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Neither Peace nor Process: India-Pakistan on Escalation Ladder

Sushant Sareen is Consultant, Pakistan Project, at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • October 24, 2013

    Since the beginning of 2013, the ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir has come under severe strain. Although incidents of ceasefire violations have shown an upward trend since 2010, and on an average increased by around 100% year on year, the situation on the LoC remained pretty much under control. But 2013 has seen the virtual collapse of the ceasefire agreement that India and Pakistan entered into in late 2003.

    With both countries entering into an action-reaction cycle and neither army willing to back down, they have started climbing the escalation ladder of hostilities. Unless they can now step off this ladder and fast, it will mean that the single most important Confidence Building Measure (CBM) between the two countries will come crashing down. Stepping off the escalation ladder is, however, easier said than done because of the political cost it entails, a cost that neither side is either willing, or in a position, to pay. The UPA government in India cannot afford to be seen playing a weak hand because of the forthcoming elections; and Nawaz Sharif cannot step back because it will open him to charges of a ‘sell-out’ and weaken his position vis-a-vis the army, which is perhaps one reason why he is trying to rope in the Americans to once again pull his chestnuts out of the fire.

    Despite the almost daily violations of the ceasefire since August, the use of higher calibre weapons like mortars, targeting of civilian targets across the LoC by Pakistani forces, and the constantly widening geographical spread of the violations along the length of the LoC, the situation has still not reached the pre-ceasefire agreement stage. Back then, the entire LoC was ‘hot’ and there were daily artillery duels, cross-border raids and unrestrained firing. A return to that situation would extract a very heavy price not just from Pakistan which is far more vulnerable in most of the sectors of the LoC, but also from India. Both countries will suffer losses not just in terms of lives of soldiers and civilians, but also in terms of damage to livelihoods of ordinary people who are living close to the LoC.

    Although, many observers in India had been fearing a revival of export of jihadist terrorism by Pakistan, which they believed would take advantage of the withdrawal of the US-led international forces from Afghanistan in 2014 and the possible return of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the spike in violence at this point in time has come as a bit of surprise. Part of the reason for this surprise is that the victory of Nawaz Sharif in the general elections in May had led many in India to attach rather unrealistic hopes to him being able to bring about a paradigm change in the relations between the two countries. For his part, Sharif seemed to consistently make all the right noises on normalising relations with India. Even after he won the elections, he continued to claim that he had received a mandate for improving relations with India. But the facts on ground – ever since he has assumed office of Prime Minister, the situation on the LoC has become even more fragile than it has been in the past decade – belie all the optimism that his victory had generated.

    Increasingly, Sharif seems to be playing something of a Jekyll and Hyde with India. On the one hand, he raises the issue of Kashmir in the UN General Assembly, passes a resolution in Pakistan’s National Assembly reiterating all support to Kashmiri separatists, seeks US and international intervention in Kashmir, stops the granting of Most Favoured Nation (MFN) trading status to India, refuses to act against anti-India jihadist terror groups etc; and on the other hand, he adopts a completely contrary stand by talking of going back to the Lahore Declaration, continues to talk of going the extra mile to make peace with India, uses Pakistan's proximity to India to seek foreign investment (something which flies in the face of logic if trade between the two countries remains anaemic and Pakistan doesn’t accord India MFN status), etc.

    This double-speak of Nawaz Sharif has now led many in India to doubt his sincerity on improving relations with India. Questions are also being raised on whether Sharif is still living in the 1990s when he followed a twin track approach of talks and trade proceeding in parallel with terrorism, something which India finds unacceptable today. Then there is the issue of whether Sharif is playing ‘good cop’ to the Pakistan army and ‘bad cop’ to their terrorist paramilitaries’. Finally, if Nawaz Sharif is unable to control the army and jihadists, then will any purpose be served in India seriously engaging a powerless Prime Minister in Pakistan?

    Often, India is told that there is a broad political consensus in Pakistan on normalising ties with India. And then in the same breath, Pakistanis point to Nawaz Sharif’s domestic political compulsions in improving relations with India. This is clearly a contradiction. Even if there is a consensus in Pakistan on improving ties with India, there is no consensus on the terms and conditions under which such normalisation will take place. Yet another half-truth that Pakistanis and their Indian apologists are selling in India is that for the Pakistan military establishment, India is no longer the enemy number 1 and has been replaced by the internal terrorist threat. This is again complete nonsense. The fact is that for the Pakistan army, India still remains enemy number 1, more so because the military manufactured narrative which is incessantly mouthed by the embedded media points to India for the terrorism inside Pakistan. A recent example of this is that the Pakistan Army has funded a trashy masala film called Waar which deals with Pakistan's fight against terrorism and in which the villain is India and not the Taliban!

    India is, in a sense, seen as the magic bullet by different sections of the Pakistani power structure for achieving their own, and often contradictory ends. For instance, one part of Nawaz Sharif – the part interested in improving relations – realises that once he settles matters with India, it will help Pakistan to get over many of its economic problems, give a fillip to trade, investment and creation of employment opportunities, assist in ensuring civilian supremacy over the military, and help in fighting extremism. This part of Nawaz Sharif probably understands that once again indulging in the double-game of the 1990s will tantamount to playing into the hands of the Pakistan Army.

    For the Pakistan army, hostile relations with India serve as a perfect excuse for achieving its political and strategic objectives. The army continue to keep a veto over the India and Kashmir policy, invite international attention and perhaps mediation by projecting Kashmir as a nuclear flashpoint (something that Nawaz Sharif also indulged), seek concessions on Kashmir and Afghanistan by drawing a linkage between the two and thereby exploit the US dependence on Pakistani land routes to affect the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, use terrorism in Kashmir to keep India unsettled and also divide the ranks of Pakistani Taliban by diverting some of them (especially the Punjabi component) to India thereby making the problem of tackling the remnants somewhat more manageable.

    Unless there is clarity inside Pakistan on whether the India card is to be used in a malign manner or in a constructive way, there is unlikely to be any progress in improving relations between the two countries. Therefore, instead of living in a world of make-believe, India needs to prepare for resurgence in Pakistani supported and sponsored terrorism, not just in Jammu and Kashmir but also in the rest of India. The security grid is in place in J&K but it needs to be shaken into action because relative peace over the last few years has resulted in a bit of slackening. More importantly, India needs to brace itself for a wave of jihadist terror, including suicide bombings, and take preventive and pre-emptive steps against this emerging threat. A lot of time has already been wasted in preparing for this wave of terror that many have been predicting for a few years now. If the government continues to be somnolent about this threat, then it will be as guilty as the terrorists for the destruction and devastation that will result from the coming wave of terrorism.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.