Friday, 1 February 2019

Book review

Happymon Jacob, Line on Fire: Ceasefire violations and India-Pakistan escalation dynamics, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2019.
Happymon Jacob, an associate professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, is no stranger to the strategic community. He acquired a higher profile over the past couple of years through his column on strategic affairs in The Hindu and anchoring an interview-based program with The Wire. In his writings, he has capitalized on his engagement over the past decade with the Track II processes between India and Pakistan, having participated in the Chaophraya and Ottawa dialogues. He heads the independent research initiative to monitor ceasefire violations, the Indo-Pak Conflict Monitor. For the lay reader, this background places Jacob as a useful source to turn to for understanding the current impasse in Indo-Pakistan relations in the term of the present government, best illustrated by the reactivation of the Line of Control (LC).

Over the book’s 400 pages, Jacob makes the case that the tension along the Line of Control has potential to spiral into conflict, one that can go nuclear. He contests the prevalent opinion that ceasefire violations (CFVs) – the localized exchanges of ordnance along the LC - are manageable and are perhaps a useful vent. He believes this complacency is unmindful of what he calls ‘autonomous military factor’ (AMF), tendencies towards escalation arising from the institutional life of the military and in military culture. He believes that the media-fanned nationalism in society may tie down the political decision maker’s hands in case CFVs are aggravated by egregious violence. Forced to the up the ante in response – in a variant of the surgical strikes – the two sides may be faced with prospects best described figuratively as an escalation ladder or a slippery slope.

Some three decades into the heightened face-off between the two sides, readers are familiar with what could occur should the precarious situation deteriorate. The escalated exchanges on the LC could trigger India’s Cold Start doctrine, its military’s intention to launch proactive offensives at the conventional level in case of subconventional provocation by Pakistan. A plausible and much discussed scenario has it that these offensives could in turn cross the proverbial trip wires, leading to Pakistani nuclear first use. What might follow is conjectural, but India promises ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation to nuclear strike on it or its troops anywhere. Such retaliation might wipe Pakistan off the map and in its aftermath reduce South Asia to an environmental wasteland.

It is important that this horrific image be conjured up here to show up the dangers from the unwillingness of both sides to wrap up their seventy year old problem and, at a minimum, implement the plethora of already agreed confidence building measures on the LC. For starters, Jacob’s recommendation is that the understanding on the ceasefire on the LC dating to November 2003 be reduced to a written document for mutual implementation in letter and spirit.

Jacob is particularly interesting in his revealing chapter on AMFs, aptly titled ‘Military gamesmanship and moral ascendancy’. While these are generally known within the army, his book serves the purpose of wider dissemination. He includes ‘fun and gamesmanship’, ‘emotional state’, ‘personality traits of commanders’ and ‘revenge firing and ‘honour killings’’ in AMFs, to name a few. Amongst other reasons, such ground level impetus results in decapitations etc. He records the baleful effect such occurrence has on public perceptions on the villainy of the other side and the disruption in efforts to mend fences. His expectation is that knowledge of the internal workings of the two militaries and the resulting dynamics on the LC can lead to mitigatory action on this key escalatory variable.

He brings out a little known feature of the common border, that there are no mutual ground rules. The last inconclusive meeting on this issue of the border ground rules committee was in 1987. The two sides agreed at their third round of the expert level dialogue on conventional confidence building measures in 2006 to wrap up an agreement. Little has changed since on paper, while on ground the border guarding forces are exchanging mortar fire along the border (referred to as working boundary by Pakistan) in southern Jammu and Kashmir. What this tells of is the shirking of responsibility of the concerned bureaucracies and the lack of political oversight on both sides at the unacceptable cost of a reasonable working environment for the border guards and a modern repertoire of professional engagement between the two sides.

The release of Jacob’s book drew attention to the aspect of surgical strikes. Surgical strikes of late September 2016 have been kept in the public view by the ruling party attempting to gain electorally from its showing on national security, using the strikes as illustration. Jacob not only brings out that there was nothing original about these. In fact, his revelations on the aptly named operation, Operation Kabaddi, suggest that a previous government early this century had a much more ambitious trans LC operation up its sleeve, one it was forced to abort by the impact of 9/11 on the region. The surgical strikes of 2016 were different in that the previous trans-border forays were limited in scope to a single locale. Surgical strikes were instead executed over a wider front, at some eight separate locations. According to Jacob’s sources who include the army commander at the time and a tactical level commander charged with executing a portion of the operation, Operation Kabaddi was instead the planned capture of some 25 Pakistani posts.

What this suggests is that the military has a limited border war as an option. It’s the military’s job to present options for the political master to make a choice. Since the exercise of such an option is unlikely to remain unchallenged by Pakistan, it has potential so spill over onto the plains with the attendant dangers in the scenario mentioned earlier. This ought to energise readers and instigate them in their capacity as voters to exercise their power over the political class to, firstly, keep military options at bay, and, secondly, and more importantly, resolve differences that can lead up to conflict. What has been happening instead is that political formations are manipulating the nationalist instinct among people to keep from taking up the problems – border and territorial - to the logical end of conflict resolution. As a result, India has over 5000 km of unsettled borders with two of its significant neighbours. Lest it slip the mind, both happen to be nuclear armed. Under the cover of nuclear deterrence, rather than indulge in protracted conflict management, India would do well to meaningfully settle the hold over issues from last century.

Jacob’s cautionary book is timely. It expands on his earlier monograph on the issue at the United States Institute of Peace. He must be complimented for taking the painstaking research forward and, without institutional and financial assistance, running a civil society watch dog on CFVs. To the extent his initiative has found support on both sides, enabling his travel to both sides of the LC for a first-hand account, there appears to be silver lining. Through his travelogue that can be taken as an accompaniment to this book, The Line of Control: Travelling with the Indian and Pakistani Armies, the practitioners on the two sides appear to be sending a signal to citizens – the principals - to influence their agents – politicians – to set right the conditions that can lead up to our region going awry in short order.