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'The danger of war has not passed'

Last updated on: March 14, 2019 09:20 IST

'It is a tense border and there are numerous elements that keep these tensions alive.'
'India is willing to militarily respond if provoked.'

Braving temperatures above 45 degrees Celsius and sand storms, troops from the Indian Army's Jaipur-based South Western Command conducted drills to fight in all contingencies including a nuclear weapon environment in Rajasthan's Mahajan field firing ranges during Vijay Prahar, a military exercise which began on May 1 and ended on Wednesday, May 9, 2018.

IMAGE: Braving temperatures above 45 degrees Celsius and sand storms, troops from the Indian Army's Jaipur-based South Western Command conducted drills to fight in all contingencies including a nuclear weapon environment in Rajasthan's Mahajan field firing ranges during Vijay Prahar, a military exercise which began on May 1 and ended on Wednesday, May 9, 2018.

A month has passed since a suicide bomber murdered 40 Central Reserve Police Force soldiers in Pulwama, south Kashmir, on February 14.

The horrific act of terror was followed by an Indian air strike on Jaish e Mohammad terror camps in Balakote, Pakistan, on February 26 followed by Pakistani aerial retaliation the next morning.

Though the Indian and Pakistan armies pound each other's positions at the Line of Control day after day, the possibility of war appears to have subsided for now as hectic diplomacy -- led by Saudi Arabia's urbane Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir -- negotiates an end of hostilities in Islamabad and New Delhi.

Are both militaries ready to sheath their swords to enable some sort of detente on the international border, leading to talks after a new government takes office in New Delhi?

Or are we still poised for conflict, triggered by another act of unexpected terror activated by Pakistan's Deep State?

To understand what lies ahead, Rediff.com's Nikhil Lakshman spoke to Dr Bharath Gopalaswamy, Director, South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, the Washington, DC-based think-tank.

How do you perceive the events affecting India and Pakistan these last 21 days? What lessons did you draw from India and Pakistan's actions of recent days?

The one clear lesson from the past few days is the more things change with Pakistan the more they remain the same. Their use of non State actors to execute their foreign policy goals do not change.

What has changed though is the Indian patience.

Over the years, India has been restrained and has focused on building its economic and diplomatic clout as well as a reputation to be a responsible player on the global stage.

It is using that might to demonstrate to Pakistan that these actions are unacceptable and it cannot be business as usual.

 

Are you convinced that the Indian air strikes of February 26 destroyed Jaish e Mohammad facilities in Balakote and killed -- in the estimate of the leader of India's ruling party -- 250 terrorists?

We will have to examine the evidence and I am sure over the next few months the evidence will emerge in bits and pieces. But that is not the point here.

The bigger point is a military response. And Indian planes crossing the Line of Control.

So India has essentially redrawn the red lines. So what next if something again like this happens is the bigger question to be debated.

I think there is the evidence and then there is the interpretation of the evidence.

As I discussed earlier, my interpretation of any evidence whatsoever is essentially about the signals India sent, that it is willing to militarily respond if provoked.

And we should not miss that signal in this debate.

Has the danger of war passed? Or are we going to see more military skirmishes, pounding of each other's positions on the LoC, a state of continuous conflict?
How long will such a state exist?
Do you believe the situation could still deteriorate and lead to a conventional war?

I do not think the danger of war has ever passed. It is a tense border and there are numerous elements that keep these tensions alive.

Again, I am not sure how long will such a state exist, but as I see there is an absence of a political dialogue and unresolved conflict.

With such absence, there is always going to be a threat of a war.

It is also key to note that Pakistan has proxies that it uses to execute its foreign policy and that is a strategy.

So it is safe to say that such situation will continue to persist.

How much of the Indian aggression, in your view, is provoked by Prime Minister Modi's desire to win a conclusive victory in the next election?
Do you believe that if an election didn't hang over the proceedings, there was the possibility of an unlikely truce and a cessation of hostilities?

While I am sure the elections had some role to play, I also think we should not over play that factor.

As I see it, a lot of factors contributed to this outcome. I believe India's patience has been tested over the years and losing a large number of security forces with a suicide attack is not going to help matters.

Do you believe that India's high stakes election makes it difficult for Prime Minister Modi to de-escalate tensions, to accept Prime Minister Khan's offer of a dialogue?
Would Mr Modi's government be compelled -- led by the impulse to carve a strong nationalist narrative for the coming election campaign -- to deliver a bloodier nose to Pakistan through the length of the election campaign?

While PM Khan's offer of a dialogue may sound good, they are empty in terms of substance.

It remains to be seen what kind of serious actions Pakistan will take to curb home grown extremism.

What about China? Will Beijing be content to stay on the sidelines, issuing -- as it did week -- calls for moderation and de-escalation? Were you surprised by the tone of Beijing's statements?

I was not surprised by Beijing's statements. I also think that Beijing playing the role of a moderator or a power broker in any such conflict is not a good idea.

Beijing's role should be restricted to curbing Pakistan's nefarious activities and not beyond that.

What about the United States? Were the White House and Foggy Bottom so distracted by the Hanoi summit that it outsourced the calming things down operation to the Saudis and Emiratis?

The United States administration is deeply distracted by its own domestic political turmoil. It did not 'outsource', but it just was not so interested in some of the happenings across the world where it could potentially make a difference.

Dr Bharath GopalaswamyDo you believe the Saudis and Emiratis leaned on General Bajwa to free the Indian pilot quickly and also persuaded the Indians to back off from further escalation?

I believe the Pakistanis themselves could have reached the conclusions although one cannot rule out the influence of Saudis and Emiratis.

If this crisis is resolved, is the next crisis -- given the mood in Kashmir -- inevitable?
What would it take for both New Delhi and Islamabad to reach some kind of understanding to avoid conflict so that their peoples can live in peace?

We should be optimists and believe that we have to reach some form an agreement. Otherwise, it is not good for the people of Kashmir and broadly, India and Pakistan too.

We should also be careful in thinking that every problem has a solution; sometimes there are not, but we can always have an agreement.

Do you believe the ISI/Pakistan's Deep State has been stoking fires in Kashmir after Burhan Wani's death in July 2016?
Or do you believe the terrorism that one currently encounters in the Kashmir valley is a consequence of local anger and angst and a reaction to the Modi government's handling of the situation in the state?
Could this terrorism have grown without Pakistani backing?

It is all of the above plus mismanagment, faulty decisions at times and wrong calculations.

Finally, your forecast for Kashmir, for India, for Pakistan, for Afghanistan in the next 18 months.

Again, I would refrain from making forecasts because none of us saw this coming.

So when it comes to the region my reading would be expect the unexpected because the region is truly a unique and interesting region.

Nikhil Lakshman / Rediff.com