It is in India’s interest to de-escalate the standoff with Pakistan.
The post-Pulwama crisis has eased, yet military forces on both sides remain on alert. The India-Pakistan air space retains some restrictions for international civilian traffic, substantial naval elements on both sides are at sea and both armies remain in a state of limited mobilisation. There have also been media reports of shooting down of Unarmed Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Defusing military confrontations requires mutual political understanding. Presently, disengagement seems unlikely and could possibly span India’s elections and beyond. We are therefore looking at the military status quo being retained for at least another two months, if not more.
The Military Impasse
Military action as an instrument of statecraft must have a political purpose. The situation to avoid is when the dynamics of military engagement breed their own purposes and transcends those based on political interests. The military tail should not wag the political dog. Military forces that are in a face-off posture, especially over extended time spans, harbour the potential for accidental and unintended military confrontations. Such incidents can trigger another round that is totally disconnected from the original purpose of force application by merely being an exercise in achieving military domination at the tactical level. The danger is rooted in the prevalent mood of deepened mutual suspicion and mistrust.
Though for decades, the eyeball to eyeball confrontation across LoC in J & K has witnessed intense exchange of fire power and sporadic cross-LoC actions by ground forces, the present situation is markedly different. Now the LoC situation is layered with interacting land, air and naval forces over nearly the entire expanse of the Indo-Pak border including the territorial waters and air space.
Utility of Air Power
India’s use of air power targeted at terrorist assets in Kyber-Pakhtunwa sought to convey the message of India’s readiness to impose costs on Pakistan. Pakistan’s reaction through air power over Bhimber indicated that it would attempt to repay in kind. So far, both sides have claimed military success.
The use of air power for the retaliatory strike is indeed a bold political decision that promises a certain psychological advantage. Yet the scope and tactical effect of the strike leaves Pakistan with the free will to react albeit mindful of the dangers of escalation. The exchange of fire power on the LoC illustrates the problem of free will, as both sides can target the other at will, and is therefore a senseless exchange of energy that hardly alters the state of cross-border interventionism.
Air power is perceived to possess not only the ability for precision but also the characteristic of escalating the threat scenario rapidly. The total time taken for the final execution of Indian strike was about 21 minutes. The confrontation on 27 Feb also lasted for a similar period. But once applied, air power generates a speedy need for enhanced Air Defence and Offensive measures reflected in rapid adoption of tactical postures by both sides. These tactical postures are difficult to be unilaterally wound down.
Post-Balakot, Pakistan immediately called for a meeting of the Nuclear Command Authority to signal nuclear implications of the situation to the international community. It evoked no response from India.
Pakistan probably attempted to reduce the vulnerability to air power of some of its nuclear assets, and according to a report in The Print, there could have been a fire accident involving nuclear weapons in Khuzdar Garrrison.
The nuclear factor and the elusive threshold remained in the shadows and was not put to test. But It seems likely that use of air power by India increased concerns in Pakistan to undertake measures to reduce its vulnerability.
Arguably, the USA played a role in brokering a de-escalation deal that involved America ignoring Pakistan’s violation of the F16 utilisation agreement for freeing the captured pilot and India not publicising proof of shooting down the F 16 by a MiG 21. Further de-escalation process remains frozen.
Only time will reveal how much and whether this round of military action based on air power has impacted Pakistan in its support of terrorism. The termination of the military stand-off would have to await political understanding that will involve diplomatic exertions. Pakistan has announced its preference for talks, and has supposedly taken some actions against terror groups that can only be viewed with scepticism due to its past track record. India on the other hand has toughened its stand by demanding the handover of the JEM leader Azhar Masood if peace is to prevail. It is on the cards that the Indian national elections will be held under the shadow of an Indo-Pak military impasse.
It would be prudent to recognise that force application can at best have limited and temporary impact on cross-border terrorism. It is certainly necessary to assuage the emotions of the domestic populace and allow them to an extent to vent their anger. But we must be careful that we are not drawn into a perpetual tit-for-tat that saps our energies and resources. That will suit Pakistan’s game plan of bleeding India with a thousand cuts.
More importantly, a greater focus on Pakistan distracts India from strengthening itself against China, which is potentially the more dangerous adversary. De-escalating the Pakistan threat in our domestic political discourse would better serve India’s national interests.