Pakistan and India’s cold war

Updated 15 Oct, 2016 06:01pm
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the closing ceremony of the 18th SAARC summit in Nepal on November 27, 2014 | Reuters
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the closing ceremony of the 18th SAARC summit in Nepal on November 27, 2014 | Reuters

Pakistani and Indian military officials have been exchanging signals in the weeks following the Uri attacks on September 18, 2016. With the frequent use of cryptically phrased words and sentences, these exchanges are important in understanding how a full blown crisis between the two nuclear armed nations was prevented.

No transcript of the exchange of views between the generals of the two military establishments is available. If there were any telephonic conversations during the crisis, those were never revealed to the public or media.

The military leaders appear in their statements mature enough to convey to each other that they were in no mood of escalating the crisis, despite the charged atmosphere generated by the Uri attack and the subsequent surgical strikes reportedly carried out by the Indian army across the Line of Control.

Military statements emanating from Islamabad (besides brandishing their military prowess) always ended by stating that the escalation was in nobody’s interest. Similarly, senior officials from the Indian army indicated a desire to not aggravate the crisis: while releasing details of the so-called surgical strikes, they would announce that they have no intention to cross the Line of Control again and had stopped further operations.

Breakdown of relations at the top political level is bound to have an adverse impact on the regional security situation.

There are, however, a number of public statements from both sides containing summarised versions of these exchanges. A common refrain contained in Islamabad’s military statements was that Pakistan was prepared for “every kind of response”, which – in plains words – indicated readiness to use tactical nukes to respond to any military provocation from across the border.

At no point in time was the situation on the verge of getting out of hand. On the surface, there was much jingoism on both the sides. However, behind the scenes, military officials continued to talk to each other. Washington – which in such situations in the past wasted little time in sending top diplomats and intelligence officials to talk to decision makers in New Delhi and Islamabad – continued to express confidence in the fact that military officials in the two countries were in regular contact. However, relations between India and Pakistan cannot be allowed to be based on such shaky grounds as exchanges between military commanders. There are a multitude of ways in which one can misunderstand or misperceive the other’s intentions. What has worsened the situation is the fact that the Uri attack and alleged surgical strikes have brought the relations between the political leadership of two countries to a breaking point.

This virtual breakdown of relations at the top political level is bound to have an adverse impact on the regional security situation. This remains hidden from the public eye, but its effects on the security situation will become visible in the months and years ahead. As the BJP government will become more vocal and vehement in the public about its desire to isolate Pakistan in the international arena, it will leave little space for Pakistan’s political and military leadership to dismiss the notion that cross-border attacks such as the one on the Uri basecamp and mass casualty attacks such as the one in Mumbai on 2008 are a threat to regional peace and stability. A senior government official told that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has asked his national security advisor to remain in touch with his Indian counterpart and share intelligence information with him whenever it is required. This is a strong indication that the Pakistani government already sees cross-border attacks as a threat to regional peace and security.

Pakistani soldiers at the Line of Control | AFP
Pakistani soldiers at the Line of Control | AFP

Hostility and acrimony, however, will make it very difficult for Sharif to publicly agree with India against any future attack, let alone cooperate to investigate such attacks. Secondly, as influential American experts have recently indicated (in reports that are publicly available), Washington’s influence on New Delhi – to convince it not to embark on a military adventure in reaction to a mass casualty attack – has decreased substantially. Together, the two factors could lead to an escalation that no one wants.

The Indian government, indeed, is under pressure from the educated, urban middle class in India to respond to the attacks militarily. The views of these sections of society are being championed by a number of extremist groups in India. This line of reasoning has invented a military logic for a military response against Pakistan, having a “stability/instability syndrome” — a term borrowed from Western political theory, invented during the Cold War, to describe relations between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The argument goes like this: both Pakistan and India have nuclear weapons and fully tested delivery systems, which makes war impossible between the two countries and thus strategic stability is attained in the region. But, on the ground level, this strategic stability ensures a kind of instability which Pakistan uses to allow cross-border terrorism on Indian soil, because it is certain that there will be no military response from the Indian side. Some in the Indian military establishment have started arguing that India cannot use this strategic stability to its advantage by carrying out military operations on Pakistani territory without provoking a response from the Pakistan side. This seemingly impossible situation from an Indian point of view has given birth to the Cold Start (military doctrine), which talks about a limited military operation on Pakistani soil by hitting at and destroying Pakistani military capability without provoking a nuclear response from Pakistan.

At no point in time was the situation on the verge of getting out of hand.

Obviously, such kind of military thinking can emerge in a situation where mistrust is the order of the day and the absence of any kind of direct and effective communication is the norm. The absence of effective and trustworthy political institutions at the bilateral level further complicates the problem. In the past, bilateral summit meetings were used as stopgap arrangements to reduce mistrust. The frequent disruption in bilateral talks over the past one-and-a-half decade, however, has prevented the development of any bilateral institutions for diplomatic and political exchanges.

In such an unstable scenario, any mass casualty attack in India can put the region in flames — which will be very difficult to extinguish. Developing durable political and diplomatic institutions to sustain peace and dialogue between India and Pakistan is the only way to prevent that.

The writer is a special correspondent for Dawn News and tweets @Umer_1967.