet, Modi had to manage the domestic perception that Pakistan had levelled the score by striking down an Indian aircraft and capturing the pilot.

Ironically, after the strikes, both countries professed that they wanted to maintain peaceful relations with each other. Neither can be keen on a limited war, leave alone a full-blown one. Both know that the economic costs of such a war would be enormous, particularly for Pakistan which is already reeling under a severe balance of payments crisis. Khan even offered to have a dialogue with India on terror alone, a concession of sorts, as Pakistan has consistently insisted that it wanted such talks in conjunction with discussions on Kashmir. Yet, Modi was unlikely to agree to such a proposition unless Khan moved to arrest Masood Azhar and, more importantly, to begin dismantling the vast terrorist network that the deep state has set up to strike at India. India remains deeply suspicious of the Pakistan army’s intent and is not convinced that it would act against terror groups it has nurtured over the years.

War footing School students celebrate the Indian air strikes at CST, Mumbai-(By Milind Shelte)

LOOKING FOR AN EXIT

So, will there be war? Experts are divided. Moeed Yusuf, a Pakistani-American who is an associate vice-president at the Asia Centre of the United States Institute of Peace, says: Look, we are heading for a disaster and nobody should be complacent about the reason for that. The problem for India and Pakistan is twofold. One, India cannot afford to end it at one allit has to be one up. Now, one up is not possible in an escalatory ladder because every single time India reacts, Pakistan will say, I will be the last one to shoot’. Two, India and Pakistan have no bilateral escalation-control mechanism in place. They have done things in an ad hoc manner in the past and there is no real understanding on how to get out of the escalating crisis. (See interview This is now a game of spinning narratives.)

Ashley J. Tellis, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes that while both sides will display bravado, the current confrontation is unlikely to escalate further. His reasons: Both sides are looking for an exitbecause they have made their point. India has made the point that there will be punitive retaliation for terrorist attacks and this retaliation will extend to Pakistan territory, if need be. Pakistan has made the point that any Indian riposte will be responded to. I don’t see either side at this juncture having their interests advanced by further escalation. Tellis feels that any further strikes would be counterproductive for India. And that we should continue to keep up the international pressure on Pakistan to dismantle its terror network, work quietly for the release of the captured pilot and start toning down the celebrations in India over the air strikes.

The real problem is that it is easy to mount a tiger, but very difficult to dismount it, as both India and Pakistan are now realising. What is key is perception and controlling the narrative. From now on, it’s all about politics and not operational success. Both sides could back off while claiming victory and de-escalating the situation. India has no doubt dented Pakistan’s terror card, but it still needs to work hard to ensure that it reverses the deteriorating situation in the Valley and wins the hearts and minds of the Kashmiris through its actions. That’s the best ace it can serve to disarm Pakistan.

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