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March 14, 2019

As the storm abates


March 14, 2019

During the parliament session on February 28, Prime Minister Imran Khan calmly announced near the end of his speech that the previous night he had been informed that India was about to launch a missile attack on Pakistan and the military was ready to retaliate.

According to government reports, the US and other world powers made urgent diplomatic efforts that fateful night to avert what could have been a nuclear war. The nation and the world stood at the edge of a precipice, gazing at the prospect of a nuclear wasteland.

It is clear that in the recent standoff ensuing from the Pulwama incident, India and Pakistan were a heartbeat away from a nuclear exchange that could have destroyed all life in the two countries. It could also have led to the end of human civilisation in the world. As I had mentioned in an earlier article (‘At the edge of the precipice’, Feb 27), citing Professor Toon and others, the cloud of dust from even a limited nuclear exchange would have gone up 30 to 50 miles into the stratosphere, enveloped the earth in two weeks and then stayed there for years. The consequent nuclear winter would have halted grain production causing death-by-starvation of over two billion people across the world.

As the storm abates, it is time to ponder over the features that have been manifested by this crisis in the current political arrangement in Pakistan and the new light in which the world sees Pakistan and India respectively.

Three aspects of the nation and the present system of government have become apparent. First, at the very outset, when Prime Minister Modi was threatening to go to war, Prime Minister Khan called for peace. He assured PM Modi that Pakistan was ready to address India’s concerns about terrorism in a dialogue. The humanity and wisdom with which PM Imran Khan navigated the crisis have won him worldwide acclaim. Such a leader can start building a humane society and thereby win new respect for the country in the comity of nations.

The people of Pakistan and the world can hope that this nation can rise Phoenix-like, from the flames of terrorist violence, the suffocation of a civil society gripped by bigotry, the nightmare of militant extremist groups defying the writ of the state and the paroxysms of a collapsing economy.

Second, the resilience and fundamental integrity of the nation could be seen as it stood united in the face of aggression. While aspiring to live in peace with their neighbour across the border, every citizen was prepared to die for the motherland. Students and teachers, street vendors and large businessmen, young and old, were ready as one, along with the soldiers ‘to fight to the last breath’. Even the usually feuding political parties closed ranks to stand with the people of the nation and the officers and men of the armed forces. As the people rediscovered themselves, the world stood open-mouthed with wonder at this demonstration of inner strength of a nation they had written off as weak and helpless.

Third, the exemplary performance of the armed forces. The precision and deadly effectiveness of their military operations surprised the other side. What was even more surprising was the imaginative strategic thinking and careful calibration of their response to aggression.

The Indian air force mounted an air attack on Pakistani territory in Balakot on February 26. In the face of this aggression, any sovereign state would have the right of self-defence. Based on the view that the Indian air operation had not caused any human casualties or material damage, the Pakistan military fine-tuned its response so as not to escalate and yet convey a message of intent and capability. This was done by selecting some key military targets deep across the LoC, including their brigade headquarters. Air-to-ground missiles were launched by the PAF, precisely guided to hit open ground in the compound of the military installations but not the buildings themselves. The ascendancy of the PAF was established that day when two of the Indian fighters sent up to intercept, were shot down and a pilot captured.

Here was a battle-hardened military, well equipped, rigorously trained and with high morale. They have now shown that they are amongst the finest fighting forces in the world. After this brief encounter, the calculus of the power of the world with respect to Pakistan and India has begun to change. The Pakistan military has proven its superior war capability and thus has established a deterrent even at a conventional level. Rationality would require that both sides set aside the option of armed force in any form. But for an irrational leader who has set his mind on war, ironically Pakistan’s conventional nuclear deterrent would lower the threshold of nuclear war.

PM Modi was desperate to use a successful conventional military strike against Pakistan as the basis of garnering electoral support. But that stratagem having boomeranged, he would be under party pressure to escalate further. That explains the flurry of diplomatic activity to dissuade India from taking such a risk on the night of February 27.

Fortunately, the world has survived for the moment. But the lesson of the latest confrontation is that the Kashmir issue, which lies at the heart of the no-peace-sometimes-war situation between the two nuclear armed countries, is not just a question of regional security but also of global security. Therefore, it is the right, indeed duty, of the international community to help bring the two countries into a dialogue for a comprehensive solution.

The first and most difficult step in this process is that both sides review their respective national security paradigms. India has to realise that the Kashmir ‘problem’ is no more attributable to armed militant groups based in Pakistan. It is a popular freedom movement that is fuelled by the Indian security forces as they murder, maim and rape in an unsuccessful attempt to suppress the uprising. The Kashmiri freedom struggle is sustained by the sacrifices and heroism of their youth. The sheer scale of brutality perpetuated by the state on its Kashmiri citizens is eroding India’s standing in the comity of nations.

In Pakistan’s case, the government has already declared that they will not allow Pakistan’s soil to be used by any group of non-state actors for terrorism in any foreign country. To show they mean business, they have begun to implement the National Action Plan that stipulates action against any domestic militant organisation. The dossier regarding the Pulwama incident sent by the Indian government is already under serious consideration in pursuance of the National Action Plan.

However, it is important for the Pakistani state also to rethink its national security paradigm. Support for non-state militant organisations in the past has had devastating consequences for national security. The erstwhile assets have proved to be major liabilities. The life of Pakistan’s citizens as well the economy has been mauled with 70,000 casualties and financial damages of $100 billion. The military now has the experience and intellectual capacity to rethink the old paradigm.

Pakistan and India ought to recognise that ending proxy wars and finding a solution to the Kashmir dispute according to the wishes of the Kashmiri people is in the interests of both countries, simply because peace is necessary for development. Such a comprehensive peace is also necessary for the security not only of India and Pakistan but the world.

The writer is a dean at theInformation TechnologyUniversity Lahore.

Email: [email protected]

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