Infinite darkness of war lies ahead for India and Pakistan: Islamabad needs to ask if forcing New Delhi's hand is truly in its interest

From February’s crisis, both India and Pakistan ought to learn that the walk from the status quo to the apocalypse isn’t as long as we imagine

Praveen Swami March 04, 2019 11:44:41 IST
Infinite darkness of war lies ahead for India and Pakistan: Islamabad needs to ask if forcing New Delhi's hand is truly in its interest

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Firstpost Print on 2 March, 2018


In 415 BCE, the high noon of the power of the greatest empire the world had known, Athens dispatched its massive naval forces to punish the rebellious citizens of Syracuse. For the next several years, Thucydides, son of Olorus, owner of gold mines and survivor of the great plague of Athens, fought weapon in hand for the city he loved—and watched as its wealth, power and values were slowly extinguished in a relentless march to annihilation. In exile, he would reflect on the lessons in a work that, today, ranks among the greatest works of the philosophy of war:

“Think, too, of the great part that is played by the unpredictable in war,” Thucydides wrote, “and think of it now, before you are actually committed. The longer a war lasts, the more things tend to depend on accidents. Neither you nor we can see into them; we have to abide their outcome in the dark.”

Infinite darkness of war lies ahead for India and Pakistan Islamabad needs to ask if forcing New Delhis hand is truly in its interest

Pakistani soldier stands guard near Jaba where IAF conducted pre-emptive non-military strikes on Tuesday. PTI

“But when people are entering upon a war, they do things the wrong way around. Action comes first, and it is only when they have already suffered that they begin to think.”

February’s India-Pakistan crisis has taken both countries on to pathways littered with minefields and traps. Following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to strike at terrorists across the Line of Control in 2016, Pakistan responded with well-tested covert tools—ratcheting up the levels of violence against Indian forces in Kashmir to levels not seen in over a decade. The 26 February air strikes were meant to demonstrate that India was willing to inflict pain on Pakistan in return—but that country has demonstrated it is willing to risk all by escalating even further.

Modi has shown an instinctive grasp of Thucydides’ realism. Holding promises from the international community that it will now compel Prime Minister Imran Khan to act against terrorists, he has chosen to step back from the brink.

For both India and Pakistan, though, the infinite darkness of war still lies ahead. This much is certain: the end of this crisis does not herald the coming of peace.


Epics do not have neat beginnings: the story of India-Pakistan war can be traced just as easily to 1971, or 1947, or even pre-colonial communal hatred. Late one night in the summer of 2009, four improvised 107-millimetre rockets arced over the Pul Kanjari border outpost, and exploded in the wheat-fields outside the Punjab village of Attari. For the first time since the war of 1971, there was an attack across the India-Pakistan border. In September that year, four more rockets were fired; then, in January 2010, there was a third assault.

For the first time since the war of 1971, there had been an attack across the India-Pakistan border. The march to the 26 February airstrikes had, unnoticed by almost anyone, begun.

In 2001, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had mobilised the army, threatening war against Pakistan to punish the Jaish-e-Muhammad’s attack on Parliament. The decision wasn’t a casual one. Even though India had won the Kargil war in 1999, Pakistan had stepped up covert warfare in Kashmir. Fatalities of security force personnel, inside Kashmir, surged from 183 in 1999, to 241 in 2000 and 248 in 2002.

Ten months later, India backed down—apparently deterred by Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

But then, something unexpected happened. Fatalities of Indian forces in the Kashmir conflict fell every year to 2008, all the way down to 39 in 2008. Firing on Indian troops on the Line of Control ceased, making infiltration difficult for terrorists. Pakistan’s military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, had turned off the terror tap—despite apparently winning the showdown.

From his confidante General Moinuddin Haider, we have the only inside account of why that happened. In an interview to scholar George Perkovich, General Haider said the long-term costs of continuing to back jihadists would be higher than the potential losses from taking them on.

“I was the sole voice initially”, Haider said, “saying, ‘Mr. President, your economic plan will not work, people will not invest, if you don’t get rid of extremists.”

From 2007, though, new army chief General Pervez Ashfaq Kayani turned the screws on India again—a bid to heal the rift General Musharraf had created between the military and its jihadist allies. There were 28 ceasefire violations in 2009, 44 in 2010, 60 in 2011—rising to a staggering 2,936 last year. Even worse, from India’s point of view, terrorist strikes in Kashmir intensified. Fatalities of Indian forces rose steadily, from 39 in 2008, to 62 in 2009—and on to 136 last year, the worst since 2004.

In a strategic sense, these attacks achieve little. Tragic as each loss of life is, India’s economic growth, or its military capabilities, aren’t significantly eroded by terrorism. The question is: why does the Pakistan army risk war for vanishingly meagre gains?


In 1918, Hungarian-born magician, Erik Weisz, better known by his stage name Harry Houdini, premiered the Make-the-Elephant-Vanish Trick. An elephant was shut into a box with raised wheels, thus ruling out the use of a trapdoor. When the box opened, the elephant had disappeared. The key to the trick was rediscovered by author and magician Jim Steinmeyer. The elephant was, in fact concealed behind a diagonally-placed mirror: what the audience saw as the entire empty box wasn’t one.

The Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate has mastered the vanishing-elephant trick—and now, as Imran offers Modi action against terrorists, this is worth remembering.

In 2002, as war loomed, General Musharraf cracked down the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. In 2008, President Asif Ali Zardari did the same thing. And in 2018, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif again moved against terrorists. Each time, the Pakistan Army ensured they emerged, magically, from the box.

Early in 1939, on the eve of the great war that would lead on to the death of the British empire and the birth of his homeland, the politician and religious ideologue, Abdul Ala Maududi, delivered a lecture that has become a foundational text for South Asia Islamism. Faith, Maududi insisted, was more than a “hotchpotch of beliefs, prayers and rituals.” Islam was, in fact, “a revolutionary ideology which seeks to alter the social order of the entire world and rebuild it in conformity with its own tenets and ideals.”

Pakistan’s 1956 constitution declared the country an Islamic republic—a notion unknown to classical theology—and mandated that no laws repugnant to the Koran be passed. General Ayub Khan appointed a council of clerics to guide the state. The hard-drinking General Yahya Khan allied with Islamists in Bangladesh and Kashmir. General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, profoundly influenced by Maududi, rebuilt the state on the foundations of his ideas.

The Pakistan Army’s jihadism, diplomat and scholar Husain Haqqani has argued, was “not just the inadvertent outcome of decisions by some governments.” Instead, the Pakistani state’s use of Islam “gradually evolved into a strategic commitment to jihadi ideology.”

In The Green Books, classified internal volumes where Pakistan army officers are invited to discuss strategy and geopolitics, the influence of the Islamist world-view is evident. Brigadier Saifi Ahmad Naqvi, writing in the 1994 Green Book, argued “Pakistan is an ideological state, based on the ideology of Islam.” In his view, the Army is “responsible for the defence of the country, to safeguard [its] integrity [and] territorial boundaries, and the ideological frontiers to which the country owes its existence.”

Fighting against India, thus, isn’t just a tactical imperative for Pakistan’s army; it’s a core ideological value.The Generals aren’t about to give up the belief-system that sustains their primacy in Pakistan.

And that has profound implications for what comes in the next India-Pakistan crisis, whenever it breaks out.


“The most fantastic wargame the world can ever have seen,” an excited magazine called it. In the summer of 1955, the Fourth Allied Tactical Air Force, along with the United States’ Sixth Fleet and 49th Air Division, hurled itself at Belgian, British and Dutch forces, supported by the Second Tactical Air Force. Exercise Carte Blanche was the first effort to simulate what would happen when NATO used its new tactical nuclear weapons to beat back Soviet armour driving towards the heart of Europe.

In less than a week, the answers were in: 1.7 million dead, 3.5 million injured, large swathes of Europe levelled by 335 nuclear bombs.

Four years ago, after terrorists struck in Gurdaspur, the United States held out a stark message to Pakistan’s visiting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Prime Minister Modi, he was warned, was almost certain to authorise strikes against jihadist infrastructure inside Pakistan in the event of a mass-casualty terrorist strike. The Generals didn’t listen: Pulwama followed Pathankot, in grim succession.

Prime Minister Modi’s 2016 cross-Line of Control strikes were premised on the belief small air strikes or shallow infantry actions would not give Pakistan enough reason to escalate a conflict, mired as it is in economic meltdown and internal crisis.

Last week, Pakistan demonstrated that assumption was misplaced. From private messages sent by Lieutenant-General Tariq Khan, former commander of the Mangla-based I Corps, we know what the Generals were thinking. “Each Indian cross-border strike, General Khan argued in notes obtained by Firstpost “erodes our position of deterring war through our nuclear capability.” General Khan argued that meant “we become more and more vulnerable to an asymmetric conventional threat”—in other words, to future Indian strikes.

“Deterrence,” General Khan argued, “is a mindset and never a tangible posture, It is an outcome of a possibility” [emphasis added]. Islamabad, General Khan went on, needed to ensure that this possibility remained on Indian minds—and for that,“our response should be to escalate and push the envelope of hostilities so that nuclear war is a likely outcome.”

Through their own cross-Line of Control strikes on February 27, Pakistan’s military planners have done just that: India knows that, unlike in 2016, the Generals are now willing to raise the stakes. The thing is, no one knows how far they’ll go.

For demagogues in India, there’s an easy answer: call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. But Prime Ministers and Generals, unlike Twitter’s armchair brigades, have responsibility for the consequences of their actions.


There are obvious lessons for India from how the February crisis has played out, key among them that the goddess of the battlefield is fickle with her favours. “If the military art could be reduced to arithmetic,” Soviet nuclear theoretician General Andrian Danilevich observed, “we would not need any wars.” “You could simply look at the correlation of forces, make some calculations, and tell your opponent, ‘we outnumber you 2:1, victory is ours, please surrender.’”

But Pakistan, too, needs to ask hard questions. Faced with enough provocation, Indian leaders may take their chances, and risk escalation. Although cultivating ties with anti-India jihadists may seem attractive to a military establishment whose legitimacy is under challenge from hostile Islamists, it is a high-risk strategy.

From February’s crisis, both countries ought to learn the walk from the status quo to the apocalypse isn’t as long as we imagine. Islamabad needs to ask if forcing India to walk that road is truly in its interest.

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