India's airstrikes are more posturing than prelude to war

Neither Narendra Modi nor Imran Khan can afford a full-scale India-Pakistan conflict

India’s limited airstrikes across the “line of control” in Kashmir, and Pakistan’s warning that it is preparing for “all eventualities”, appear to be more political posturing than a prelude to all-out war. At least, that is what the international community hopes as the nuclear-armed neighbours square off once again.

Rationally speaking, neither country’s prime minister can afford another full-scale conflict – Pakistan’s Imran Khan because he is still getting started after winning power for the first time last July, India’s Narendra Modi because he is seeking a second chance in national polls this spring.

Two of the three major India-Pakistan conflicts since partition in 1947 have been waged over Kashmir. They have one factor in common. The war of 1965, the Kargil conflict of 1999, and lesser, recurring clashes have settled nothing. Kashmir remains divided, disputed and prone to violence, the scene of a low-level insurgency and a constant source of friction exploited by extremists on both sides.

Modi clearly felt he had to do something after the Valentine’s Day massacre by Islamist terrorists based in Azad Kashmir that killed 44 Indian paramilitaries. Public opinion, and his political rivals, demanded he act. Tuesday’s “surgical strikes” were the less risky option, compared with a lengthier cross-border ground operation to which Pakistan would perforce have responded militarily.

Map of Kashmir
Areas of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan, India and China

Overheated tempers could have had the opposite effect, as in the past, pushing Modi into more drastic action – and this remains a possibility. Yet what looks, at present, like an Indian decision to limit reprisals was helped by Khan’s calm, non-escalatory handling of the post-attack fallout so far. He maintained this ostensibly reasonable approach on Tuesday, reserving the right to respond “appropriately” in self-defence.

Could it be Pakistan’s leaders are finally learning their history lessons? Pakistan cannot defeat more powerful, wealthier India. When it tries, it loses. Nuclear is not a sane option. But the country is successfully strengthening its diplomatic and political defences.

Pakistan has a powerful friend and investor in China and plays a key role in Chinese president Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road project – which has a growing military dimension. A recent visitor to Islamabad was Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince and another wealthy backer.

Thanks, meanwhile, to Donald Trump, Pakistan finds itself increasingly free of Washington’s stifling embrace. Complaining, like India, about Pakistani links to extremist groups, Trump slashed US security aid last year. This and the expected US withdrawal from Afghanistan is welcomed by many Pakistanis as the end of strategic vassalage.

So when India vowed to “completely isolate” Pakistan diplomatically after the 14 February attack, and threatened international ignominy, it promised more than it could deliver.

That could only exacerbate Indian frustrations. And “cool hand” Khan could overplay his cards by appearing to indulge far-right religious groups, as in last year’s election campaign. Promising an inquiry into terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed’s culpability for 14 February, if India first provides evidence, while urging Modi to “give peace a chance”, is unlikely to be enough.

At a weekend election rally in Rajasthan, Modi indicated he would continue to use terrorism as a stick to beat Pakistan. “There is consensus in the entire world against terrorism ... The scores will be settled this time, settled for good,” he warned. Speaking in Churu after the airstrikes, Modi boasted India was not afraid of escalation.

Other ministers were more triumphalist still, celebrating an “act of extreme valour” and promising to hit back “harder and stronger” if Pakistan retaliated.

This sort of jingoism may make electoral sense to Modi’s people. But if they, too, study recent history, they will realise the political route is the only escape from India’s recurring Kashmir nightmare, security specialist Happymon Jacob suggested.

“Aggressive tactics [have] turned south Kashmir’s popular opinion against India,” Jacob wrote in The Hindu. “India finds itself in a bind in Kashmir, and it will take a great deal of political sophistication, back-channel reaching out, and comprehensive political vision to get Kashmir back on track.”


Simon Tisdall

The GuardianTramp

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