The dangerous new normal

Recent events show that new ‘normal’ in India-Pakistan ties seem to require each side to respond more provocatively to every new incident

Firstpost print Edition

The most-recent India-Pakistan crisis has blown over, for now, and things —on the surface — seem to be returning to normal. Each side claims to have taught the other a “good lesson”, and that it will respond to future provocations in a “befitting” manner.

But, if one looks at recent crises in the aggregate, a dangerous undercurrent is gathering pace. A new ‘normal’ that seems to require each side to respond more provocatively to each incident may be emerging.

The ‘Modi doctrine’ holds that Pakistan-originated terror will be met with cross-border force, and he has made good on that twice. The first was after the 2016 Uri attack. The cross-border raid’s military utility was questionable, but it made a point. In response to the Pulwama bombing in February this year, India sent fighter aircraft into Pakistan, an escalation on the previous raid, though still of questionable value.

Pakistan, for its part, absorbed the post-Uri raid by simply denying that it had happened, allowing its generals a face-saver. But after the Balakot strike, which followed the Pulwama attack, Pakistan could not deny that Indian fighter jets had crossed the border. So it sent fighters into India, with the resulting dogfight costing the Indian Air Force an ageing MiG-21 and a captured pilot. All of this was accompanied by the familiar baying-for-blood rhetoric that constitutes much of the region’s media response to such incidents.

There was also an increasingly confused set of third-party interventions to calm the situation.

Though calmer heads eventually prevailed, and Pakistan, prodded by the international community, took the first step in de-escalation by quickly releasing the captured Indian pilot Abhinandan Varthaman, no one should view what happened with equanimity.

The root of the matter, from the standpoint of escalation dynamics, is that India seeks to convince Pakistan that support for terror will result in punishment, even if it risks escalation. India sees itself as forced to call Islamabad’s bluff that it can support such groups without risking retribution. Pakistan refuses to be seen as accepting conventional military intimidation. It believes it is necessary to meet Indian conventional escalations, and link such confrontations to a possible nuclear escalation.

In short, India’s message is: stop supporting cross-border terror, or we will strike you with our superior conventional military power, to which Pakistan’s response is:  do that, and you risk an escalation which could quickly lead to nuclear confrontation.

The situation between the two neighbours is what political scientists call a commitment trap. This is when a side takes an action which establishes an expectation that it will continue; an expectation which becomes a loss of face if it is not met. So if the new ‘Modi doctrine’ of hitting Pakistan after a terror incident continues, with the scale of military strikes growing after every such episode — which may now be the expectation — but with Pakistan feeling it must respond — lest its own credibility be diminished — where does this end?  Can the two countries confidently expect that they will be able to manage the consequences of a series of ever-more serious military confrontations?

Conflict escalation, especially in a nuclear environment, has been intensively studied. The few actual cases, such as the Cuban missile crisis and the Able Archer incident, are notable in that the protagonists learned, often much later, that they did not have the control they thought they had, nor did they properly pick up and interpret the signals each side thought it was sending.  In other words, they got through on luck and restraint.

One lesson which veterans of other crises have commented upon is the need for unfettered and clear communication between the parties involved. Another is that, what each side thought were clear and unambiguous messages they were sending through words and actions were misinterpreted or were simply lost on the other side in the fog of the moment.

There are at least two ways to deal with this situation, which can be pursued at the same time. The first is to learn to manage such crises better. To put in place crisis communication mechanisms and other ‘understandings’ which will help two nuclear-armed protagonists to dance near the line, but not over it. This is necessary, but does not solve the problem as no such measures, no matter how advanced, can be certain to work under all circumstances.

The second way forward is, of course, to resolve the underlying dispute which is the cause of the escalation. The two sides have in the past come close to resolving the Kashmir issue, and should revive steps to do so now. The situation has deteriorated since previous attempts, of course, but the effort needs to be revisited.

The alternative is to permit the emerging new ‘normal’ to take over and lead the parties to a place which will benefit no one.

(Peter Jones is an associate professor at the University of Ottawa and a former civil servant)


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