04 Aug 2010 Ali Ahmed*: The meeting of the two foreign ministers at Islamabad ended in failure. The announcement of another meeting in December acts as a silver lining. Could the silver lining be of war clouds? That the ‘pause’ in India-Pakistan relations has been extended to December encouragingly indicates that the two governments are sanguine of the improbability of war. Nevertheless, given the cyclic past of crisis bordering on conflict, it would be prudent to check how dark are the clouds overhead and over the horizon.
Past crisis have been been triggered by terror attacks; and this remains a possibility. Firstly, circumstances that surrounded 26/11 continue to obtain. It was thought then that Pakistan, under pressure to take on the Taliban on its side of the border, had sparked the crisis as a distraction. Pakistan is now under pressure to go into North Waziristan. The pressure can be expected to only grow given the extent of ISI complicity with the Taliban, brought out by Wikileaks. ISI linkages and support of rogue elements within the Establishment remain. A crisis would not be unwelcome for GHQ, Rawalpindi.
Secondly, the autonomous agenda of the terror groups has expanded in face of Pakistani action against them. They have taken on the Army there at its very heart, the GHQ, and have just killed the Frontier Corps chief. Lastly, in the tradition of Mumbai 26/11, strategic coercion by Pakistan for progress on what it considers the ‘core issue’, Kashmir, can be ruled in since the talks route has ruled itself out. It would help keep Pakistan relevant lest the agenda set by youth in ongoing agitations in Kashmir marginalize Pakistan.
That a crisis could occur as a result of the next terror attack is not lost on the government. This is why the government does appear to have preferred success of the talks. This can be seen from the foreign minister’s pinning of the blame for failure on the home secretary. If the talks failed, it was less due to design, than the dissonance on Pakistan and Kashmir that has come to characterize India’s policies. Nevertheless, it was also clear that the composite dialogue was not about to restart. This indicates the confidence India appears to have in being able to deter the next terror attack and, should that not succeed manage the consequent crisis.
It may also reflect its levels of confidence in its protective efforts since 26/11. The problem is that the next terror attack can be expected to work round these schemes. Best indicator of readiness of an offensive reaction to the next 26/11, is in the release last month of the joint air-land doctrine by the HQ Integrated Defence Staff. This is meant to deter calculated action by the GHQ. It could also instead act as spur for terrorist minders.
Without ongoing talks, there is no buffer left. The readiness of the military option will kick in. With both the NSA and the Home Secretary having unambiguously pointed out the ISI connection to 26/11, restraint based on the ‘plausible deniability’ argument would also not suffice. Public opinion has not been prepared on the continuing rationality of restraint. Instead, the government was only being responsive to public opinion in its ‘go slow’ on resumption of composite dialogue. US presence and pressure for restraint this time round may prove counter productive. The government like being seen as being more mindful of US interests than Indian. The right wing, presently in disarray, would get a handle to recoup. Recent interventions by the military in policy making such as on the AFSPA and Kashmir, albeit through the media, suggest that their input would be difficult to resist. Lastly, in case the agitations in Kashmir worsen, India may want to shoot its way out to a ‘solution’.
Indian military reaction by itself would not spell war. While being seen to be ‘doing something’, it would likely be least escalatory. It may be restricted to surgical strikes etc, well short of war. Nevertheless, war could be by inadvertence. Even as India goes about its military reaction, it would be bringing into place deterrence measures against escalation. These could be misread in Islamabad as signs of an imminent offensive. India’s doctrine, ‘Cold Start’, lends itself to such a reading. Pakistani attempts to preempt the same would amount to inadvertent escalation. On the other hand, escalation by design cannot be ruled out to the extent the terror attack is a sponsored one. Pakistan would use the outbreak of war to refocus the world’s attention on the issues left unaddressed by the two states at Islamabad.
The inference is that, engagement closed, the two states are sanguine about the other two options: status quo; and, were that to deteriorate, protection of their interest through military means. A status quo without a terror attack is not impossible, but is a risky proposition. In running the risk, both states apparently have confidence in their conventional war fighting abilities and ability to ward off or withstand attendant nuclear risks. While the former can be understood, the latter calls for comment.
No nuclear risk reduction mechanism exists between the two states. Their last engagement over nuclear issues was in 2007. Having gone nuclear is not enough. Preventing unintended consequences as the logical next step was acknowledged in the Lahore MOU. This is an area that cannot be held hostage to the state of their relationship. Opting for the status quo by the two states makes for a questionable strategy.
India waged Limited War Kargil, mobilized during Operation Parakram and exercised restraint after 26/11. None of these worked. Status quo could present it with the two remaining options left: engage Pakistan meaningfully or go to war. India needs avoid war by engaging Pakistan meaningfully. The interim till December can be used to create the opinion for enabling this.
Ali Ahmed recently left the armed forces to pursue a PhD, CIPOD, SIS at Jawaharlal Nehru University and writes occasionally for 8ak.