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Post-Balakot, danger that events might spiral out of control is 'greater, not less'

By Tapan Bose*
The fear of war in South Asia is increasing. Tensions are escalating between India and Pakistan after the Indian defence minister's announcement in August this year that India may revoke its current commitment to only use nuclear weapons in retaliation for a nuclear attack, known as ‘no first use’. According to some experts who are watching the situation the risk of a conflict between the two countries has never been greater since they both tested nuclear weapons in 1998.
The airstrike on Balakot, deep inside Pakistan, which Modi said was a “pilot project”, and Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat’s earlier statement that India would not be restrained from responding to Pakistani are signs of a new strategic thinking over the past few years.
Recent developments suggest that Indian military experts think that there is scope for a limited conflict under the nuclear threshold. Indian Army’s new doctrine known as “Proactive Military Operations” or “Cold Start,” envisions rapid mobilization of integrated battle groups (IBGs) to enable a series of surprise but shallow offensives into Pakistan.
These are designed to circumvent Pakistan’s lowering of the nuclear threshold via short-range tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs). Such offensives would seek to achieve limited objectives without triggering a nuclear response and occur before international pressure could come into play to halt India’s military operations.
After the next terrorist attack, Modi will be under pressure to respond more dramatically. Hostilities will start at a higher scale
The surgical strike in 2016 and the air strike in 2019 indicate that Indian military establishment is progressively working toward developing and refining the means to devalue Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent posture. The notion that the space for limited war exists makes the prospect seem more attractive and workable for its advocates in New Delhi.
The air strike on Balakot did not change the situation to India’s advantage. While Modi boasted that a tough “new India” has taught Pakistan a lesson and redrawn the strategic map of South Asia -- but Islamabad showed it wasn’t afraid to strike back.
Pakistani jets penetrated Indian airspace and brought down a MiG fighter. After the next terrorist attack, Modi will be under pressure to respond more dramatically. Hostilities will start at a higher scale. The danger that events might spiral out of control is greater, not less.
New Delhi’s advancements in its nuclear and conventional forces are compelling Pakistan to follow suit. Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system resulted in Pakistan moving towards MIRVing its delivery vehicles. Pakistan has also developed theatre nuclear weapons in a bid to thwart India’s incendiary Cold Start Doctrine. While a maximalist approach lends strength to deterrence, the non-resolution of disputes between the two countries may result in early reliance on the ultimate weapon.

India and South Asia

Modi government’s policy of isolating Pakistan in South Asia has not been very successful. It seems it is unlikely that India will be able to convince all the members South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to agree to a temporary or permanent suspension of Pakistan from the grouping.
South Asia consists of eight nations around the Indian subcontinent, including the island nations of Sri Lanka and the Maldives that are situated south of India. Although South Asia only occupies approximately 3 percent of the world’s land area, the region is home to over 24 percent of the world’s population (nearly 1.9 billion), making it the most densely populated place on earth. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation was formed in 1985. The South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) was put into place in 2006 to facilitate trade in the region.
India is by far the largest member of SAARC. The organization was formed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the secretariat is based in Kathmandu, Nepal. Since decisions at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation are taken by consensus, it is unlikely that India will be able to convince all the members to isolate Pakistan.
It should be noted that while Nepal has been supporting Pakistan’s bid to include China in SAARC, Sri Lanka has a defence partnership with Pakistan. SAARC may not have achieved much, but any attempt to destroy it will face serious resistance.

Going to BINSTEC

Modi is now trying to develop BIMSTEC as the alternative to SAARC. The BIMSTEC member states are Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan. These are among the countries dependent on the Bay of Bengal. Pakistan is not a part of BIMSTEC, and that is the main reason for promoting BIMSTEC.
If the reason for isolating Pakistan is that it is providing sanctuary to terrorist organisations, it is pertinent to point out that Myanmar has been globally condemned for committing genocide against a section of its citizens, the Rohingya.
Cases have already been filed before International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice against Myanmar for committing war crimes. There is a global call for boycotting Myanmar. Ignoring the global condemnation, Modi government is conduction joint military exercise with Myanmar army. Myanmar has created a humongous out flow of refugees.
Bangladesh is hosting nearly 1.2 million Rohingya refugees forcibly evicted by Myanmar. Myanmar has not shown any signs of taking them back. Myanmar has also killed and pushed out hundreds of thousands of members of other nationalities like Arakanese, Mon, Kachins, Chins, Shans, Karens and the Wah. The killing is continuing.
Modi government’s bid to build alliance with anti-Muslim states like Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka is an extension of his anti-Muslim national policy. Modi’s efforts to ensure “complete isolation" of Pakistan after the Pulwama terror attack will certainly face hurdle at its immediate neighbourhood.
This may be the reason which has led Modi to build alliances with Myanmar and Thailand, trying to lure UAE and Saudi Arabia with big investment opportunities and at the same time deepening his strategic alliance with the USA and Israel. This is an attempt to ignore the geopolitical reality of South Asia, a historical and a cultural region.

Regional stability

The long festering Kashmir dispute and the acceleration of arms race typify the South Asian security architecture. Regarded as a nuclear flashpoint, the Kashmir issue lies at the heart of the decades-old Indo-Pak rivalry.
While peace in South Asia can only be achieved if both countries amicably resolve the conflict, New Delhi’s recalcitrance is met by Islamabad’s defiance. India’s reticence to talk on Kashmir is faced with a Pakistan that continues its diplomatic, political, moral and covert arms support for Kashmiris’ right to self-determination.
On August 5, this year, India announced the revocation of Indian Constitution Article 370 which provided Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir a special status and autonomy. Indian government said Jammu and Kashmir would no longer have a separate constitution and a flag. Moreover Indian-administered Kashmir was partitioned into two territories directly controlled by the Central government.
A curfew and communications blackout was clamped down, thousands have been arrested. There has been massive deployment of para military and army all over the valley, which has put up road blocks, and conducting nightly raids, beating up people of all ages including the aged, women and children. They have been taking people away without any warrants. While some of the restrictions have been lifted, the three month long clamp down has left the people of the valley totally shattered.
While a maximalist approach lends strength to deterrence, non-resolution of disputes may result in early reliance on the ultimate weapon
Pakistan’s government has been trying to persuade the international community through the United Nations to censure India’s move on Jammu and Kashmir. India’s opposition parties also oppose what is happening in Kashmir. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi claims that it will help Kashmiri society and its economy to develop. He claims that it is an “internal matter”, and Pakistan or any other country has no business in interfering in India’s internal matters.
The Kashmir dispute is also hampered by the Sino-US rivalry that has brought Washington and New Delhi into a strong strategic relationship. Trump administration gave a great boost to India vis-à-vis Pakistan when the US supported India’s efforts to designate several Pakistani nationals like Hafiz Sayeed, Sayed Salah Uddin and Masood Azhar listed as Specially Designated Global Terrorists and called upon Pakistan to ensure that its territory is not used against India.
Visibly, Washington batted for India’s long-held narrative on Kashmir. Regional stability in South Asia has been marred by long-standing disputes, arms race and the quest for expanding spheres of influence on part of outside powers.
Besides, the US also echoed India’s view on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) when its Secretary of Defence, Gen Mattis said that the project passes through a disputed territory. CPEC, by virtue of being a flagship of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), gives China access to markets in West Asia and the Middle East while obviating its reliance on the Strait of Malacca.
China’s meteoric rise was termed as a strategic competition and a greater threat to the US in its National Defence Strategy (NDS). Hence, the Indo-US strategic convergence must be seen in the context of US’ efforts to contain China’s growing influence in the region and beyond. Opposition to CPEC, owing to regional and global acrimonies, is stalling the chances of regional connectivity.
US efforts at isolating Iran diplomatically and economically will finally force India’s hand in letting the India-Iran relationship wither away. In the last decade, India’s relations with Iran have been transactional, focused on oil imports. This has now almost ground to a halt. India cut oil imports from Iran over the last year by 48%, with the gap filled by the US, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. This trend is likely to continue.
All these concerns are becoming more glaring due to intense adversarial relations between India and Pakistan. After the terrorist attack on the CRPF convoy in Kashmir in February this year, the Indian air force carried out aerial bombing deep inside Pakistan’s territory. For the first time, since 1971, in almost half a century that the Indian Air Force had hit mainland Pakistan. It was Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) where the bombs were dropped. The retaliation at Balakot showed that the strategic restraint exercised by the Congress and earlier BJP governments no longer holds.
Operational restraints are starting to be lifted. There are reports that India had readied missile batteries for missile strikes into Pakistan potentially, and as Modi said that Balakot was a “pilot project”, it would seem that there is a clear resolve and willingness for sanctioning of more attacks on mainland Pakistan.
Next time there is another terrorist attack, which may be attributed directly to a Pakistan based group, Modi may decide go for a bigger attack. And, when we add the virulent form nationalism, anti-Pakistan that Modi and colleagues have been preaching and sections of mainstream media baying for blood, the next time Modi decides to retaliate, it may not be KPK – it may be in Punjab, or in Sindh, anywhere in or around Pakistan.
It is clear that there can be no lasting peace in South Asia without a just settlement of the Kashmir dispute. India and Pakistan have fought three wars in 1948, 1965 and 1971 -- two of them over Kashmir -- since they were partitioned in 1947. There can be no progress without a dialogue.
Peace in South Asia needs the "courage and honesty" to address the fundamentals of the conflicts in the region. Unless the people of South Asia choose to face this reality squarely, the region will continue stumbling from one crisis to another, on the brink of disaster.
---
*Secretary General of South Asia Forum for Human Rights

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