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'Unlikely Modi will take another swing at Pak'

Last updated on: March 06, 2019 10:05 IST

'It seems likely that the February 2019 crisis is over.'

Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi launches a Kalashnikov rifles manufacturing facility in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh, March 3, 2019. Photograph: PTI Photo

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi launches a Kalashnikov rifles manufacturing facility in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh, March 3, 2019.Photograph: PTI Photo

Seven years ago, in the spring of 2012, Christopher Clary, then a PhD candidate in political science at MIT, forecast What an India-Pakistan war might look like (external link).

Seven years later, Rediff.com's Nikhil Lakshman checked in with Dr Clary -- now an assistant professor of political science at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, Albany, New York -- on his assessment of last week's military joust between India and Pakistan. This is what he said:

Will matters now settle down? Or are we looking at a 1965esque lull before an onslaught of serious hostilities?
Do you believe that the situation could easily deteriorate and lead to a conventional war?
Can India and Pakistan still pull back from likely war? How?

It seems more likely than not that the February 2019 crisis is over.

There is always some danger of renewed crisis, but I believe neither side took away from the events of the last two weeks a desire to push for war.

The India-Pakistan relationship remains extremely vulnerable to crisis. The Modi government has now used force against Pakistan twice when attacks cost India 19 and 40-plus dead.

What happens if another attack kills 15? Or 20? Could the Modi government avoid retaliating once again?

And having struggled this time to convince outside actors of the success of the Balakot strike, will they feel the need to use even more force next time, so that the success and failure of the strike is incontestable?

 

Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, centre, flanked by a Pakistan Ranger named Faisal, to his left,  and Pakistan diplomat Fareeha Bugti, to his right, at the Wagah border, March 1, 2019. Bugti was the first woman from Balochistan to join the Foreign Service of Pakistan in 2005. Photograph: PTI Photo

IMAGE: Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, centre, flanked by a Pakistan Ranger named Faisal, to his left, and Pakistan diplomat Fareeha Bugti, to his right, at the Wagah border, March 1, 2019.
Bugti was the first woman from Balochistan to join the Foreign Service of Pakistan in 2005. Photograph: PTI Photo

What lessons did you draw from India and Pakistan's actions of recent days?

We are still some time away from the lessons learned phase of this most recent crisis.

Until we know, for certain, whether the Jaish-e-Mohammad facility was hit at Balakot, it is difficult to know the benefits of the strike.

Until we know, for certain, whether Pakistan lost an F-16 in air combat, it is difficult to know how costly Pakistan's reprisal was.

One particularly dangerous possibility is that the broader public comes to believe something that isn't true, meaning they believe war is less costly than it really is.

Such false optimism makes war more likely.

As an observer of Indian and Pakistan military leaderships, do you believe the military and political leaderships of both countries are cognisant of the possibility that a conventional conflict could easily spiral out of control and involve nuclear weapons?

I believe that both countries are cognisant of the possibility that conventional conflict could cause nuclear escalation, but they disagree about the ease with which things might spiral out of control.

It benefits Pakistan, the conventionally weaker State, to emphasise nuclear risks. And it benefits India, the conventionally stronger State, to minimise those risks.

My guess is both countries are slightly more optimistic about the ability to manage nuclear escalation and brinskmanship than they should be.

Is a nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan a bogey, unlikely to become a reality because leaders in both countries know that the use of atomic weapons could render large area of the subcontinent inhabitable for thousands of years?

There has been no use of nuclear weapons in anger since 1945 and this is likely to continue.

The fact that nuclear war in South Asia is incredibly unlikely does not mean that nuclear war is impossible.

Consider a thought experiment. If you could push a button and there was a 1 in 1,000 chance that a boulder would fall on your head, but a 99.9 percent chance you would receive a 100 rupee note, would you push the button?

Nine-hundred and nine times out of 1,000 pushing the button would reward you. But one time out of 1,000 it would kill you.

Nuclear risk is unknowable, but is catastrophic, and it should shape our behaviour even if nuclear war is very unlikely to come to pass.

The Agni-1P missile, which has a range of 300 km to 700 km, is predominantly Pakistan-focused.

IMAGE: The Agni-1P missile, which has a range of 300 km to 700 km, is predominantly Pakistan-focused.

What would it take for nuclear weapons to come into play? The usual scenario involves Indian military forces seizing control of large area of Pakistan, forcing the military leadership to deploy nuclear weapons.
Since you believe that both militaries are almost on par where conventional capabilities were concerned, what are the chances of that scenario occurring?

I worry in a future crisis that airstrikes beget airstrikes, that both countries target each other's airfields with greater frequency, that concerted efforts are made to jam radios and degrade each other's command and control networks, that ground warfare unfolds and Pakistan's army starts to struggle, and that in the fog and friction of war, accidents can happen and fears can get out of control, and some precipitating event happens that dramatically increases nuclear dangers.

In the Cuban Missile Crisis, the use of dummy depth charges -- without the knowledge or authorisation of the US civilian leadership -- caused a Soviet submarine to seriously consider using a nuclear-armed torpedo.

The strong opposition of one Soviet officer led to a decision not to fire, much to the benefit of the history of the world.

Once crises and conflict are underway, nuclear risks may lurk in places that are hard to forecast and difficult to control.

Who is more likely to use nuclear weapons? India or Pakistan?

Pakistan is more likely to use nuclear weapons first than India, though Vipin Narang and I have offered what we believe is compelling evidence (external link) that Indian decisionmakers appear to be developing options to try and disarm Pakistan in the event of a serious nuclear crisis.

I think India would only launch nuclear weapons first on Pakistan if it believed Pakistani nuclear use was imminent, but the mere existence of this possibility makes crises more dangerous.

What about China? Do you believe if India and Pakistan went to war, China would intervene on Pakistan's side given the huge economic investment in the CPEC?
Or would Beijing be content to stay on the sidelines, issuing -- as it did last week -- calls for moderation and de-escalation?
Were you surprised by the tone of Beijing's statements? Is there more to it than meets the eye?

Since close Sino-Pakistani relations emerged in the early 1960s there have been three Indo-Pakistani wars. In 1965 and 1971, China made noisy threats, but ultimately did not intervene against India. In Kargil, China was even more balanced in its views.

China has shown little interest to take Pakistan's side in recent Indo-Pakistani crises, though it has continued to support Pakistan economically and militarily during periods of greater normalcy.

Dr Christopher O ClaryDo 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?

I think it is unlikely that Modi will feel compelled to take another swing at Pakistan absent an attack at least as deadly as Uri.

I believe Modi is unlikely to commit to serious dialogue during this election year -- and probably for many months after national elections given some high-profile provincial elections, such as in Haryana, that may take place even later in 2019.

How can this crisis reach resolution without further escalation? Would it need for the United States to blow the whistle?

I think short of another terrorist attack or a serious incident along the Line of Control, this crisis is likely to continue to de-escalate.

While the United States was not entirely absent, it was largely so, and this crisis is among the first in recent decades to defuse without a strong US role in crisis management.

For the duration of the Trump administration, it is unlikely the United States can play a meaningful role in crisis management in South Asia. Whether it will attempt to resume that role after Trump remains to be seen.

There is a belief that peace in Afghanistan will bring the barbarians to India's gates, encourage Islamic terrorists to foment trouble not only in Kashmir, but perhaps in the rest of India. Do you see this as a possibility?
What are the security challenges India must be prepared for in the months to come?

I am somewhat sceptical that Afghanistan after a hypothetical US withdrawal will significantly affect Indian security.

Even the much-vaunted camps in Afghanistan during the 1990s likely would have just existed in Pakistan if Afghanistan wasn't available as a safe haven.

It is possible that, no longer struggling against US and coalition forces, there will be a somewhat larger pool of young angry men looking for an enemy and India might be that enemy, but I think the basic dynamics of Kashmir are a product of India's own management of the state and Indo-Pakistani relations.

Soldiers at the site of an encounter with terrorists in Pulwama, south Kashmir, February 18, 2018. Photograph: Umar Ganie for Rediff.com

IMAGE: Soldiers at the site of an encounter with terrorists in Pulwama, south Kashmir, February 18, 2018. Photograph: Umar Ganie for Rediff.com

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? Or is that an unachievable pipe dream?

I believe that South Asia will remain crisis-prone for a number of years.

As you suggest, Kashmir provides kindling for future crises, and the dynamics of the valley appear to suggest greater danger ahead.

I think no government in Islamabad will be strong enough in the foreseeable future to make the compromises necessary for peace.

I believe that after (Pakistan army chief) General Bajwa leaves this year (if all goes according to schedule) his successor is likely to be more hawkish than he was.

The only positive force for peace in South Asia is Pakistan's economic crisis, which ought to trigger serious strategic reassessment, but I think the configuration of power in Islamabad makes that improbable.

Nikhil Lakshman / Rediff.com