India and Pakistan are again on the brink of a war after an Indian cantonment in Kashmir came under attack. On the morning of September 18, four armed men stormed an Indian Army base in the town of Uri in India-administered Kashmir and killed 18 troops. At the time, the director-general of military operations for the Indian Army announced that the terrorists responsible for this attack carried gear which had “Pakistani markings.”
“Pakistan is a terrorist state and it should be identified and isolated as such,” tweeted Rajnath Singh, India’s home minister. Ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s Secretary General Ram Madhav took to Facebook. “For one tooth, the complete jaw,” he posted, seeming to imply a disproportionate retaliation.
On India’s many TV news channels, a steady drum beat calling for war gained momentum, reaching a crescendo of sorts in primetime. Arnab Goswami, the host of the country’s most-watched English news hour, expressed rage at Pakistan: “We need to cripple them, we need to bring them down on their knees.” One of his guests, a retired army general, went a step further: “We must be seen as inflicting punishment on Pakistan by non-terrorist means … the nation needs a catharsis!”
On September 29, India claimed that it responded by carrying out strikes in the part of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan. Pakistan said that was a lie, and there was nothing more than routine crossfire along the Line of Control.
The trail of events has brought Pakistan-India relations to a flashpoint. Voices emanating from key capitals are urging the exercise of maximum restraint.
Relations between India and Pakistan have been complex due to a number of historical and political events. Relations between the two states have been defined by the violent partition of British India in 1947, the Kashmir conflict and the numerous military conflicts fought between the two nations. Consequently, even though the two South Asian nations share linguistic, cultural, geographic, and economic links, their relationship has been plagued by hostility and suspicion.
For decades, New Delhi has been resolutely aloof on foreign policy: It was one of the founders of the “Non-Aligned Movement,” which kept the country neutral to superpower influence. But at this month’s NAM meeting in Caracas, India was not represented by its Prime Minister for the first time since 1961.
Instead, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made a point of cozying up to the United States. He has met with US President Barack Obama eight times since 2014, and three times so far in 2016.
According to a survey released Monday by the Pew Research Center, 81% of Indians hold a favorable view of Modi and 61% approve of his handling of terrorism. While 73% of Indians hold an unfavorable view of Pakistan, 56% favor talks between the two countries to reduce tensions, according to the survey.
Media on Fire
Media in both countries have a big story to cover, and the airwaves are abuzz as the rhetoric on both sides gets ratcheted up higher and higher. On the Pakistani side, news stories are leading with statements of denial from the military, while Indian mainstream media openly discuss appropriate terms for retaliation. On both sides, the media are not making the jobs of diplomats or the government any easier, adding fuel to the fire. Talk of war is more serious than it has ever been before. “What’s worse is that Pakistani channels, most of them do not air in India … and Indian channels do air in Pakistan, but definitely not the newsy channels. That ends up basically creating two very different vacuums. Pakistanis and Indians are consuming different news about the same events. So it’s, unfortunately, driving a serious wedge between the two countries,” says Wajahat Khan, anchor at Dunya News in Pakistan.
On the other hand, In India, a leading TV channel dropped an interview with a former home minister because he apparently had second-guessed the army. “Our Army cannot be doubted or questioned or used for political gains,” NDTV announced in its new editorial policy. It was depressingly familiar.
In Pakistan, the leading journalist Cyril Almeida was being hounded for reporting for the newspaper Dawn that the civilian government had asked the military to rein in jihadist groups or Pakistan will face international isolation. His article mentioned Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, one of the main accused in the Mumbai attacks that almost started the other Indo-Pak war. Pakistan’s prime minister and the top army brass went into a huddle and declared the report a fabrication and a threat to national security. Mr. Almeida was temporarily barred from leaving Pakistan while Mr. Saeed roams the country promising to wreak havoc on India.
Most reports on Indo-Pak tensions remind us that the two countries have gone to war over Kashmir three times. What they fail to mention is that all these wars achieved was to obliterate the aspirations of Kashmiri people. In the din of conflict, the first voice to be silenced is theirs. In the current noise hardly any one notices that since July some 1,000 Kashmiris have sustained eye injuries because Indian forces are firing at them with pellet guns.
Sabotage on SAARC
The Indian way of sabotaging the fragile regional cooperation in order to express hostility towards a neighbour due to a bilateral issue is causing concern to the friends of South Asian regional cooperation. India, not for the first time, ensured that the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit in Islamabad would become a non-event. In the early 1990s India took similar actions to sabotage Dhaka and Colombo SAARC Summits. On those two occasions what New Delhi did was to get a dependable South Asian friend – Bhutan – to announce its inability to attend the Summit, thus leading to the cancellation of the event as the SAARC Charter is specific on consensus of all seven, now eight, Member States.
When the King of Bhutan announced, in the eleventh hour, his inability to attend Colombo SAARC Summit in 1992, President Ranasinghe Premadasa was furious. He telephoned the leaders of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Maldives and asked them not to cancel their scheduled visit to Colombo and held a mini-South Asian Summit to show open displeasure to New Delhi.
This time India did not use a proxy, but while announcing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s withdrawal from Islamabad Summit, it organized Bhutan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh also to withdraw forcing the current SAARC Chair, Nepal to cancel the Islamabad event.
Could India and Pakistan
Go to War?
The main deterrent to a hot war on the subcontinent is nuclear weapons. Pakistan refuses to adopt a no-first use policy, meaning that it could conceivably respond to India’s use of conventional military force with a nuclear strike. This means that for India, any substantive military action against Pakistan—and even modest uses of force such as targeted airstrikes—would be dangerously risky. To avoid crossing any nuclear red lines, Indian military actions would need to be very modest and targeted—thereby hampering efforts to degrade and destroy terrorist compounds, Pakistani military facilities, or whatever India’s desired target may be. And yet such actions could still prompt Pakistani responses—such as the sponsoring of terror attacks in India.
The two countries have fought three major wars, but they all occurred before 1998, when both nations became declared nuclear weapons states. A fourth war occurred in 1999, but it was a limited conflict, with Pakistani soldiers infiltrating into Kashmir and fighting Indian troops for two months before withdrawing back across the border. According to Bruce Riedel, a former top U.S. official on South Asia, U.S. President Bill Clinton successfully pressured Pakistan to withdraw its troops—after the CIA concluded that Pakistan was preparing to deploy and possibly use nuclear weapons.
Ajai Shukla, a former Indian army colonel who is now the strategic affairs editor of Business Standard, points out that India is not strategically prepared to launch an attack — which he says is a “failure of the planning process.” One also cannot ignore the fact that Pakistan has the 11th biggest army in the world, says Shukla. “We’re in a symmetrical relationship,” he says. “The consequences of any form of attack are far worse than people realize.”
Another reason a hot war is unlikely is that India has limited capabilities to wage one. Research by South Asia security analysts George Perkovich and Toby Dalton, drawing on interviews with Indian military officials, concludes that the “surface attraction” of limited airstrikes is “offset significantly, if not equally, by risks and inadequacies.” Additionally, it contends that “there is vast room for improvement” in intelligence collection capacities. It also asserts that India’s capabilities to stage joint air and land operations are wanting. “Even at the level of exercises,” Perkovich and Dalton write, “the Indian Army and Air Force have not inspired each other’s confidence in their capacity to conduct effective combined operations in realistic warfare conditions.” In effect, India’s military has more than sufficient numbers—only the militaries of the United States and China have more than its 1.3 million active personnel—but less than sufficient capacity.
What Consequence If
a War begins?
If India and Pakistan fought a war detonating 100 nuclear warheads (around half of their combined arsenal), each equivalent to a 15-kiloton Hiroshima bomb, more than 21 million people will be directly killed, about half the world’s protective ozone layer would be destroyed, and a “nuclear winter” would cripple the monsoons and agriculture worldwide.
The real costs would be higher and not just in India and Pakistan, where the first 21 million people–half the death toll of World War II–would perish within the first week from blast effects, burns and acute radiation, according to the 2007 study by researchers from Rutgers University, University of Colorado-Boulder and University of California, Los Angeles, all in the USA. This death toll would be 2,221 times the number of civilians and security forces killed by terrorists in India over nine years to 2015, according to an IndiaSpend analysis of South Asia Terrorism Portal data. Another two billion people worldwide would face risks of severe starvation due to the climatic effects of the nuclear-weapon use in the subcontinent, according to this 2013 assessment by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, a global federation of physicians.
Pakistan has an estimated 110 to 130 nuclear warheads as of 2015–an increase from an estimated 90 to 110 warheads in 2011–according to this report from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a global disarmament advocacy. India is estimated to have 110 to 120 nuclear warheads.
Saner pundits say: Nothing much more will happen; it’s all bluster; India and Pakistan would not go to war again because both have nuclear weapons. I hope they are right, but I am reminded of the massacres during Partition in 1947, when we didn’t have bombs and had few automatic guns. With knives and rods we managed to kill more than a million people. We didn’t have Twitter to ignite the violence; we managed to do it by word of mouth, through pamphlets and rumors that said, let’s kill them before they kill us. Now those rumors are in our living rooms, accompanied by animated maps.
What the Peace Process?
Comprehensive dialogue is the only option. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government appear to have sold the so-called surgical strikes across the LoC to an unquestioning and enthusiastic domestic audience, but that has neither moved the central issues forwards or backwards.
In Pakistan, people are killed for being Shia. Now in India, people are killed because maybe they ate beef. India is becoming more like Pakistan, and Pakistan is becoming more like itself: belligerent, sulky and paranoid.
It is clearly possible for the ebb and flow of Pak-India relations to continue — it has done so for 69 years now and there have been far bigger conflagrations than the recent tensions. Yet, the more cycles there are, the greater the risk of uncontrolled and unmanageable escalation. The Indian response to the Uri strikes was wildly disproportionate and there is little doubt that the Indian government seized on an opportunity to deflect attention from the troubles in India-held Kashmir. But Pakistani policymakers cannot simply ignore an emerging pattern in India: the combination of a right-wing government, an increasingly nationalistic media and a disconsolate population could quickly push events towards a real crisis if attacks in India-held Kashmir are perceived as having emanated from Pakistan. Talking peace is sensible and necessary, even if quick results are not the intention. Not talking is simply too dangerous.
The writer is journalist and geopolitical analyst.