This is certainly a new age of India-Pakistan bilateral relations in which both sides are set to maximise costs of conflict for the other to attain their respective geopolitical goals. In order to express its anger, Delhi is shutting down means of dialogue with Islamabad, as had happened in the past. So, it has pulled out of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit along with other states influenced by Delhi or simply angry with Pakistan. The idea is to isolate Islamabad and build its image as a rogue state. From eliminating terrorist leadership to a diplomatic victory are goals that require time. There are no short-term gains to be made that could immediately provide a fillip to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image as a strong leader, which is certainly one of the goals.
The international response
While Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan will join hands with New Delhi, there are other extra-regional but more important states that are watching the ongoing situation but are deterred from joining India’s condemnation of Pakistan because they are either not entirely convinced of who was behind the attack in Uri or are generally wary of what the diplomatic and military escalation will lead to. This is certainly the impression we get from talking to foreign diplomats in Islamabad, who are wary of the situation but ready to hear the argument that the border across Kashmir is difficult to penetrate.
In any case, the international community is reluctant to take measures against Pakistan, even if convinced that there was some involvement in case of Mumbai or Pathankot, because the reaction from other states is based on their own calculations of their interests. For instance, concerned about saving Britain from terror attacks, the government and its agencies in London feel they benefit far more by engaging with the military and its intelligence agencies in Pakistan, that have helped them capture terrorists at home. It would take a lot to convince the world of Pakistan’s involvement and for concrete steps to be taken against it.
There is even greater fear of what the war of words might lead to, an actual conflict that raises the threat of a nuclear exchange. Unlike the past, when India had the capacity to take Pakistan to war, it cannot do so any more. While limited escalation may be possible, the probability of a reaction is also ensured. In the recent past, Pakistan seems to have invested in tactical nuclear weapons in response to the threat of a possible limited-scale operation being launched from India. While analysts could draw conclusions regarding the Pakistan military’s rationality, causing it to withdraw from Kargil, a similar reaction may not be expected in case of a military incursion or operation inside Pakistan. This is certainly what I learnt from a conversation with the then air chief, (late) Air Chief Marshal Mushaf Ali Mir. While talking about the difference between the 1999 Kargil conflict and the 2002 escalation, he was of the view that while Kargil was a case of the Pakistan army trying to challenge India’s control of its territory, an issue on which the air force and navy did not see eye-to-eye with the army, the 2002 deployment of armed forces across the border was a different matter. In 2002, there was no friction amongst the three services regarding the need to repel any possible attack from New Delhi.
Terrorism and limited options
Even the jihadi organisations understand the logic of escalation. In fact, as argued by Pakistan’s renowned physicist and political activist, Dr. A.H. Nayyar, the terror groups have become emboldened since India and Pakistan went overt with their nuclear capabilities. They have demonstrated greater adventurism because they understand that New Delhi has limited options. The security experts can boast about at least half of India surviving a nuclear war while Pakistan has less of a chance to do so — however, losing half of its population is not a cost that any leader would like to bear.
The prospects of a conventional war would always raise the spectre of a nuclear showdown which makes the international community worry. Perhaps one of the calculations of a terror outfit is that the fear of a nuclear holocaust will draw world attention towards solving the Kashmir issue. If the international community will not attend to human rights violations in Kashmir, it will certainly stop and listen to rumblings of a possible war. If indeed groups across the border in Pakistan were involved in the recent attack, it was to provide fillip to an indigenous struggle and indicate to local Kashmiri fighters that there is help available. India could talk about Balochistan, Gilgit-Baltistan or Pakistan's Kashmir but two out of the three territories do not have a history of strong separatist movements.
Despite the angry rhetoric, it seems to be a slow-paced war, which, thus far, is limited to playing to a domestic audience. While New Delhi has told its people how Pakistan is about to be eliminated from the world map, Islamabad tells its people how India has failed in doing much and the international community is listening carefully to its plea on behalf of the Kashmiri people and is ready to condemn human rights atrocities in the Kashmir Valley, which is most likely the purpose behind escalation of conflict (that is, if terror groups from across the border were involved in it). The internalising of conflict on both sides of the border is worrisome because it tends to raise expectations and inadvertently influence decision-making at some later stage.
India-Pakistan battles, both verbal or using actual firepower, or prospects of peace, are protracted affairs. There are no quick short-term favourable outcomes through immediate escalation as many on social media expect. There is a lot of experimentation that will have to be done to see what changes minds on the other side of the border. Certainly in the short term, the war rhetoric has allowed the military in Pakistan to further cement nationalism and market its new socio-political discourse. Despite Nawaz Sharif following the script till the last letter, he is still touted as a culprit, Mr. Modi’s poodle. Such an image is meant to diminish the Prime Minister's capacity, if he is left with any, to effectively control the foreign policy agenda and to reduce the civilian government's space to manoeuvre during the change of guard at the GHQ.
While it is up to Mr. Modi to calculate benefits from scrapping most favoured nation (MFN) status or the Indus Waters Treaty, such initiatives have little prospects of short-term gains. Notwithstanding the fact that opinion in Punjab had changed regarding India with greater keenness to do trade, it did not turn into a strong enough lobby to influence how the generals think. This lobby needs to be developed. Granted New Delhi feels frustrated with lack of action, the fact of the matter is that what is being played in the Subcontinent is a game of chess, not tic-tac-toe. The moves are plenty, complex and time consuming. At this stage, those from Pakistan doing business with India have access to indirect sources of trade through a third country.
As for water, while diverting a shared resource will not have an immediate impact, Pakistan is likely to raise the issue at international fora. New Delhi may find it difficult to sell manipulation of the treaty through the prism of isolating Pakistan internationally. But definitely these are costs that Islamabad would have to think very carefully about. Even if it was not involved in Uri, it must think seriously about allowing certain terror groups to operate inside Pakistan with impunity.
Under the circumstances, both states will benefit tremendously if they back off from the war rhetoric and return to the negotiating table. What makes peace harder is Delhi ignoring the indigenous strife in Kashmir as business as usual. There is a generation of people angry and frustrated, and the Modi government must think outside the box to develop relations with them. This is perhaps the only short- to medium-term approach it ought to adopt. Peace in Kashmir will probably go a long way as compared to making appeals to the people of Pakistan and calling them to a poverty reduction competition.
Ayesha Siddiqa is an Islamabad-based columnist.