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October 1, 2016

The case against war


October 1, 2016

To say that India-Pak relations have historically been adversarial is now a cliché. Conflict, standoff, and confrontation are buzzwords in South Asian lexicon. The current low in India-Pakistan relations is symptomatic of the above, and is a poignant reminder that normal, good neighbourly relations remain a distant dream.

Ostensibly the current crisis erupted after the Uri attack, and a highly charged Indian response to that blaming Pakistan. But there is a wider context which includes the low state of bilateral relations for about a year and the continued insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir.

India has responded to that with an iron hand, leading to more than a hundred deaths, and a continuing spell of curfew in the affected areas. At the recent UN General Assembly session, this state of affairs was highlighted by PM Nawaz Sharif.

The current imbroglio is not really new in Indo-Pak relations, but this time it has been really hyped up by the media on both sides.  What is different this time is that, while in earlier episodes the governments and leaders would eschew comments, this time the two sides are engaging in a verbal brawl in a game of brinkmanship. Thus it’s a war of words and rhetoric. While the Indian side is overly aggressive, Pakistan is emotive and reactive.

It is understandable that the two neighbours have a troubled past, and the issue of Kashmir has kept them hostile and apart for more than six decades. It could be said that after 9/11, the issue of terrorism caused a big cleavage in an already tortured relationship. The attack on the Indian parliament, the Mumbai attacks and the attack at the Pathankot air base became major irritants that refuse to go away. In all of these, India saw Pakistan’s role. In fact, in Pathankot and Uri, India right away blamed Pakistan, and kept shifting its position (and stance on ‘evidence’).

As the clock ticks, and rhetoric flies high, the two sides are no closer to dialogue. Media persons continue to poison the atmosphere and there are very few sane voices. Surprisingly, the international community is watching on the sidelines with hardly any word of concern or caution at the Kashmir situation; only China has been forthright in its comment. 

The talk of war is inevitable. Of course, any two adversaries that are also neighbours, are ready for war, so to say, but is it so simple, especially when the two are nuclear nations? This is one aspect that the two sides are ignoring while riding the wave of patriotism.

First of all, both countries are democracies. The leaders of both have come to power assuring prosperity, with their agendas focused on the economy. Can they afford to go to war? And what do they gain by going to war?

A big constraint is the nuclear label that both the armies carry; while conventionally, there is an imbalance in the size of forces, but actual operability is based on strategy on the field. It need not be emphasised that a nuclear capability is basically meant for deterrence, whatever the size of your arsenal. Evidence shows that deterrence in South Asia is working, having evolved since the days of ‘existential’ to full spectrum deterrence in the case of Pakistan.

The case of superpower confrontation during the cold war offers a good illustration of the equation between strategic and political stability. The two sides kept building their arsenals of bombers, ICBMS, SLBMs, till the Soviets were choked, and the Americans realised the futility of doing so. Despite the state of arms build-up and military preparedness, there was no war.

While the Indian side may not be thinking in terms of war, the hype gives the impression that it is, prompting the Pakistani side to reiterate its readiness. Pakistan and India fought their last full war almost half a century earlier, and any war carries many imponderables, especially with nuclear overhang. Thus a future war in south Asia would be an altogether new ‘experience’ for both sides in terms of war and its cost (read devastation). Such a war would affect the lives and future of about two billion people.

The current scenario bodes ill for South Asian cooperation, putting the other South Asian countries in a difficult situation. Without India-Pakistan amity they cannot move toward meaningful cooperation, and are denied the dividends of a peaceful Subcontinent.

The recent Indo-France deal for planes has been balanced by Pakistan by inching closer to Russia; the two armies have recently engaged in joint military exercises in Pakistan. Similarly, the recent Indo-US defence collaboration is balanced by Chinese support for Pakistan.

This reflects the broad contours of South Asia’s strategic culture. Pakistan will match or balance India’s strategic overtures. The current posture of hostility has only short-term gains for the Modi government. The Kashmir issue needs to be addressed by India. Without this realisation, the common vision of peace and prosperity in South Asia will remain an unfulfilled dream.

The writer teaches at the Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]


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