Could India and Pakistan become trapped in an escalation that crosses the nuclear threshold? Ramesh Thakur warns that miscalculations and provocations that cross the two countries’ ‘red lines’ are only a misstep away.
In 1982, when the Argentine junta invaded the Falkland Islands, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger warned that no great power retreats forever. Similarly, an aspiring power does not passively absorb the pain of cross-border terrorism forever.
On 29 September, Lt. Gen. Ranbir Singh announced that Indian special forces had destroyed seven “launchpads” in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, killing more than 30 militants and two others protecting them (that is, Pakistani soldiers). India “cannot allow the terrorists to operate across the [Line of Control] with impunity and attack citizens of our country at will,” he said. Pakistan’s military authorities were informed of the operation after the fact.
The ostensible justification for the operation was that India had received specific and credible information about terrorists assembling at these points preparatory to infiltrating India. The real motive, however, was not apprehensions about an imminent attack but retaliation for a past attack. On 18 September, four Pakistan-based militants infiltrated a major army base in Uri in Indian-administered Kashmir, killing 18 soldiers (another died later): the largest fatalities suffered by the Indian military since the 1999 Kargil War.
Amidst the ensuing febrile atmosphere in India, in his first public speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi seemed to reaffirm India’s longstanding policy of strategic restraint, challenging Pakistan to compete with India in the wars on poverty, illiteracy and unemployment instead. But India also launched a major diplomatic offensive against Pakistan at the United Nations, condemning it, in some of the strongest language ever used by Indian officials, as host to the Ivy League of terrorism.
In addition, Pakistan has also suffered the humiliation of the South Asian regional summit, scheduled to have been held in Islamabad next month, being abandoned as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka followed India in cancelling their attendance. The others might well pursue regional integration minus the one recalcitrant.
India has also threatened to revoke Pakistan’s most-favoured-nation trade status and to abrogate the Indus Waters Treaty because, according to Prime Minister Modi, “blood and water cannot flow together”. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif warns this would constitute an act of war.
Washington has urged restraint on both sides and continues to demand that Islamabad rein in terrorists operating on and from its territory, but has not criticised India’s military action. Against the backdrop of the successful US raid on Abbottabad to take out Osama bin Laden in May 2011, the Indian action adds pressure on Pakistan to eliminate terrorists from its soil or be subjected to repeats of such operations.
India’s retaliation proves the Modi government has the political will to respond to Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. As prime minister of a government with a comfortable majority in parliament for the first time in 30 years, Modi has political room to be innovative and take risks. He invited his Pakistani counterpart to his formal swearing-in and also stopped in Lahore, Pakistan on his way back from Afghanistan on 25 December for Sharif family celebrations of a birthday and a wedding. His conciliatory gestures were not limited to Pakistani audiences. Addressing Indian military commanders on board an Indian Navy ship on 15 December, he said: “We are engaging Pakistan to try and turn the course of history, bring an end to terrorism, build peaceful relations, advance cooperation and promote stability and prosperity in our region.”
It would seem these diplomatic overtures were read as symptoms of military weakness rather than political strength. The Uri attack was preceded by an attack on an air force base in Pathankot in January by a six-man team. So now Modi has switched gears from reaching out for accommodation to punitive measures designed to raise the domestic, bilateral, regional and global costs on Pakistan across a broad front.
Will Uri prove an inflection point in the evolution of India’s Pakistan policy? India’s policy of ‘strategic restraint’ was misinterpreted by Pakistan’s generals as a successful Pakistani policy of nuclear neutering of the enemy. A prominent Indian columnist believes proportional military strikes to cross-border terrorist attacks originating from Pakistan must become routine for the Modi government.
Yet India is still a long way away from establishing escalation dominance capability where each fresh level of escalation by Pakistan from India’s proportional military response is met by progressively heavier punitive costs from India’s superior military force. India simply does not have such dominance vis-à-vis Pakistan at every rung of the escalation ladder. Indeed the previous defence minister in the Manmohan Singh government was so determined to preserve his reputation for financial probity that he refused to sanction any big-ticket purchases and India’s defence acquisitions program came to a grinding halt.
To circumvent this, although India has undoubtedly executed clandestine operations in Pakistan before, on this occasion New Delhi broke new ground by announcing its strikes openly. By describing it as “surgical” with limited aims and limited in time as well, India publicly proclaimed the limited goals of the operation and shifted the onus of any further escalation back on Pakistan.
Pakistan’s response has been a confusing mix of denials that Indian special forces had carried out any such operation and bravado about appropriate riposte to acts of aggression by the arch enemy. As with complicity in acts of terrorism in Afghanistan and India, Pakistan’s denials lack plausibility outside the country. But they serve the political purpose of allowing the military to escape the need to respond in kind. Equally, however, it lets other countries off the hook: if Pakistan will not admit to the strikes, they don’t need to censure India for a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.
The gravest question for the world is: will the two countries become trapped in an escalation spiral that crosses the nuclear threshold? Pakistan had exploited the nuclear overhang to nurture jihadist and terrorist proxies to inflict serial attacks across the border. India’s military riposte tells us the threshold of tolerance has been breached. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s grievances on Kashmir remain intact and Modi has been unwilling or unable to check hardline rhetoric and actions by Hindu hotheads that are swelling the ranks of disaffected Muslims. This paves the way for a nuclear war that neither government wants or can afford, but could come about from jihadist provocations, isolated incidents sparking a war, miscalculations of each other’s red lines, rogue military commanders or reckless political leaders. In turn, this makes India–Pakistan tensions the gravest of the many crises currently afflicting the world.