Editor's note: This article was published on 27 February in the aftermath of Indian Air Force Wing Commander Abhinandan being captured by Pakistan. It is being republished in light of Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan announcing in Parliament that Abhinandan will be freed on Friday as a 'peace gesture'.
The war on social media is steadily climbing, almost at the same pace that it is occurring on the ground. It is now clear that at least one pilot, reportedly named Wing Commander Abhinandan, is in Pakistan’s custody. Which is not surprising. This is what happens in war. Each side accepts this reality, which is why each treats captured soldiers, particularly officers, with far more courtesy than would be accorded civilians.
There are several accounts of prisoners of war — of both sides — of the 1971 conflict being treated with rare politeness. If and when India's pilot says he is being treated well, he may be believed. As a uniformed officer, the pilot is covered by the Geneva Convention. But the basic point is that the capture could considerably confuse decision making: on both sides.
Liddle Hart and other strategists of an earlier period did not have to contend with social media, and the complications this raises in a democracy, which also happens to be going to the polls. But the downing of a pilot and his capture, and the subsequent media outrage leads to what these theorists often called the ‘fog of war’. Loosely translated, that means difficulties in decision-making and uncertainty of outcomes. In actual terms, a prisoner of war (POW) does not fundamentally change the conduct of war or preparation for it. These incidents are expected, and would normally be taken in our stride. But social media changes all that.
So here is where the whole fog of war comes in. Both sides see the capture differently. In Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan sees this as a time to pause and reflect. Certainly, nothing could have been more conciliatory than the press conference of Major General Ghafoor (DG-ISPR) or even that of Imran. The latter was particularly persuasive and effective. This was not a Pakistan frothing at the mouth. Both performances showed a rare maturity.
Clearly, Pakistan does not want war. It cannot afford one, particularly at this juncture when its debt to China — once calculated to reach the highest point at about 2020 — is already crippling. Beijing has not come to its rescue and is clearly disinclined to put its investments in danger as the result of a conventional war. Pakistan, therefore has the option to make a grand gesture: put the captured pilot in a Pakistan Air Force craft and offer to send him back. That would not just mollify New Delhi (and social media), but could lay the grounds for trust in Imran’s leadership. That delivers Pakistan’s objectives of avoiding war and beginning dialogue. Holding the pilot at ransom to restart dialogue is not going to deliver any of that. Rather the reverse.
India is clearly furious. The MEA has already issued a demarche to the Deputy High Commissioner of Pakistan, accusing it not only of “unprovoked aggression”. All this after Imran’s offer of dialogue. India could use the capture to fuel further outrage. Indeed, political leadership may have little choice. It will certainly refuse to accede to talks — as Imran suggests — at the barrel of a gun held to the head of a captured man. Matters could therefore continue to escalate, particularly since Indian objectives may not have been fully met.
National Security Advisor Ajit Doval has been reported as saying 25 top Jaish commanders were killed in the Indian attack at Balakot. This will cripple the group but not end it. There are also far worse actors in neighbouring camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. India has the option of continuing air action against known terrorist camps, thus opting for strong escalation and outright war. Alternatively, it could announce that the armed forces are standing down — which seems to be the gist of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s statement in the Russia-India-China dialogue and demand that Pakistan take action to close terrorist camps, or else.
But all those options come up against the fact that a pilot has been captured. That could sway public opinion — so far on the side of Prime Minister Narendra Modi — against him for abandoning a brave man. No one knows the fickleness of public opinion better than politicians. Bringing the captured IAF pilot home, but in a blaze of glory rather than submission to Pakistan would be the ideal option. Both sides can get this whole episode over with on the shoulders of one man. Diplomatically, it’s not that difficult. It just needs a bit of good script writing. However, the basic problem is that in the final analysis, war is merely an extension of politics by other means. That’s the trip wire that has to be crossed.
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Updated Date: Feb 28, 2019 17:28:42 IST