Has India’s Kashmir Caper Given Pakistan Reason for War?
No roll back
The trio, Modi-Shah-Doval, can be excused for being in a self-congratulatory mood. For a month now they have stared war and internal rebellion in the face, and neither feared possibility has made an appearance. Kashmir hasn’t erupted just yet because it is under the jackboot of an undeclared emergency and its associated measures. Pakistan is taken as deterred, by periodic messaging such as by the defence minister on No First Use, or the army chief on preparedness.
From this position of strength, the Indian government has through its foreign minister reiterated its longstanding position to interlocutors, in this case the European Union, that it is open to talks with Pakistan once terrorism ceases. It has taken care to muddy the waters for any future talks by having its defence minister claim that any such talks will only be on Pakistan’s vacating occupied Kashmir.
Even if it comes to talks, with the new constitutional arrangement in place reducing Kashmir to a union territory, it is inconceivable that Pakistan can persuade India to undo the same. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, miffed at his offer of talks being ignored, has written of talks on the condition that India rolls back its actions. Even so, Pakistan’s foreign minister has kept open the door for talks, sensibly decrying the only alternative Pakistan has other than abandoning all hope: war.
With both sides talking of talks, optimistically, it may be taken that the worst of the latest crisis is over with. Doing so would be to breathe easy rather prematurely. Instead, each side is more likely posturing to appear the more sober of the two in the run up to the UN General Assembly session to be addressed by the two prime ministers.
Both are waiting with bated breath to see what Kashmiris might do over their loss of special status and incarceration ever since, once the government progressively removes the restrictions in place as promised. On that response will turn the two sides’ next moves.
If the Kashmiris are vociferous and the Indian security forces ham-handed, then Pakistan will likely be sucked willy-nilly into the situation.
Its army cannot be seen to be standing idly by. Even as it would lay the groundwork for a renewed insurgency, using the newfound cannon fodder of enraged Kashmiri youth, it may force a crisis, to provide cover to insert the required war material and influx of foreign fighters. Business-as-usual infiltration cannot help put in place the infusion required for an insurgency surge.
India could wait Pakistan out and deal with the situation as it develops, or it could choose to be proactive. It claims to have changed tack on infiltration and may follow through with its new policy of surgical strikes to preempt Pakistan’s reignition of proxy war. Pakistan has voiced its fears that this might be done under cover of a ‘black operation’ as an excuse.
In short, South Asia is not out of the woods quite yet. An inadvertent war may yet occur. But, can a planned, deliberate resort to war, albeit a limited one, be ruled out altogether?
It is well said that initiating war is perhaps the most fraught sovereign decision. No side risks a war it cannot win. Up front, a planned war is not one that either side could want for now. Both are on a downward economic turn. Neither can prevail over the other in a short war. This is true for India as well, despite its conventional advantage being kept honed by selective procurements lately.
This military equation has an underside. The Pakistan army cannot take the setback it has suffered in what it considers a key area of national interest with equanimity. It cannot be discounted that Pakistan may well be the first state to start a war unsure of winning it.
For the moment, it appears to have allowed the civilian side to take the lead. Pakistan’s diplomatic offensive, led by Imran Khan self-styled as ‘Kashmir’s ambassador to the world’, has drawn blood, in forcing the first consideration of the Kashmir question at the United Nations Security Council, albeit in a closed door, informal session.
Since India has swiftly moved to consolidate the change, for instance through having President Donald Trump backtrack on his earlier offer of mediation, the civilian side may not gain any appreciable traction.
Yet, Pakistan would have set the stage for military action. Its messaging internationally, including by reference to the nuclear context to the crisis, has been that India’s constitutional maneuver has vitiated security. Having put the international community on notice, in light of inaction on its part Pakistan could then survey a military option.
This explains Imran Khan’s reference to Munich and his extending of the tenure of the army chief.
Two factors will influence such consideration. First, in case any uprising in Kashmir is put down with a heavy hand, the UN human rights watchdog envoys, ignored by India for now, may pitch in. And if the civilian uprising succeeds in embarrassing India, Pakistan may not wish to be seen interceding overtly.
Second, the situation on the Afghanistan front is culminating, with Pakistan’s sponsorship of the Taliban at the negotiation table. India may wish to spoil Pakistan’s party in case of a turn to negotiations going Pakistan’s way.
Both factors will increase the Indian propensity for a military showdown, increasing its inclination to preempt under its new, proactive policy.
A military resort by Pakistan would certainly amount to being a situation of threat to international peace and security, forcing the Security Council’s hand. It would risk being called out as the aggressor.
However, the next crisis outbreak would likely be muddy since India may also make a bid for preemption. Thus, the Security Council, with China playing its part, may be inclined to let Pakistan off the hook.
While there are costs to war, which will surely see Pakistan hit the bottom economically, war initiation has some gains too for Pakistan. It will focus Security Council attention, helping mitigate any nuclear risks run, besides putting Kashmir - the bone of contention - indubitably in the Council’s sights.
It will set back any notion of a $5 trillion Indian economy by at least a decade.
It will keep Pakistan’s army atop the domestic power structure, for having acted against India’s wilful puncturing of Pakistan’s jugular.
War being a gamble, Pakistan could either win or lose. Setting back the Hindutva project thus will alleviate Pakistan’s fears as voiced by Imran Khan.
However, if India manages to punch credibly - even without a knockout - it would make Narendra Modi a ‘lord of war’, giving him his 1971, or Indira moment.