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Sustainable conflict

August 21, 2016

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THE biggest lie is that it’s not sustainable. India-Pakistan. The bickering, the squabbling — and, occasionally, the fighting.

At some point, if we don’t mend our collective ways, the whole exercise will collapse in on itself, with uncertain but devastating consequences for all of us.

Or so goes conventional wisdom.

But we live in the realm of the unconventional. Zoom out from the latest India-Pakistan kerfuffle and little of the broader dynamic seems imminently unsustainable.

Go big, go small, whatever the issue, there’s a strange kind of durability to the competition-conflict that is India-Pakistan.

Take Kashmir. The Indians may not know how to deal with the chunk under their control, but there’s no real international cost to India — because the world doesn’t care.

Kashmir, Tibet, Chechnya — it’s just how the world works: some of the ugly stuff done by the big boys gets ignored. Like we do with China and the Uighurs.

As for the jihad problem, a return to the ’90s is unlikely. Back then the LoC was relatively porous and India didn’t really know what it was dealing with locally. But India has learned. The LoC is not impenetrable, but it’s pretty close. Gone are the days of mass infiltration.


We live in the realm of the unconventional. Zoom out from the latest India-Pakistan kerfuffle and little of the broader dynamic seems imminently unsustainable.


As for indigenous violence, this Burhan Wani episode pretty much says it all: when it comes to armed resistance, the Indian state is down to dealing with a few kids with guns.

And them the smothering, suffocating Indian intel/security apparatus can hunt down when needed.

Verdict: stalemate.

Or take military conflict. India pulling away from Pakistan economically was supposed to be terribly destabilising.

A conventional-war-machine gap would grow to the point of a new nightmare: overconfident India could get funny ideas about militarily dominating us causing us to contemplate doing something reckless and wild pre-emptively.

But we short-circuited that by lowering the nuclear threshold: any grand new ideas India gets militarily will simply be neutralised by pocket-sized nukes, long-range missiles or sheer numbers in the middle range.

So no ruinous arms race that we could never have afforded. Lowering the nuclear threshold has also had two other effects.

It means the outside world has greater incentive than ever to manage tensions between India and us. And it has, perversely, opened the door to more sub-conventional conflict.

When you know that any military conflict will be a nuclear one — because of the lower nuclear threshold we’ve introduced — your tolerance for acts of sabotage and terrorism goes up.

So say there’s another Mumbai/Pathankot/whatever — India can’t immediately threaten war because that would be suicide.

Or if India messes around aggressively in Balochistan or Karachi or wherever, we can’t very well threaten war in response — because our war calculus is rooted in the lower nuclear threshold of the smaller state/military.

Verdict: stalemate.

Or take Afghanistan. The Indians may be deepening their ties with the Afghan state, but the Taliban aren’t exactly going anywhere.

Encirclement by India is a paranoia here, but you can’t get encircled when you’re on opposite sides of a war that neither side looks like it can win.

India-Pak competition in Afghanistan may heat up, but the strategic picture is a messy kind of stable.

A de facto survival guarantee for the Afghan state by the foreign-troops backstop until 2020 and no chance the Taliban will be militarily defeated before.

Verdict: stalemate.

Or take terrorism. The fear is rather straightforward: the anti-India jihad complex has grown so vast that it is no longer fully under control and it may get ideas of its own.

And you can only keep it muzzled so long: you can’t very well be a proper jihad outfit if you aren’t actually engaged in jihad.

The jihadi tail wagging the Pakistan dog, then.

Except Pathankot has already happened and with it seemingly established a stable seven-eight year cycle: 2001 — the parliament attack; 2008 — Mumbai; and 2016 — Pathankot.

Plus, the jihad complex’s potential recruitment woes have been taken care of nicely by Modi and his cohorts’ right-wing antics and, of course, this summer’s violence by India in Kashmir.

There’s more. The threat that a proliferating jihad network poses to the state here is real — but the state’s capacity to deal with rogue outfits has been boosted by all the stuff it’s been doing against the TTP.

And if India does decide to reciprocate on the terrorism stuff, the long fight against the TTP has inured the public to violence — bombings and attacks won’t exactly put pressure on the state to wrap up the anti-India jihad complex.

If anything, India dabbling in the terrorism stuff will harden public opinion here and make it all the easier for us to hang on to the anti-India non-states.

Verdict: stalemate.

Or take the civil-military divide on India. We know what the boys think and we know where the civilians stand.

For anything to change either the military will have to change or the civilians will have to change the military.

The military could change itself on India — but that’s only been remotely plausible when the military is running the country. Except the boys seem to have ruled out a coup.

And because they’ve ruled out a coup, they need to manage the civilians — meaning they need to make sure the civilians don’t grow too strong.

But until the civilians grow strong they don’t have a prayer of changing the military on India. A circularity from hell.

Verdict: stalemate.

Scarier than the Pak-India dynamic not being sustainable is that it may actually be sustainable.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, August 21st, 2016