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February 27, 2019

At the edge of the precipice


February 27, 2019

So, the die is cast for another confrontation between two nuclear-armed neighbours. The way it unfolds could determine whether the peoples of this Subcontinent live or die. It began with a suicide bombing in Pulwama. The Indian government quickly held Pakistan responsible. There is a wave of communal frenzy against Kashmiri Muslims, and war hysteria generated by the BJP and much of their media.

On the crest of this tide of anger, Prime Minister Modi gave instructions to India’s armed forces to launch a revenge attack against Pakistan. The decisions regarding the “time, place and type” of attack were devolved to the military. On the other side, Pakistan’s prime minister after consulting the National Security Council authorised the armed forces to respond “decisively and comprehensively” to any aggression by India. Having taken the decision in principle, he ensured a quick reaction, by permitting the military to retaliate immediately to an Indian attack without seeking any further orders from him.

Subsequently, the DG ISPR Maj-Gen Asif Ghafoor made it clear at a press conference that the military stood ready and able to defend the country with a “full spectrum response”. The “full spectrum” in this context means both conventional and nuclear weapons. He subtly warned India that the military had a dual deterrent: even at the conventional level they had the capability to mount “superior force ratios” in every theatre where Indian forces choose to do battle.

The psychological aspect of war, an important dimension of deterrence, is the strength of will of a country’s soldiers. This will was conveyed by Maj-Gen Ghafoor’s demeanour: there was dignity, poise, and a quiet resolve. The words reinforced the message: a sense of fierce determination to defend Pakistan to “...the last bullet, the last breath, the last drop of blood”.

In contrast to the emotionally charged speech by Prime Minister Modi, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s television address was a calm, well-reasoned rebuttal of the Indian allegations ending with a call for peace. He offered to act against non-state groups if evidence was provided that they were engaged in cross-border terrorism. At the same time, PM Khan firmly declared that if India attacked, Pakistan would unhesitatingly retaliate.

To show that Pakistan was prepared to go the extra mile for peace, the government soon announced a ban on Jamaat-ut-Dawa and Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation, which India has long held were involved in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. There are also indications that, following the government’s decision to expedite the earlier National Action Plan against proscribed terror groups, action may be taken against the JeM, the group that India alleges is responsible for Pulwama.

Underlying the passion for revenge that PM Modi and his BJP have ignited is a cool calculation by the BJP that this could turn the political tide in their favour in the forthcoming general elections. So, the unprecedented overtures of peace by Pakistan are likely to be spurned by India as the momentum for a limited war builds up. Yet at a purely rational level, a ‘limited’ military strike by India, beyond the merely symbolic, is likely to be counterproductive. For example, a deep penetration, land-based intrusion across the LOC in Kashmir would be unlikely to make any headway, because of the heavy snows in the area at this time of the year.

An air force operation firing over the horizon conventional missiles from Indian airspace to destroy military posts on the Pakistani side risks matching retaliation by the PAF. Similarly, a surface-to-surface missile attack on installations would elicit a similar response from Pakistan. Finally, a major land-based thrust in southern Punjab or Sindh, to capture a city in Pakistan, is fraught with the danger of escalation spiralling out of control into a nuclear war. There are no winners in this game.

At a rational level there are no gains, military or political, through a military adventure. But then the decisions of individuals and political leaderships are sometimes over-determined by emotion. In this case, PM Modi has whipped up war hysteria to such a pitch that he could start a war without knowing how to end it.

Any modern war once begun enters uncharted terrain. Here probability estimates based on past data can break down in the face of uncertainty. The unexpected can happen: in a situation where there is no room for mistakes, decisions based on imperfect information could cause disasters. Furthermore, in a crisis situation, psychological pressure of unpredictable magnitude could induce irrational or even suicidal decisions. So those who are stoking the fires at present may cause a conflagration that crosses the nuclear threshold into a global catastrophe.

Three elements of such a catastrophe come to mind. First, there is a clear and present danger that India may launch a revenge strike against Pakistan. The problem with such attacks is that they cannot be so precisely calibrated as to keep them below the adversary’s threshold of provocation. In case that threshold is inadvertently crossed, the adversary’s retaliation may be seen as disproportionate and so both sides get onto the escalation ladder.

Second a major ground-based military thrust at some point in the escalation process could be undertaken by India. There is lack of territorial depth in Pakistan and current economic constraints to sustaining an extended conventional war. So Indian forces on Pakistan territory could, God forbid, lead to the use of tactical nuclear weapons which could trigger a strategic nuclear exchange. Nuclear war between India and Pakistan is not just Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD); it could take the rest of the world in its wake.

Third, some leading atmospheric scientists like Brian Toon and his colleagues at the University of Colorado, Boulder, have estimated that the smoke produced by a nuclear war between India and Pakistan would take about two weeks to cover the entire earth. The smoke would rise to between 20 to 50 miles into the stratosphere where there is no rain. Sunlight would be shut out for months and temperatures would fall precipitously.

The group International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War has estimated that this nuclear winter would result in as much as 40 percent reduction in the yield per acre of grain crops. In the resultant food shortages, as many as two billion people, about one-third of humanity, would die of starvation. Toon et al predict that those who survive would be subject to serious diseases resulting from the estimated loss of as much as 50 percent of the earth’s ozone layer; both the terrestrial and aquatic eco systems would suffer devastating damage creating unimaginable misery for human and animal life on this planet.

With nothing short of human survival at stake, it is time for the international community to act urgently to defuse the situation. It is also time for the leadership of India and Pakistan to draw upon the wellsprings of their civilisation that have shaped their deeper consciousness of human solidarity. They need to bring to bear at this critical juncture the message of love, beauty and truth that resonates in their literature, in the mountains, the valleys, the rivers and the deserts of this magnificent land and its people.

We need to nurture in concert the great potential of our people. We need to join hands across borders to overcome poverty, ignorance and disease – not destroy ourselves and all that we have stood for across millennia.

Note: This article was written onMonday, Feb 25.

The writer is a dean at theInformation Technology University Lahore.

Email: [email protected]

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