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Is an Indo-Pak war on the cards?

  • Published at 12:02 am October 25th, 2016
  • Last updated at 07:32 am October 25th, 2016
Is an Indo-Pak war on the cards?

In the context of the recent Uri attack on an Indian army camp in Kashmir, where 18 Indian soldiers died, an Indian counter-action in the form of a limited surgical strike across the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir has created a tense situation between the two nuclear neighbours.

Right-wing political forces on both sides, including the media, are adding fuel to the fire quite unwisely.

Meanwhile, two more attacks have taken place in other Indian security force camps at the hands of militants where one more Indian soldier and a few militants were killed.

Pakistani instigation was apparently discovered by Indians in some past attack on civilian and military targets in India itself, by non-state actors, but sponsored, they suspected, by some of the Pakistani state apparatus.

Fear of escalation

In an escalated situation, if India undertakes too strong an action against Pakistan for future deterrence, the Pakistani reaction would be anybody’s guess -- it’s like dealing with a crazy guy who might do something drastic even if it causes considerable harm to him.

Many fear that chain reactions may escalate any formal military initiation to the nuclear level. Hatred for non-Muslim nations, especially India, is so ingrained in Pakistani society that most of its intelligentsia, of whatever rationality, actually position themselves tactfully in a conservative fashion. You can’t really blame them.

With the present human rights situation in Kashmir already worsened, India has given an additional reason to the Pakistani hawks.

Poor handling of the agitations by the Kashmiri youth has weakened India’s moral strength to a considerable degree.

On the other hand, many in India also want to maintain its “sensible, moderate” impression at the global stage which brings long-term dividends. Their arguments also make a case for caution and restraint in the context of the Uri attack.

The Indian position

The tough options that many emotion-struck Indians -- that includes some public figures and media commentators -- are pressing for are fraught with a false sense of overwhelming superiority. They are mixing up geographical, population, and economic size with military force and strategic balance of power.

True, that India is about five times bigger than Pakistan in population, size, and economy, but militarily, it’s just about twice as big.

The ratio of GDP that Pakistan spends to maintain its over-sized military is abnormally high, solidifying the militant nature of the state, whereas Indian defense spending so far has a civilised defensive philosophy. India does proportionately better budget-allocation for the productive, welfare, and development sectors rather than military.

Hence, after maintaining a force level in the north to guard against any opportunistic attempts from its much stronger northern adversary, the military leverage that it will be able to accumulate in the West is actually is on par with Pakistan or is slightly skewed in favour of India.

In an escalated situation, if India undertakes too strong an action against Pakistan for future deterrence, the Pakistani reaction would be anybody’s guess

That’s only enough for a good defense and perhaps very limited offense. There will also be a risk of Pakistani counter-action, perhaps similarly limited.

But this can start a perilous chain of reactions. If the escalation gets out of control, can the involvement of tactical or strategic nuclear weapon be completely ruled out? Pakistan, as always, marked by its ever-belligerent nature, maintains that it won’t keep first use option off the table.

Given that the military armaments and training standards of both the nations are, more or less, of similar quality, the size of the force would matter quite a bit.

Offensive operations in such a situation would require considerable force advantage in that theatre.

Conventionally, it’s about three times that of the defenders. It was about 2:1 for the India-Bangladesh allied force in 1971, and it worked because of the immense support from the independence-hungry public, precise intelligence, and various other crucial support from freedom fighters of the then East Pakistan. The scenario in the western front would be the exact opposite for Indian forces.

Air assets are rather easy in being shifted from one sector to another -- there too India is better positioned, but not enough to subdue Pakistan. A naval blockade of Pakistan is possible, but for a quick and limited war, the likes of which, the Indian hawks are suggesting, the strategic viability just isn’t there.

Moreover, Pakistan has borders with Iran and Afghanistan in the west and north-west, and, importantly, China in the north, with which it has even developed the Trans-Karakoram Highway, now followed up by the multi-billion dollar mutually-beneficial China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project.

However, China will also want to maintain some semblance of fairness when it comes to India, as both the aspiring eastern super-powers are looking for areas of mutually-beneficial cooperation, especially in trade.

Devastation on both sides

No one is expecting a protracted Indo-Pak war just yet, as there are some signs of de-escalation, although it can’t be claimed with certainty. However, if that turns out to be the reality, even without the use of nukes -- which is not a certainty -- both countries will be economically devastated. The development-oriented Modi, a sensible quarter of the BJP, and other liberal forces of India seem to be mindful of that.

Security experts have been talking about a “cold start” doctrine of the Indian military which was designed for quick, limited, and conventional strikes inside Pakistani territory in case of state-sponsored attacks by non-state actors against India from Pakistan.

The strikes would be restricted to a level where it does not trigger a nuclear response from Pakistan, and be quick enough to achieve a limited goal before international intervention.

However, it’s not clear what would happen if there is a reactionary counter-strike from Pakistan, and where such spiral of action and reaction would end up. In the military clashes in the western front between India and Pakistan, there was no clear winner in the past. The same may be replicated in a different reality of comparative strength and geo-strategy.

Despite the distancing of the US, China still appears to be an all-weather ally of Pakistan. The friendship is based on realism (common foe, mutual benefits, etc) rather than ideological reasons. But it holds, to a considerable extent, going by the record. Pakistan counts on it despite being a junior partner with various spontaneous loyalty tests, eg ceding Karakoram tract region of Pakistani Kashmir to China.

The Chinese entry

India and the US have gotten much closer these days with an aim to counter potential growth of Chinese influence in Asia, particularly in the Indian Ocean, which holds the crucial energy supply lines. But India doesn’t want the US to remain too dominant in the ocean either.

China, on the other hand, is trying to make direct entry to Indian Ocean through Myanmar and Pakistan as alternatives to the US-dominated narrow Malacca strait. This is an important angle of Pakistan’s importance to China.

Pakistani logic doesn’t follow much rationality and hence there is no point analysing their perception of consequence. There is no unified central power center in Pakistan. Their military wants to maintain its disproportionate size, spending, and the central position in Pakistani state.

Hence they keep tension with India alive, undertaking unilateral actions and undermining the authority of elected civilian leaders. It’s an unusual ad hoc arrangement unsuitable for any proper democracy.

Had Pakistan dismantled all the terror bases in it and de-escalated with India, greater regional connectivity and integration would have taken place. That would have allowed Kashmirs on both sides of the LoC to move much freely among themselves, see relatives and friends frequently, and see their cultural and trade ties re-established. The same would have happened to the whole of South Asia.

India, meanwhile, alongside the recently conducted limited surgical strike, is already undertaking other measures like pumping up the issues of human rights violation in Baluchistan, Pakistani Kashmir, and Gilgit-Baltistan to put pressure on Pakistan. Indian hardliners are advocating patronising Baluch separatist movements. Pakistan, however, has warned India not to spread the conflict to the settled issues of 1947.

India has good ties with the current anti-Pakistan Afghan dispensation, which puzzles Pakistan. Post Uri, India is also re-examining the Indus water treaty with Pakistan, which is a lower riparian country. Modi is trying hard to balance between right-wing domestic pressure and good senses.

If more terror attacks originate from Pakistan or Pakistani Kashmir, more limited surgical strikes close to LoC but across it by Indians may become the new normal. Indians are already citing American examples of carrying out unilateral strikes against terror targets inside Pakistan.

Also, pounding the enemy’s border post with artillery guns from within the line of control in Kashmir has been a tactic applied by armies of Pakistan and India in the past.

The crucial question in case of a Mumbai or Pathankot-like attack is: Would India go about destroying the alleged terror bases in Pakistan? If yes, how, given the fact that Pakistan usually denies such accusations?

And even if they strike a terror target in Pakistan, how can they prevent Pakistan from direct or proxy retaliation given the fact that they are no US, at least as of yet.

So far, the implicit stand of Pakistan, especially the military establishment, has been this: Until and unless there is a solution to the Kashmir problem, they will continue with a low intensity conflict, which may even include terror.

This is how they intend to keep the Kashmir issue alive internationally. It also serves the cross purpose of providing the disproportionately over-sized and overspending of Pakistan military a raison d’etre and a central position in the Pakistani state amid a fiercely fractured political class.

It’s imperative that positive changes occur in India-Pakistan relations, or else it will fail South Asia as a region in this era of regional cooperation and integration

Pakistan also claims to be a victim in the war against terror, as the terrorists often attack and inflict casualty to Pakistan security forces and ordinary citizenry, including minorities. This is partially true. Also true is that these Frankensteins were once created or patronised by Pakistani intelligence. Now they have come back to haunt Pakistan as it moves against the former, under US pressure.

The creation of the radical Taliban by Pakistani intelligence to secure the so-called and mythical “strategic depth” in Afghanistan is in a complete mess as the Taliban went out of control of the Pakistanis and got involved in global terror networks which has invited the long-term Western military intervention in Afghanistan.

The bitter pill

Pakistan, for all these reasons, is now acting against Taliban and their affiliated groups by swallowing the bitter pill. A few divisions of the Pakistan Army had to be moved to the troubled areas near Afghan borders from the eastern garrisons which are close to Indian borders.

This temporary force shift from east-to-west does create vulnerability, but not really any game changing difference in the balance of military power in the Indo-Pak theatre.

Moreover, the Pakistani establishment will make full use of any probability or actual occasion of an Indian offensive to rally the whole nation, which is otherwise fraught with divisive ethnic and sectarian characteristics (eg Sunni, Shia, Ahmadi, other religious minorities, Mohajirs, Sindhi, Baluch, Hazara, Punjabi, Pasthun Tribes etc).

These fault lines are very much at play in normal times. India’s action or “strategic restraint,” hence, has multifarious ramifications.

Civil powers in Pakistan, with their remnant moderate senses, must unite to take charge of their state, which ideally should be the case, and work for peace and development in Pakistan and the rest of South Asia.

Middle East-looking pan Islamists of Pakistan often forget that India has the third largest Muslim population in the world, and most of the history of Muslim glory in South Asia is related to the land of India.

Perhaps no other region of the world with so much of common history and culture hold an animosity of this degree.

All the experts with constructive mindset agree that the potential for mutual benefit is immense in South Asia. It’s imperative that positive changes occur in India-Pakistan relations, or else it will fail South Asia as a region in this era of regional cooperation and integration.

Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is a freelance commentator on politics, international relations, and geo-strategy. He is a former military officer and currently works for BRAC Institute of Governance and Development.