How to talk peace

Updated March 05, 2019

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

THE crisis between Pakistan and India might defuse over time. But as we all try and get our breath back, among the din of celebrations, it is not too early to pay attention to the more worrying aspects of this near-confrontation.

First and foremost is the million-dollar question about whether the embarrassment New Delhi faced — first with a ‘strike’ that seems to have caused little damage, and then a counterstrike which led to a downed IAF aircraft and a pilot in Pakistan’s custody — will deter it from such adventures in the future.

Also read: India plotted dangerous attack with Israeli help

Many articles, over the past week, have detailed how Indian leaders before Narendra Modi considered and discarded the option of strikes in response to the Indian parliament and Mumbai attacks. However, Modi was not so circumspect. He didn’t seem to think that a nuclearised subcontinent warranted caution and first dipped his toes in the water with the so-called surgical strike across the Line of Control in 2016. Three years later, he went further, but was confronted by a Pakistan that hit back.

Some experts feel that Modi has tried to set a new ‘normal’ unsuccessfully — a new normal in which any militant attack in Indian territory would result in an attack on Pakistan as ‘punishment’. However, can we really assume that in the past week we have dissuaded India from such attacks in the future?

The leadership needs to focus on the importance of raising awareness about war and what it brings.

After all, Modi may have set a new standard domestically for what leaders are supposed to do in response to militant attacks. There is no doubt that initially there had been an outpouring of praise in India, and there may continue to be support for such ‘punitive’ strikes. Hence, regardless of whoever is in power, there may be pressure on him or her to behave similarly, if there is another large-scale attack. If Modi had done it, how can his predecessors appear weak in comparison?

Indeed, the problem with politics is that it often forces elected leaders to make decisions for fear of losing support or to deflect criticism from the opposition. It remains to be seen if Modi — even if he failed to set a new normal regionally — has set one domestically, and what this will mean for Pakistan-India ties.

This, however, is not the only reason Pakistan can’t think that besting India in this particular round is a larger victory. The international context is also of concern.

Opinion, internationally, now swings automatically to the side of anyone claiming to be a victim of militancy. This is partly due to the experience of countries across the globe, many of whom are experiencing terrorism at home. In this context, countries, from the US to Great Britain to France, are going to heed and support a nation complaining about terrorism. This is one reason there was little effort internationally when Pakistan was talking about New Delhi’s plans to do something in the wake of the Pulwama attack — even the Balakot strike was followed by relative silence (and more than just tacit support for India) till Pakistan retaliated and the risks of a nuclear conflagration became real.

Moeed Yusuf, who has studied Pakistan-India relations, feels that the international community miscalculated by assuming that Pakistan would not react as it hadn’t after India claimed to carry out a ‘surgical strike’ in the aftermath of the Uri attack. But was it just a miscalculation or was it partly also because of how the world views militancy and Pakistan?

This is another reality check which should push us towards taking steps to eliminate the presence of any non-state actors operating from our soil.

Third, we need to realise that the ‘internationalisation’ of the Kashmir issue needs more introspection than celebration. Internationalisation of the issue simply leads to international pressure for talks between India and Pakistan, and this requires us to understand what a resolution of Kashmir will look like, and then develop a consensus.

Are we still talking about the transfer of territory, which is a rare occurrence in international politics? Are we willing to discuss other options — which may fall short of the valley becoming an official part of Pakistan, but will help ease the misery of the Kashmiri people? Are we, as a state and society, willing to accept that Musharraf, for all his faults, had the right approach to Kashmir? For only talks to ease Pakistan-India relations and then progress on Kashmir can help end the violence in the valley — provided there is a government in Delhi more sensible than Modi’s. And the leadership in Pakistan needs to make its people understand what this progress will look like.

Last but not least, the leadership also needs to learn from this current stand-off the importance of raising awareness about a war and what it brings.

For 24 hours after the Indian strike, angry Pakistanis wanted vengeance, putting unwarranted pressure on the government and the armed forces. Drawing room discussions, informal conversations and social media messages were awash with questions about why the invading Indian planes had not been shot down; why the leadership had said it would strike back at a time of its choosing; and how this was perhaps simply an excuse to avoid any action. The disappointment was palpable.

And there were few voices willing to argue that restraint was a good strategy in a nuclearised neighbourhood: the voices for peace (and against war) were raised only once Pakistan had ‘avenged’ the attack. After which, the celebration was so loud that few (outside the government and the armed forces) were concerned about the escalation that faced us.

Fortunately, the situation was defused. But perhaps this past week should teach us the importance of raising awareness of the ramifications of a nuclear confrontation so we can understand the dangers of warmongering instead of expecting the armed forces to prioritise retaliation over restraint.

Could Pemra, which is used to check the small infractions to vet ads, not also use its energies to help educate the people what war between nuclear neighbours looks like? Hopefully someone in Islamabad and Pindi is thinking about this.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, March 5th, 2019