Freezing relations with Pakistan and temporarily stalling secretary-level talks tentatively scheduled for September appears to be the preferred choice for commentators and experts alike. To be sure, Opposition representatives of all stripes make clear that the very idea of dialogue requires urgent revision. Indeed, there is much merit to the argument. After all, the unjustifiable and challenging attacks across the line of control are said to continue unabated. Indian army spokesmen make clear that Pakistani Border Action Teams or a mix of Pakistani regular soldiers and un-uniformed non-State actors supported by Pakistan are likely to continue their campaign along the border.
Tellingly, Pakistan’s print media — or at least selective English language newspapers — have adopted a somewhat more cautious tone in reporting the existing state of cross-border fighting. Instead, much is made of Islamabad’s decision to release 300-odd Indian prisoners (on August 24) lingering in Pakistani jails. This is no doubt an effort to return a degree of confidence to the process of laying the groundwork for talks. There is of course a sinister duality in an approach whereby targeted attacks are launched from the same country as the gesture of peace, but such is Pakistan. Such dualities ought not to surprise anyone.
To be sure, the current state of alert is a potent example of how and why dealing with Pakistan necessarily requires a strategy designed to address or at least partially appreciate the constraints and motivations placed on decisionmakers in both Islamabad — the political abode — and Rawalpindi — home to Pakistan’s military tsars. Cynics would of course suggest that it is not the responsibility of one sovereign state to consider the internal and fractious politics of another. This logic has little or no practicable meaning whatsoever. ‘Knowing your opponent’, as Sun Tzu loosely argued, is the first principle of strategy.
Opposition elites loosely advocate stalling talks and adopting a muscular strategy designed to push back Pakistani sponsored actions. In short, many representatives in the past week have suggested escalation. Devising a ‘befitting reply’ and ‘teaching them a lesson’ have become commonplace in India’s political vocabulary. But what does all this mean? What exactly is it that India can do? In its simplest definition, strategy is about practising that which leads to a set of intended outcomes. Thereby, the key question that requires greater introspection is what is that India would like from its relations with Pakistan? Such a question need not require debating two polar ends of an argument: of either talking or not talking, rather, working towards an end that suits what might be called Indian interests.
There is, of course, much confusion and debate with regards to what these interests might be. A minority on the extreme fringe of the political Right seems to think that military intervention inside Pakistan is likely to end the threat of conflict. It does not take much to see why such poorly constructed ideas are less worthy of attention. Leaving aside the obvious fact that Pakistan too enjoys the comfort of many nuclear weapons, the key question of course is: has intervention in the past decade reduced the potential for bloodshed and inspired the hunger for peace? Those living in Afghanistan or Palestine or even Libya are certainly less enthused by tough talk. It is not hard to see why any form of Indian military intervention in Pakistan — no matter how limited it might be — would only unite a disenfranchised polity inspired by the hunger for war. Even peacemakers cannot be expected to swallow humiliation.
Those occupying the space given to the right-of-centre — and who themselves have dealt with the threat and reality of terrorism at the turn of the 21st century — appear a little more measured — when at least compared to the fringe folk — in their response. Whilst some support the somewhat discredited but popular option of limited or surgical strikes against specified locations on the other side of the border, others push for militarization of the border or something less daunting but equally threatening as the Indian military build-up following the attacks on the Indian Parliament in 2001.
Taken together, both such options are coercive in nature. The key objective would be to influence Pakistan’s choices and place an end to cross-border attacks. On balance, thinking about coercive strategies is hardly unusual. The key problem with such an approach is that a lot is left to the design and mind of the target state that is supposed to be coerced. There is no guarantee that a threat emanating from India — either as a result of limited and targeted attacks on Pakistani soil or a rush for more troops eye-balling their counterparts in lighter green uniforms — will convince both Islamabad and Rawalpindi to stand down.
In 2002, when a million Pakistani and Indian soldiers found themselves on the brink of war, a lot was left to American interlocutors to loosen the high state of tension. Importantly, the Bush administration was invested in the idea of peace, at least partially, to avoid a large-scale war at a time American troops were sent into Afghanistan, on the other side of Pakistan’s border. At the present time, and especially given the recent change of political guard within Pakistan, there is nothing to suggest that escalation of the sort suggested can be controlled. Similarly, those making a case for surgical strikes first ought to be asked a simple question: why won’t Pakistan retaliate, and if she does, what will India do? In short, neither of these options is feasible, nor are they strategically profitable for India: a country that requires a lot more attention to it’s tanking currency than the manifested spin-offs of a contested border. Yet, this does not mean that India does nothing or simply reacts to continued provocation with enthused lip-service.
Dealing with dualities — as mentioned earlier — requires devising dual strategies, placing necessary constraints on the opponents’ ability to make and practise its choices. At some level, it appears safe to assume that Nawaz Sharif’s government aspires for engagement whilst those in uniform don’t. This is of course a simplistic division, but is crafted to cut through the intricacies of Pakistan’s difficult-to-understand civil-military relationship in a piece such as this.
Further, and in spite of the potential want for war by heavily armed and well funded non-state actors sheltered in and around southern Punjab — Sharif’s political abode — it seems reasonable to assume that the Pakistani prime minister at least faintly aspires for talks to continue. If this is the case, Manmohan Singh’s government must reciprocate. Equally, and if cross-border contacts continue, the military should of course do what is necessary — without unknowingly stepping onto an escalator — to beat back such acts of unforgivable aggression. Any military theorist will admit that fighting and talking are a reasonable outcome in as charged an environment as the one between and within India and Pakistan. To be sure, India’s Opposition elite will do their part to inspire the thirst for conflict. It is easy to do so when you’re merely suggesting but not actually making and taking crucial decisions. Here, it is for the prime minister to keep to his reputation of steadfastly — and sometimes perhaps solely — waving the flag of dialogue. Such flags ought not to be coloured by the hope of victory in an election that is less likely to be determined by the number of bullets shot across the border, but potentially by the fiscal health of a nation he once liberated from both the cynicism of those opposed to change as well as an economy and society tired of the past.