Thursday, 28 February 2019

India and Pakistan must de-escalate the current crisis

At the end of three rounds in the current crisis, it would appear that the two sides, India and Pakistan, are about even. While in round one, on February 14, a Pakistan-sponsored Kashmiri terrorist of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) detonated a car bomb killing over 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel at Pulwama, in Kashmir, in round two the Government of India said that 12 Indian Air Force (IAF) Mirage 2000 jets killing “a very large number” of JeM terrorists at a camp in Balakot, in Pakistan, on February 26.

On February 27, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) targeted military installations in the Rajouri sector, dropping bombs randomly when challenged and chased away by the IAF. In the dogfight, both sides lost a plane each, with the Pakistanis capturing an IAF pilot.

The Indian military actions on February 26 and the Pakistani counter on February 27 received widespread appreciation in respective countries. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan in a televised address expressed a desire for peace through talks, reiterating his message of the previous day to ‘give peace a chance’.

This is potentially a juncture at which the two sides, both having drawn blood, can step back from the brink. Both militaries have displayed their professionalism and the public pressures stand assuaged to a degree. There are constituencies on both sides that are not averse to peace at this stage. There is little political impulse on either side to escalate.

Both sides have in their official statements kept the possibility of peace open. In the Indian statement by its foreign secretary, India reminded Pakistan of its obligation under the Islamabad joint declaration, implicitly signalling that the joint statement of January 2004 between Vajpayee and Musharraf could serve as a possible start point.

Pakistan for its part offered to investigate the Pulwama terror attack but not without receipt of proof from India. At the time of writing, its deputy high commissioner had been summoned by the Indian foreign ministry and handed over the dossier on JeM. India could hold Pakistan to its word, buying time for de-escalation to kick-in. The process of return of the captured pilot through Red Cross channels can reduce the current tension.

As for the option of maintaining the level of hostilities at its current level, neither state may prefer this. Both sides have employed air power, universally regarded as escalatory, and have incurred losses. Escalation would remain inherent if continued at this level. Besides, the consequences of ‘friction’ — the concept that has it that even the simplest activity is rendered difficult in war — would increase tensions; witness the crash of a helicopter at a Budgam airfield in Kashmir unrelated to the aerial skirmish south of the Pir Panjal.

There is a lower level of action available along the Line of Control. Both have upped the temperatures there, which they can persist with to keep their martial ardour ventilated, even as they step off the higher threshold of hostilities.

De-escalation can be found appealing only if the escalation ladder is seen as sufficiently daunting and the probability of ascent high. Khan in his address alluded to imponderables of war making escalation control problematic. This is true in his case since decision-making in Pakistan is with the military. In India’s case, it bears considering if escalation, though feasible in light of Indian conventional advantages, is desirable.

Strategically, the prompt Pakistani counter — stemming from the Pakistan Army holding the national security cards — is a message on its readiness to match step with India. India, the stronger power, would require to up-the-ante to subdue Pakistan, which can only be by resort to conventional power. Even if the nuclear level is discounted, the contest would be tough, could prove a long haul and will have an unpredictable escalation dynamic, which could later bring the nuclear dimension to the table.

Politically, India is at the cusp of national elections. It can do without being buffeted and distracted by terrorist action. Since there is no immediacy for sterner action, India can await the formation of a new government and revert, with a fresh democratic mandate behind it, to any long-term harsh measures or take up the talks offer of Pakistan.

Besides, the opposition parties in a meeting on February 27 disapproved of the ruling party seemingly cornering credit for the military’s professional showing.

Finally, the side that takes any further step militarily is likely to lose international support since there is consensus globally on both sides stepping back. Internal political fissures imply lowering of hostilities threshold is necessary.

Of the two options — hardline or talks — the hardline option of compelling Pakistan to wrap up the JeM is the more difficult one. India can settle for deterrence, based on default retaliation for higher order terrorist strikes, which is now the new line in the sand drawn by surgical strikes and the aerial strike.

As for talks, India is not averse to talks to end terrorism. A gear shift to hold Pakistan to its word in Islamabad of January 2004 to discontinue terror requires de-escalation as next step.