India-Pakistan standoff and the pity of war

New Delhi, Delhi, IndiaWritten By: Wajahat QaziUpdated: Mar 02, 2019, 12:37 PM IST

File Photo Photograph:(Zee News Network)

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The convoluted nature of the relationship between India and Pakistan is well known but over a period of time, it corresponded to the dynamic of a “no war, no peace” one.

I would, before advancing to the core arguments of this essay, like to state that I, by and through conscious choice,  stay away from and avoid writing on India and Pakistan, their adversarial relationship, the nature of their issues and problems, primarily because of the boringly predictable nature of this particular conflict dyad, its ups and downs, gyrations and various crises. But, this time, I will pen down my thoughts because of the extraordinary nature of the crisis that the two arch antagonists got embroiled into. 

The convoluted nature of the relationship is well known but over a period of time, it corresponded to the dynamic of a “no war, no peace” one. That is, neither war nor piece obtained between India and Pakistan. This grey zone held till the Pulwama attacks whose aftermath brought both to the brink of war. Even though it is an inexact parallel but the preceding days till now bore a resemblance, in a different permutation, combination and context to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. This particular crisis occurred after a standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union over the deployment of missiles in Cuba and elsewhere during the Cold War. The tense standoff which lasted thirteen days, and brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, was staved off by deft and astute leadership and statecraft.  War was averted and the world moved on. 

Fifty-seven years have elapsed since the Cuban Missile Crisis but the lessons still hold with great alacrity and poignancy, especially with respect to relations between India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed antagonists who, as the contemporary crisis demonstrates all too eloquently, can bring the South Asian region and, by extension, the world, to war. It does not matter what strategic doctrine governs their nuclear weapons architecture and their use; nor does the fact that there is some disparity in the number of these weapons that each country has, accord relief. If and when there is war between the two, it will be nuclear and it will devastate. This very fact is sobering and should concentrate the minds of powers that be across the fault line and divide. 

I will make a bit of a digression here and dwell on the nature of war with a personal anecdote. In the late nineties, when I was twenty-something, after my clumsy and amateur reading of Von Clausewitz, the Prussian theorist of war, I blurted out his dictum that, “War is a continuation of politics by other means” to my inimitable Australian mentor.  The sagacious man replied that “all war is bad politics”. While I could not entirely grasp the thrust of what my mentor had said but I understand and realise it all too clearly now.

While the nature of war has changed radically over the years and there is no such thing as “total war” now but its potency and destructive capacity has increased manifold. This accrues from nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, among other things. Yes, there are deterrence paradigms and mechanisms in place whose logic suggests that there are both real and implied red lines that might not be crossed in the event of crises but deterrence, at the end of the day, is a human construct. Being fallible and emotional, the most robust of these paradigms can break down under moments of intense stress and duress, a condition that may have been arrived at in the standoff between India and Pakistan post-Pulwama.

If things reached such a pass, how, the question is was war averted?

The answer might lie in the nature of international politics and relations. Both India and Pakistan state do not operate in a vacuum; they exist in an international system and structure that is somewhat prone to war but looks askance at it. The sequence of events after Pulwama alarmed the international community enough to lean perhaps both on India and Pakistan to exercise restraint and not to cross a certain threshold. Both countries through limited probes or call it if you may, sorties, had made their points which they could present to their respective domestic audiences and they could go back to the dressing rooms, so to speak. But, the international community’s cautions or even warnings of restraint are premised on stability, regional and otherwise, than anything else. From a generic and a rather abstract perspective, the international system and structure, kicked in and leant on India and Pakistan because it prizes and values stability. It is not beholden to any human or humanitarian consideration. Being parts and constituents of this system and structure, India and Pakistan had to yield. But, all things considered and given the nature of the relations between the two countries, the international system’s and community’s caution against war and the hiatus engendered by this is a temporary palliative. War can and might break out between the arch adversaries anytime. What then is the real and lasting antidote to it?

 The answer here lies in the elevation and primacy of the political and the diplomatic over military options. Counter-intuitively but fortuitously, an opening of sorts has been provided by the capture of an IAF pilot and the offer of his release by Pakistan. This serendipitous offering must be grabbed head on and then capitalised on. It will or can serve two objectives: in the realm of immediacy, it can defuse the current crisis and help deescalate and it can lead to a dynamic where statecraft and sagacious diplomacy become the operative dynamic between India and Pakistan. But,  to be long lasting and for durable peace to hold,  both countries must understand the causal loops and linkages that actually bring them to crisis points and then firmly untangle and deal with these. They must forget Clausewitz and take heed to the wise words of my Australian mentor!

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)