Going forward

March 26, 2019

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The writer is the author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: US Crisis Management in South Asia.
The writer is the author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: US Crisis Management in South Asia.

IN every crisis is an opportunity. Indian and Pakistani policymakers must strive to identify what Pulwama may offer in that stead. They’d find that the situation isn’t hopeless.

The Pulwama episode damaged the quiet momentum that was being built towards constructive bilateral re-engagement after the upcoming Indian elections. Pakistan had been public about wanting a move in this direction. And while India hadn’t blinked, my sense is that the Indian government was also preparing to test the waters. I was in India in December and the feeling that India’s ‘isolate Pakistan’ policy had not worked was discernible. Even on Kashmir, the Delhi-based intelligentsia — usually reluctant to lower their guard — were convinced that the status quo was untenable and that Pakistan couldn’t be kept out of the equation.

The Pulwama crisis hasn’t changed these fundamentals. For the first time, I am convinced that the Pakistani civilian and army top brass has internalised that more of the same with India is a losing proposition for Pakistan. The power differential is growing at a pace that will force Pakistan out of India’s league. Any room for meaningful negotiations would be over thereafter. This doesn’t mean Pakistan can or will do what India wants, but it does imply a more forward-leaning attitude towards finding a workable way forward. They recognise that this will have to include some understanding on terrorism.

On the Indian side, the fate of the BJP government’s ‘isolate Pakistan’ policy would have helped to crystallise their compulsion to re-engage. With CPEC and the Afghan peace process in the mix, an attempt to isolate Pakistan globally was, at the very least, ill timed. But Pakistan has, in fact, been uncharacteristically deft in countering India’s effort by diversifying its option set in the Gulf and by opening up conversations with countries like Russia and ASEAN members like Malaysia.

Pakistan and India must agree on steps to manage crises.

Also, the more India mishandles Kashmir internally, the more space Pakistan is bound to get to raise the issue internationally. Bilateral engagement with Pakistan would be a possible out for India: one of the first things that happens when India and Pakistan engage in dialogue is a tacit understanding on taking it easy on embarrassing each other.

Pulwama showed that there isn’t a military option left in South Asia. India’s deterrent doesn’t work at sub-conventional, limited-escalation levels. Major war — where India has an advantage — is both unacceptable to the world and ultimately suicidal.

So to the million-dollar question: what next?

The consensus is that everyone’s got to sit tight till the Indian elections are over.

No good. Not least because depending on electoral outcomes is never a safe bet. We’ve seen this mistake made before, as recently as 2014 when Pakistan pulled the plug on granting India the Most Favoured Nation status at the eleventh hour, supposedly because it was persuaded to wait for the Indian elections to produce a new government.

More importantly, India and Pakistan have immediate business to take care of. Whether Pulwama creates a breakthrough or ends up being the calm before the storm depends on how things transpire in Kashmir in the coming days. It’s no hidden secret that the current situation there presents a golden opportunity for any terrorist outfit looking to force India and Pakistan into yet another — and inevitably less manageable — crisis.

Not only that, but anti-Pakistan outfits in Afghanistan may be salivating at the prospect of creating a bang within Pakistan, knowing that it’ll inevitably lead to a blame game between New Delhi and Islamabad, and (ideally from their perspective) to a more serious escalation that’ll leave Pakistan distracted from its western border. India and Pakistan have much to talk about quietly, specifically to share intelligence on any leads that may lower the possibility of terrorists getting the better of them in the coming days.

The two sides also need to get real about handling the next crisis differently. Neither India nor the world expected Pakistan’s strike. There was a good 12-18 hour period after that when an Indian counter-response seemed more likely than not; and Pakistan would have fired back. No one was clear on how things were to be pulled back after that.

Pakistan and India need to agree on immediate, even if ad hoc, crisis management protocols in case tensions rise again. Some mechanism of deciphering the facts surrounding a crisis trigger event in real time must be put in place. This would require involvement of third parties like the US and China. India and Pakistan also need to ensure far better private and public bilateral communication during a repeat episode. And media narratives must not be allowed to get out of hand — especially in India.

Engaging on these issues may also give both sides a start for a more expanded bilateral conversation after the Indian elections.

The writer is the author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: US Crisis Management in South Asia.

Published in Dawn, March 26th, 2019