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Mainstream, VOL L, No 9, February 18, 2012

India-Pakistan: Unlocking the Status Quo

Sunday 19 February 2012



India is watching with bated breath as Pakistan attempts to ‘normalise’ its civil-military relations. For India there is considerable benefit in the outcome going a certain way. It looks forward to a dividend in the outbreak of democratic peace. Resolving Kashmir amicably would be a positive fallout. The incentives towards this end, of expanding trade ties, have been on offer for long. The Lahore peace initiative was a fore-runner. Whether Pakistan bites is not for India to determine, it is an internal matter of Pakistan. India sees its problem as one of managing the interim.

Its choice has been to engage Pakistan. This accounts for the second round of talks getting underway since 26/11, with the joint working group on nuclear confidence building measures having met at Islamabad in late December. The process is good because not talking is worse. Also talks provide a buffer in case of crisis. They can be broken off as ‘protest’, an additional step away from a military tryst.

This is enough when apprehensions of such an eventuality are somewhat remote, as is at present. Measures taken by both since 26/11 have dampened the chances of an untoward incident. These include India’s defensive measures set to culminate in the forming of the National Counter Terrorism Centre. Pakistan, for its part, is readying to dispatch a judicial team to Mumbai to follow up on the terror investigations this month.

The two sides believe that engagement and deterrence are enough. Through periodic military exercises, such as the recently concluded Exercise Sudarshan Shakti, India hopes to dissuade Pakistan’s ‘strategic assets’. India’s military moves, earlier termed ‘Cold Start’, stand refurbished as its ‘Proactive Strategy’. On Army Day, the Chief said: ‘A lot has changed since the days of Operation Parakram. If we did something in 15 days then, we can do it in seven days now. After two years, we may be able to do it in three days.’

Pakistan, in rebound, has apparently worked towards a military response strategy termed ‘early strategic offensive’. In effect, on ‘Incident Day’ (‘I’ Day), or the next terror atrocity, the two sides could end up not only by racing to their own defences, but also to the other’s defences. Though the centenary of ‘the war to end all wars’ falls soon in 2014, the ‘Guns of August’ are seemingly in replay.
With instability in Pakistan set to continue till the Obama-set magic date in 2014 for denouement in AfPak, an ‘I’ Day cannot be ruled out. While catering for the crisis by creating buffers is good, seriously tackling the reason to fear crisis would be better.

Their four rounds of ‘composite dialogue’ since 2004 made no headway. These were unleavened by the reported ‘progress’ made in the ‘backchannel’. The mark of four years was removed in one sweep by 26/11. The first round of talks since was merely to restart the process. The second round is underway with positive atmospherics in particular from the trade and commerce front. Their recent talks over NCBMs in Islamabad are sufficient to keep alarmists at bay. The two sides are agreed to disagree without being disagreeable about it. Both are set to be internally oriented for the next two years and cannot therefore afford to postpone reckoning.

India will continue without a credible interlocutor. In India’s case the political scene does not permit the government much play. The tussle in Pakistan is unlikely to yield the interlocutor of its choice, in a civilian eclipse of the military.

Understandably, unwilling to engage with the Pakistani military and unable to do so directly since a civilian government exists, India is in a ‘wait-and-watch’ mode. Waiting till 2014 may prove too long.

Even if a direct conventional contest is not India’s default option, a limited military reaction to terror provocation, such as by stand-off firepower, is on the cards. While there is no call for Pakistan’s military to over-react, the military, under pressure since OBL’s departure, may use it for internal political positioning. In effect, there is potential to upturn strategic rationality on both sides.

Yet in the light of the seemingly receded possibility of a crisis, the measures in place appear efficacious. Since neither wants such a diversion, the two states are batting on the same side. Should they not, then be fashioning a better innings?

THIS can be done by getting rid of strategic blinkers in the first place. Firstly, believing that mere engagement is enough is self-delusive. Second, engagement has to be meaningful and result oriented. Last, since the Pakistan Army calls the shots in Pakistan and will continue to do so into the next regime there, a way to engage with the military must be found.

This means that even as the second round eventuates into resumption of the ‘composite dialogue’, a strategic dialogue needs to be in place between the two national security establishments. This way the Pakistan Army will be engaged. This will help unlock the status quo. Such a dialogue will also defuse apprehensions of another crisis and, should an unfortunate ‘Incident’ occur, help in cornering the perpetrators decisively.

The core problem is in the Pakistan Army being the power-centre in Pakistan. The current crisis in Pakistan suggests that the reform of internal politics in Pakistan will take time. The interim remains fraught with uncertainties. Pakistan is not in a position to handle the aftermath of crisis and conflict. India too cannot afford a diversion from its economic trajectory. Therefore, there is a possibility of strategic convergence with Pakistan on crisis avoidance, its management and conflict prevention.

These would require mechanisms to be in place, as India has forged with China in the form of the joint coordination and consultation mechanism arrived at between the two special representatives in their fifteenth meeting recently. Such a mechanism needs being in place with Pakistan too. The current lull in Kashmir can prove shortlived and may not outlast the onset of this summer. Therefore, more concrete steps need to be taken rather than an MEA led ‘business-as-usual’ approach.

What would such a dialogue mechanism do? It must be tasked to match the strategic perspectives of the two sides. The threat perceptions of the two can be discussed. It can then over time bring about doctrinal balancing by enabling each side to step back from their respective offensive stance. While Pakistan is on the offensive in the subconventional level through proxy war, India is so on the conventional level in its response strategy variously called ‘Cold Start’ and ‘proactive strategy’. Both are offensive at the nuclear level. While Pakistan does not follow the No-First-Use principle, India intends to ‘finish’ Pakistan through nuclear retaliation.

There is a case for matching these postures since they are interlinked and cumulatively endanger peace in the subcontinent. For instance, proxy war can provoke India’s conventional response. The Pakistani reaction could be in the form of nuclear first use through the vehicle of tactical nuclear weapons, such as the Nasr. India, for its part may then be forced to make good on its promise of annihilation. This would be catastrophic for Pakistan, but also certainly in its environmental and socio-political consequence for India.

Once the standing dialogue mechanism is in place to discuss strategic doctrines, it can be useful in crisis for forestalling crisis instability and conflict escalation. Strategic dialogues are in place with friends as the US as also with perceived adversaries as China. Surely they are more needed with Pakistan; not only for prevention but also cure.

The author is a Research Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

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