We’ve now seen overt military action across the acknowledged India-Pakistan international boundary for the first time since the 1971 war, and more significantly, for the first time since both countries became declared nuclear powers in 1998. How bad will things get?
Pakistan wants India to talk; India wants the jihadi cadre torn up. Neither desires war, but both are determined to compel a change in the status quo on their own terms. That inevitably means further military escalation as the two countries struggle to establish a new equilibrium.
While foreign investors, the international community and domestic common sense are likely to restrain any truly rash decision, this moment fits into a larger pattern of intensifying conflict that has endured since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Although India and Pakistan have avoided all-out war, they remain unable to break out of an almost ritualistic cycle of cross-border escalation, international mediation, and temporary thaws. Things are unlikely to be any different this time around.
Historically, the government of India has had little to no success in changing the Pakistan Army’s habit of supporting separatist insurgencies and militant extremists opposed to New Delhi. Pakistan has managed to maintain a sufficiently strong conventional and nuclear deterrence against Indian military retaliation, as well as sufficiently strong diplomatic relationships to avoid isolation. Above all, the Pakistani military has gone to very great lengths to maintain control of national security policy and domestic public opinion.
What distinguishes this episode from the Kargil “mini-war” of 1999 is not India’s use of air power, or crossing the Line of Control, although that is indeed significant. The real kicker is the decision to strike Pakistan in one of its four federal provinces, outside the boundaries of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu & Kashmir.
As noted by many knowledgeable figures, the only thing different about the Indian Army’s “surgical strikes” of September 2016 from similar covert actions under previous governments was that they were loudly trumpeted by prime minister Narendra Modi. Pakistan defused the pressure in part by denying they even took place.
Unlike 2016, the Balakot airstrike has been acknowledged by the Pakistani government, even though there is no independent confirmation yet of the government of India’s claims that a “very large number” of Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorists were “eliminated.” This acknowledgement although satisfying to Indian audiences also guarantees some kind of Pakistani military response.
Any such action will aim to do much more than merely satisfy Pakistani public opinion or boost military morale.
Over the past five years, the Pakistani establishment has repeatedly signalled its eagerness to engage in dialogue to manage tensions, but the Modi government’s policy (led by national security advisor Ajit Doval) has been to abolish business as usual by ratcheting up the pressure on multiple fronts. While Pakistan has largely contained its internal insurgent threats, avoided diplomatic encirclement, and cracked down on all political dissent, it has lacked the leverage to soften the Indian stance in any way. A short, sharp military crisis that is serious enough to frighten the rest of the world into paying attention may be the only way Pakistan can compel such a change.
This would, of course, be an enormously risky gamble for Pakistan. The country’s troops remain heavily tied down in the west by the Pakistani Taliban and Balochi separatists. The army’s unprecedented levels of political repression have pushed the opposition to its policies underground, but grassroots dissent appears to have intensified, even in the heartland of Punjab.
Most seriously, national finances are in poor shape, despite very generous assistance from Saudi Arabia and China. Islamabad cannot count on the unqualified support of these states in escalating confrontation with India.
India, too, has very real reasons for caution. While many governments around the world are sympathetic to India’s fight against jihadist groups, none (other than perhaps Afghanistan) are willing to encourage further escalation against Pakistan. The Modi government and its supporters in the business community and general electorate have ambitious economic goals that cannot be achieved by spooking outside investment and trade.
Meanwhile, the Indian Air Force’s operational size is at its lowest ebb in decades, with only 31 frontline squadrons facing substantially modernised Pakistani and Chinese air forces. The Pakistan Army’s conventional abilities and morale remain significant, and no one takes lightly its threat to use a vastly expanded tactical nuclear arsenal in the event of an Indian incursion.
In short, the end-game is not yet in sight as both countries struggle to escape the constraints imposed by each other. Perhaps Pakistan will blink, and the two will return to trading blows in the shadows. Or perhaps Pakistan will deliberately seek escalation and intervention by market forces and international powers, even if that means renewed pressure to cease its support to terror groups. Either way, we may see a situation where India and Pakistan alike “succeed” in their immediate tactical goals, only to fail strategically.
After 70 years of on-and-off conflict, it should be abundantly clear that neither country is going anywhere, and that neither country is likely to change course under coercion. Yet the subcontinent’s fate remains in its own hands and no one else’s; despite the dark shadows of war, poverty and extremism, it’s better off in that regard than many other parts of the globe (think Syria or Korea).
India and Pakistan have achieved independence from the rest of the world, but they will never achieve independence from each other. Until both countries fully grasp this fact, the incredibly wasteful struggle will endure amidst multiplying risks.