Since the Uri base attack that killed 18 Indian soldiers, the war of words and escalation rhetoric has reached a crescendo between India and Pakistan. On the issue, the Indian media is portraying Pakistan as expecting an imminent and swift cross-border retaliation from the Indian military. Some outlets have even reported that a cross-border operation has already taken place on Pakistani side in Kashmir.
Media outlets on the other side of the border are also reporting this, using Indian sources. However, the mood in Islamabad is nowhere near as hot as the reporting suggests. If anything, thus far it is mostly just an escalation of rhetoric rather than any actual military escalation on the border. A news item circulating rather erroneously is that the flights from Islamabad to the areas of Gilgit-Baltistan have been cancelled because of an impending Indian surgical strike in Pakistani territories. The actual reason for the restriction of airspace is because the PAF is conducting 'High Mark 2016' — its largest air exercise that was last conducted in 2010.
Such military exercises take years of administrative and logistical planning and so, it’s quite unlikely that the decision to undertake 'High Mark 2016' was taken post-Uri. It is however likely that the dates for the exercise were moved up a few days or weeks to signal intent and readiness in the face of potential hostilities. Sources in Islamabad have pointed out that no special or extraordinary military deployment on the eastern border is taking place except for the usual operational forward line deployment on the eastern front near the Line of Control. There have neither been any orders to mobilise, nor have any leaves of military personnel been cancelled.
This is because Islamabad feels that Indian military movement or lack thereof doesn’t warrant any immediate response on the ground.
However, this doesn’t mean the government in Islamabad is not prepared for any eventuality — as overall military alert levels are high and contingency planning is in place. This was seen at the recent corp commanders meeting on Monday, where the chief of army staff General Raheel Sharif expressed satisfaction at the overall operational preparedness of the forces. Also, Tuesday’s phone call from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to the general may also point in that direction.
Feelings in Islamabad’s strategic community are that attacking Pakistan doesn’t bode well for India for three reasons.
First, even a limited surgical strike into Pakistan would cost India the moral high ground that it has played off at international fora and especially at the 71st session of the UN General Assembly. Second, India’s policy objectives of compelling Pakistan to rein in actors hostile to it rely successfully on active international diplomacy to try to isolate Pakistan, while flogging the terrorism card. This doesn’t require active military operations. This strategy was seen on Wednesday night when an Indian diplomat at the UNGA, in response to Nawaz's UN speech, did just that. Finally, fears of nuclear escalation, capabilities and doctrinal limitations and the resultant Pakistani response make punitive strikes an unattractive option for India.
This begs the question: Why is the bellicose rhetoric in the Indian media so loud? Apart from the usual hyper-nationalistic media sensationalism, there seem to be two primary reasons for the Narendra Modi government to take such a position. The first is the self-inflicted commitment trap in which Modi has found himself. Taking the hardest line on Pakistan before the elections and subsequent rhetoric post-Pathankot attacks has pushed the BJP government into a tight spot. From a Pakistani perspective, it seems that the media bluster is for domestic consumption, to appease the domestic audience that is critical of Modi’s Pakistan policy. As reported by the Pew Research Centre, only 22 percent of Indians endorse Modi’s handling of ties with Pakistan.
Diverting attention from the recent uprisings in Kashmir and the indiscriminate use of force on protesters by the Indian security forces seems to be another reason for beating the war drums. As anticipated, Nawaz raised the current situation in Jammu and Kashmir in his UNGA address to the world. India-controlled Kashmir — parts of which are still under curfew after 76 days — has seen 104 civilians dead and hundreds suffer blindness and eye injuries resulting from the use of pellet guns by Indian forces. This contradicts the image of India that Modi has sold to the world.
Sources in Islamabad have pointed out that no special or extraordinary military deployment on the eastern border is taking place except for the usual operational forward line deployment on the eastern front near the Line of Control
With limited international political capital at stake, the risk or an all-out war between two nuclear-armed states will take priority over human rights violations in India-controlled Kashmir at the international stage. Therefore, heavy war rhetoric makes sense for the Indian government at this moment.
The fog of disinformation and loud war rhetoric, however, makes for good trolling on both sides of the border on Twitter and Facebook. However, relying on such media reports can be dangerously misleading as it increases a false set of expectations from one's government based on bad information. In the event of governments failing those expectations, it feeds the frustration of the public while reducing the credibility of government. Such frustration can also increase hate and mistrust between the people of India and Pakistan, and can be counterproductive in the long run. One certainly hopes that the Indian leadership dials down the rhetoric and tries to resolve issues amicably.
The author is a research associate at the Centre for Security, Strategy and Policy Research at the University of Lahore