Friday, 5 October 2018

India-Pakistan: How dangerous are the waters?

In the run up to the Parakram Parv, the pan-India observation of the second anniversary of the surgical strikes, Army chief General Bipin Rawat, expressed his belief that "there is a need for one more action (surgical strike)". He later added that surgical strikes are not the only manner of hitting Pakistan back. He wished to keep the option up India’s sleeve, a surprise.
In reminding Pakistan that it better keep its jihadis in check, particularly as the tenth anniversary of the Mumbai 26/11 attacks is coming up, his remarks were useful for refreshing deterrence.
At the receiving end of his signalling, the Pakistani military spokesperson claimed its military is ready for war, pointing out that being unprepared for war was to invite it. Alongside, he took care to helpfully point out — in case it has missed Indian notice — that Pakistan is a nuclear power.
The episode’s happy ending was not fortuitous. Taking cue, Pakistan, aware that the onus was on it to escalate or otherwise, wisely resorted to the fiction that the surgical strikes never took place.India does not need any reminding. One of the salient features of the September 29, 2016, surgical strikes was that these were cognizant of escalatory possibilities. They were deliberately kept limited, and by going public with the limited nature and intent early the following day, India’s director general of military operations nipped any potential for escalation.
However, there is no guarantee that the next round will be as tame as the past one, especially since by revealing the footage of the surgical strikes India has shown up Pakistan’s lie. Besides, home minister Rajnath Singh recently claimed that India has given Pakistan yet another retaliatory bloody nose.
The unedifying exchange late last month between the two perennial rivals in the august hall of the UN General Assembly in New York suggests that the threat of crisis ending up a confrontation shall persist for some time.
Even if India keeps its opening gambit calibrated, Pakistan may not be able to play ball. It follows then that if it is duly prepared as its military spokesperson claims, then it has an ace up its sleeve.
The onus of upping the ante would then be on India. Already in election mode, the government would not like egg on its face. It may be forced — egged on by a military wanting to even the score and a public sentiment whipped up by an unthinking media — to ‘do something’.
Pakistan’s alacrity and India’s reaction may push both to a precipice, from which neither would not like to back down.
Both would be propelled by a belief in what is called ‘escalation dominance’. The term implies a self-assessment that a side is able to prevail at the level the conflict is fought.
Pakistan believes it dominates the sub-conventional level through its use of terror. With a turn to surgical strikes and its variants, India believes it has acquired ‘escalation dominance’.
Checkmated at the sub-conventional level, Pakistan may up the ante, believing that it has trumped India’s conventional advantage by its introduction of tactical nuclear weapons into its armoury.
Both countries can believe in ‘escalation dominance’ simultaneously, but both cannot have it at the same time, when push comes to shove. A side will prevail, prompting the other to likewise step on the accelerator. This constitutes the potential for a crisis script to go awry.
With diplomacy at a low ebb, there are no buffers left. The interim between now and the 2019 elections is therefore one of heightened tensions on two counts.
First, Pakistan, listening-in to Indian strategic debates, may be heartened by the army chief’s confession that India is only prepared to fight previous wars.
Second, it also knows that India’s Army is moving towards reconfiguring its forces in line with the precepts of the ‘cold start’ doctrine it adopted over a decade back. For the Pakistan army, a tryst sooner may be better than later once the Bipin Rawat reforms start kicking in.
While the political undesirability of confrontation degenerating into conflict is well grasped, there are military factors that tend a different way.
The upshot then is that the interim till elections needs tiding over by the Narendra Modi government discreetly restoring the buffer. While preserving it from uncertainty, it can prove a start point for the next government in 2019.