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De-escalate now

Updated February 28, 2019

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The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

THERE are few sights in the world that make one more nauseous than TV anchors hooting for war, hashtag warriors on social media or chicken hawks who’ve never seen a shot fired in anger in their lives squawking out their Kung Fu in colourful studios. All these stay-at-home warriors ought to be made to spend a week in a bunker on the Line of Control before being allowed to egg on their leaderships towards war.

Prime Minister Imran Khan is correct in cautioning everybody about the dangers of this tit-for-tat series of strikes getting out of everyone’s control. Even though he didn’t use the words himself, the fact that both countries playing this glorified game of tag are nuclear powers needs to be taken far more seriously by everyone. His call to prevent further escalation and invitation to talk this out is an invitation to end this whole affair with maturity. It should be taken up.

As we go up the ladder of escalation, the situation becomes more unstable and harder to game out. With a reckless strike on a hilltop in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Indians sent a message that they have the capability to hit inside Pakistan, and the next strike could come on a more important target. But Pakistan evened the score within 24 hours by striking inside territory held by India in identical fashion. “End of round 1” tweeted Happymon Jacob, Delhi-based academic and one of those sane minds urging restraint throughout the crisis. “Didn’t go all that well, I guess. Round 2 or calling it quits now?!”

Both countries have now made their point, that they have the capability to strike inside each other’s territories. Prime Minister Narendra Modi went up one rung in the ladder thinking he would find the space to take punitive action against Pakistan and have something to report to his constituency back home, but sadly for him he found no such space. Now he has a choice: climb further up and seek his space there or call it a day. Round 2 or game over?

Continued escalation means making a point beyond demonstration of capability.

Continued escalation means making a point beyond demonstration of capability. Now Modi will need to show that he can use this capability to dissuade Pakistan from responding, and he will need to do this without causing the conflict to spread horizontally. This is where Prime Minister Imran Khan’s warning of a possible miscalculation becomes important to bear in mind. The more the situation escalates, graduating beyond airstrikes and firing across the Line of Control, the greater the likelihood of a miscalculation, or a mistake, or of a variable from outside the equation sending the situation over a precipice. The uncertainty grows with the square of the distance up the escalatory ladder.

There is nothing up there for Modi. No prize, no trophy to bring home. Each rung up is more difficult to climb down from without losing face, and face is something Modi cannot afford to lose since it’s pretty much all that he’s in this game for.

Those superstars in the media baying for vengeance (and let’s admit here that there is far more of such on-screen war-mongering going on in India than in Pakistan) need to calm down and first consider how far they are willing to go. War is not a video game, and nuclear weapons are not toys. One feels a little embarrassed having to say this to ostensibly grownup men and women, but based on what we are seeing, unfortunately it has become necessary.

Take one example. Here is something that an older, seasoned journalist from India tweeted on the day his country launched their strikes on that hilltop in KP. “This isn’t revenge. It is intended deterrence. My argument is to raise deterrent capability to a level that conventional retaliation is unthinkable. That kind of asymmetry established a new conventional deterrence making nukes irrelevant in our limited context.”

With due respect to this gentlemen, his credentials and considerable experience in our profession, these are empty words. Nukes will never be irrelevant in any context in which they exist. To not realise that is to miss what nukes really are.

This affliction, to start thinking the unthinkable to use Herman Kahn’s evocative words, arises in those contexts in which the hardships of war have been forgotten, and those who have never seen a colleague fall enter the conversation about war fighting.

In the US too, in the early days of deterrence back in the 1950s and 1960s, the conversation around America’s nuclear doctrine was briefly hijacked by a group of over clever young civilian technocrats, who annoyed the military no end by inserting themselves into conversations on force posture and war-fighting doctrine. They were called the ‘whiz kids’ at the time, and when Kennedy inducted them into his cabinet in large numbers, they drove the administration into a disastrous war in Vietnam. One of them was Robert McNamara, and he has written a deeply introspective book about that war and the whiz kids. Please read it.

This is not to say that civilian voices do not belong in conversations about foreign policy or even threat assessments. But perhaps one reason why the Pakistani side is issuing statements urging calm and restraint and pointing out the dangers of an escalation and how things can quickly spiral out of the control of the leaderships of both countries and acquire a dynamic of its own, is because the military is substantially involved in crafting the response over here.

Soldiers understand war and the fog and confusion and grief and anguish that it brings in a way TV anchors and hashtag warriors on Twitter don’t. I am in no place to tell the leaderships of both countries what to do. But I can say this to my colleagues in the profession with all the emphasis at my command: calm down and stop beating the drums of war.

The writer is a member of staff.

khurram.husain@gmail.com

Twitter: @khurramhusain

Published in Dawn, February 28th, 2019