Indo-Pak Conflict and the national egos – Issue 35 Volume 10

I was trying to figure out from a much knowledgeable friend about a particular American academic’s relationship with the Pakistan military. Described by many as a conflictual bilateral relationship because the person in question often sharply questions some of the military’s policies, there are friendly ties under the surface. I couldn’t understand how and why the military would entertain this person despite some of the seemingly unkind comments. The academic is also allowed to frequently travel to Pakistan and conduct research. The friend was very kind in explaining to me that despite the rising anti-Americanism in Pakistan, the military establishment continues to enjoy a fairly good working relationship with Washington. He further expanded on his statement saying that no matter what the gora (white man) does to us, we still tolerate the treatment, but not from India. The army had a soft corner for the academic because some of his work supported a stance favourable to the Pakistan military’s position on a certain matter pertaining to India.

This chat came to my mind as I sat down to write about the recent India-Pakistan tension — which was triggered by the death of five Indian soldiers in a cross-border raid on 12 August — and what could be gained or lost by increasing tension on both sides of the border and whipping up public frenzy.

Notwithstanding the fact that a State and society will protest if it believes that it has been attacked, it is also critical to rationally calculate how far a country can go with pushing up frenzy. This is important for the decision-maker rather than the general public. But before one gets to answer that, it is necessary to understand the various explanations for the rising anger in India.

To begin with, a lot of people are talking about electoral politics as a main cause. A hawkish versus a dovish stand will make or break the sitting, or even the next, government. So, right-wing forces try to raise the bar by vandalising an exhibition of Pakistani painters as if these artists contribute to policies in their country. But the message is for the ruling Congress party, which then retaliates by behaving almost the same as the BJP.

Interestingly, the urge to appear more nationalist than the other has increased the Indian military’s overall significance in national security policy-making, which is a dangerous route to take. But then it is India’s internal business that influences the South Asian region to the extent that the kind of decisions India takes — and if it is predominantly influenced by the military — will determine peace and conflict in the region. The Pakistan military’s influence on national security decision-making and its implications for regional security is a case in point.

Both the Indian concern for electoral victory or frustration is understandable. However, it will be interesting to see what kind of scenario building has been made in India to access gains that may accrue from the escalation of tension, especially if the national security apparatus on the other side feels that New Delhi has limited options, and that it must not try to behave like a gora country.

Let’s take into account the game of chicken or snowdrift from the game theory model. Two drivers are supposed to drive from opposite ends towards each other with the intention of making the other blink but not budging himself/herself. The one who swerves at the end is a chicken. But the most significant conclusion is that the cost of one actor not budging is disastrous. From the above game theory perspective, the conclusion is that India may protest but has limited capacity to raise the cost for Pakistan due to the fear of nuclear mutual assured destruction in place.

The Pakistan Army and its strategists are concerned about India’s ‘Cold Start’ strategy, which seems to be an emphasis on developing the tactical nuclear weapons potential. The idea is that with conventional arms imbalance on one hand and tactical weapons on the other, the fear of an inadvertent or deliberate nuclear war starting in the region will keep India in check.

What this means is that vandalising paintings of Pakistani artists, threatening offices of Pakistan International Airlines or behaving like hooligans outside the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi may not impress the army headquarters in Rawalpindi. Besides, with Pakistan generally keeping calm, it is expected that India might come out looking like a spoilsport, who is excessively trying to whip up tension, which, in turn, is not good for the plan of withdrawal of US-led troops from Afghanistan in 2014.

Notwithstanding the criticism of Pakistan by numerous American scholars and diplomats, the fact is that American and British missions in Islamabad are busy cosying up to the military. Irrespective of the belief that Afghanistan will not return to the pre-1990s situation, when the Taliban dominated the country, the reality is that different groups of the Taliban control around 60-65 percent of territory. With foreign forces gone, the control may increase. It will probably still not materialise into a 1990s kind of a situation. However, an increase in the Taliban’s influence cannot be ruled out.

But more importantly, Rawalpindi realises that the West is keen to keep Pakistan’s military on its side. No wonder the US and the UK stay away from any alternative narrative and stick to what Pakistan’s establishment prefers. In fact, the new narrative, which is being deliberately encouraged about Afghanistan, is that it is an India-Pakistan problem. This means that there is some appetite in western capitals for a conflict increasing in South Asia after 2014, especially between India and Pakistan. Since the problem belongs to the two neighbours, they will surely try to solve it to their advantage, which could mean an escalation of tension. Furthermore, such a strategy could mean greater acceptance of violent non-State actors who will play a critical role in the post-2014 South Asia.

Strategically, the above scenario puts India and Pakistan on an equal footing, which is an amazing development if seen from the perspective of the initially described post-colonial thinking. Nuclear deterrence does increase the risk of conflict, which, given India’s economic stakes, could actually be higher for it. This was certainly the calculation of former ISI director general Ahmed Shuja Pasha. Talking to the German media about the risk of war after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, he had said: “At first, we thought there would be a military reaction. After the attacks, the Indians were deeply offended and furious, but they are also clever….” Meaning they howled and growled but didn’t start a war.

The issue with the involvement of non-State actors is that the absence of “evidence presentable in a court of law” argument is always helpful, especially in creating doubts in the mind of the international community. It must not be forgotten that US President Barack Obama and his regime have absolved Pakistan’s military of any involvement in even hiding Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. So, with the gora on board and a renewed sense of confidence, Rawalpindi may have little to lose compared to New Delhi. There are certainly no clear answers to how the issue may be resolved, but greater aggression is definitely a dead-end street.

There are those in India who want to build a sky-high wall between the two countries. The only problem is that it still wouldn’t keep the violent non-State actors out. However, it may scare away those Pakistanis who have never wished India ill and want the conflict resolved. Someone could argue that why care about those Pakistanis? Even they should be taught a lesson and made to appreciate the price of war with India. I wish someone really explained to both sides that our methodology for cost calculations is very skewed and different from the rest of the world. Pakistan is already paying a high financial and security cost but seems to be living with it. So, this could pass too. Ultimately, it is the colour of the skin that is important.

Note: This article originally published here.