India-Pakistan Standoff: Prospects for Escalation and De-escalation

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After more than a month has passed since the dog fight over Kashmir between Pakistan and India the latter claimed that the former is planning a military attack. The state of South Asian affairs changed rapidly after the Pulwama incident. India violated Pakistani air space and forced Pakistan to retaliate. Pakistan’s swift reaction followed by the release of captured Indian pilot left the international community in general and India in particular dumbfounded. The Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) already engaged in intense efforts in election campaigning to get another term, received even a bigger challenge of justifying the developing situation to the general public. As the ball remains in India’s court after a combination of military-moral swift move from Pakistan, the former would have to choose either to escalate or de-escalate the situation. How does the decision of escalation or de-escalation affect the BJP’s ability to get re-elected is a vital thing to ponder upon.

However, equally important would be Pakistan’s will and ability to not let the situation escalate, which in turn, might negatively affect the BJP’s position domestically in India. Even as the chances of escalation appear meager, an unexpected action could be anticipated from India, keeping in view Modi’sbellicose and the general war hysteria in the society. In that case, the role of a crisis manager(s) become crucial, especially when both the nuclear-powered rivals have almost revolutionized their military affairs. An escalation of any degree would also impact the situation in neighboring Afghanistan where major powers are already struggling to attain peace. Under the circumstances, the Indian government must undertake how it can enhance the chances for regional peace which could also help it to gain popularity domestically. Although pressure has been mounting on India after the US officials’contradicting an Indian air force assessment that it had shot down one of the Pakistani F-16 jets, it is less likely that New-Delhi would escalate the situation in the short run; however, the prospects for escalation in medium or long run seem possible yet could be avoided.

In December 2017, the 6th International Workshop on Defense, Deterrence and Stability in South Asia was held in Islamabad’s Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS), in collaboration with London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). During the first session of the workshop titled ‘Pakistan’s Relations with the US and India: Challenges and Opportunities’, Mr. Rahul Roy-Chaudary of IISS while emphasizing the need for maintaining other levels of communication in the absence of a composite dialogue between India and Pakistan for last five years, predicted that another security-related incident in India or Kashmir would be the key issue in the next twenty months.

Interestingly, the same thing happened, during the last fortnight of February 2019, the world was at the verge of a nuclear catastrophe following the security incident in Pulwama, south Kashmir; hence the standoff between South Asian arch-rivals continues.

Who orchestrated Pulwama and why are the most crucial questions to inquire into; however, had Pakistan not been able to undertake the military-moral reaction, the suicide attack on paramilitary troops would have been instrumental to augment the BJP’s “state sponsor of terrorism” rhetoric, and the unpunished intrusion would have glorified Modi for taking a leap forward in attaining a super power’s stature; resultantly would have been a significant impetus for gaining another term.

Nonetheless, deliberating upon the situation at hand, experts in Islamabad seem pessimistic regarding the prospects of India de-escalating the situation based on the premise that it would be difficult for PM Modi to climb down the de-escalation ladder because of the parliamentary elections in the near future. In the absence of requirements for escalation management and control – Reliable means of communication and signaling; transparency how one sees other; shared interests in escalation management and control; ensuring a credible deterrence; role of public opinion; differential cost of conflict and crisis; and the end state – between India and Pakistan, it was advised to assure that deterrence does not fail. Moreover, experts also highlighted the role of the US in all previous crises between India and Pakistan and question whether the crisis manager’s role this time is part of the problem or solution?

This might fall in America’s interest that India shows tendencies of a regional superpower, especially after bestowing New-Delhi with “Indo-Pacific” title following the strategic partnership and when it is being seen as a counter-balance to China. However, chaos and disorder resulting from any sort of Indian retaliation have the potential to jeopardize the peace process in neighboring Afghanistan for which Washington might not want the situation to escalate at least until the resolution of Afghan quagmire. Most importantly, Russia – currently enjoys good terms with both Pakistan and India – offered mediation between the two countries to defuse the tension. In addition to that, countries like China and Saudi Arabia which have economic stakes both in India and Pakistan would not want the situation to escalate.

Interestingly, Indian Foreign Minister, Sushma Swaraj reiterated that India wants to avoid any “further escalation of the situation and will “continue to act with responsibility and restraint”. Furthermore, after Modi’s indirect admissionof Pakistani armed forces’ superiority; it would not be prudent to escalate the situation at least until New-Delhi completes its military modernization. India’srejection of the recent Pakistani claim of New-Delhi planning an attack also makes it less likely that situation would escalate in the near future.

The incumbent Indian government should focus its attention to win the hearts and minds of the general public by addressing the root cause of the current standoff. Alleviation of Kashmiri reservations and suppression need to be BJP’s primary concern if at all it wants to get another term. The past few weeks remained instrumental in busting the Indian general public’s bubble of delusions and war hysteria. It must be promoted to the general public that war is not in favor of both the countries.

Whether it is the BJP or the Indian National Congress, their quest to become a regional superpower and recent wound Pakistan has meted out by downing two Indian jets would force them to retaliate in the medium or long run; most probably after getting done with the military modernization. To avoid any sort of escalation even in medium or long run, Pakistan should enhance the chances for Foreign Direct Investments by more rigorously implementing its National Action Plan in order to reduce domestic security concerns. Once big conglomerates especially Western Multinationals have their stakes in the country, it would help control and prevent escalation as these corporates would naturally utilize their international influence and intervene during a crisis. Most importantly, Islamabad must manifest its Full Spectrum Deterrence strategy by covering all of the Indian territories within the range of its ballistic missiles; and should also take into consideration the idea of buying a robust air defense system like Russia’s S-400.

Image: Shimin Gu [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

This article was originally published on TheGeoPolitics

Kashif Hussain is a Research Associate at Strategic Studies Institute Islamabad (SSII). He has previously worked as an intern at Center for International Strategic Studies Islamabad (CISS). He was one of Pakistan’s youth ambassadors to Turkey under Turkey-Pakistan Youth Bridge Programme in March 2015. He completed his B.A from Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul followed by M.Sc and Masters of Philosophy (M.Phil) degrees in International Relations from Quaid-e-Azam University Islamabad. He has keen interest in geopolitics of South Asia.

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