Growing Dangers on the Subcontinent

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Very bad news often follows when adversaries give up on improved relations. We’re at this juncture now on the Subcontinent. High-ranking Indian and Pakistani officials are lobbing over-heated public recriminations about abetting terrorism in each other’s sensitive spaces. Pakistan has elevated the Kashmir issue – never a good sign for Pakistan or for India — and firing across the Kashmir divide has increased in recent years. Absent top-down initiatives to mend fences – initiatives that New Delhi appears unwilling to take and that Pakistan’s civilian government is handcuffed from taking – the stage will be set for another nuclear-tinged crisis in the region.

Increased firing across the Line of Control dividing Kashmir accompanied the advent of another Pakistani government led by Nawaz Sharif, who makes no secret of his desire to improve relations with India. Firing intensified after the election of a new Indian government led by Narendra Modi, who has made no secret about responding in more than tit-for-tat fashion to cease-fire violations.

Indian officials see bad omens in Pakistan’s release from polite confinement of Zaki ur-Rehman Lakhvi – the Lashkar e-Toiba’s operational commander who was deeply involved in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Intercepts of communications confirming Lakhvi’s role are publicly available, and copious evidence against Lakhvi provided by New Delhi was initially deemed inadmissible in Pakistani courts; his release was accompanied by statements blaming India for insufficient evidence to prosecute him.

Pakistani officials read bad omens in statements by senior Indian officials regarding a willingness to engage in “sub-conventional” warfare, if warranted by Rawalpindi’s actions. On January 5th, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval gave a talk in which he conveyed the message that, “You can do one Mumbai and you may lose Baluchistan.” Then, on January 13th, Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar, a neophyte in the art of public obfuscation, warned Pakistan against stepping up a proxy war in Kashmir: “There are certain things that I obviously cannot discuss here. But if there is any country, why only Pakistan, planning something against my country, we will definitely take some pro-active steps.” Parrikar used the the colloquial Hindi phrase for “removing a thorn using another thorn,” adding, “We have to neutralize terrorists through terrorists only. Why can’t we do it? We should do it. Why does my soldier have to do it?”


Hopes for improved relations generated by Modi’s invitation to Nawaz to attend his inauguration in May 2014 have now ebbed completely. Nawaz is in a bind. He has nothing to show for accepting Modi’s invitation. Civilian-led governments in Pakistan have been unable or unwilling to reciprocate India’s granting of Most Favored Nation trade status back in 1996. Pakistan understandably uses different terminology – non-discriminatory market access – which the previous government led by Asif Ali Zardari chose not to finalize, and which Nawaz is in no position to pursue. If he takes further initiatives and is left empty-handed, he will be in an untenable position back home. With Rawalpindi now signaling a hard line, this is out of the question.

Lakhvi’s release and Nawaz’s inability to push ahead on trade have reaffirmed New Delhi’s lack of interest in investing time and effort on improved relations. One of its key conditions for forward progress is tangible steps by Pakistan against the groups that target India. Statements by Doval and Parrikar have now allowed Pakistan to turn these tables, reverting to habitual themes about Indian subversion when bilateral relations take a turn for the worse.

A chorus of outrage has followed from the Foreign Ministry, government-inspired news accounts and opinion columns. The Chief of Army Staff has weighed in, decrying the actions of Indian intelligence services and clarifying that the fortunes of Pakistan and Kashmir are inseparable.

Modi has now entered the fray with remarks in Dhaka that, “Every now and then Pakistan keeps disturbing India, creates nuisance, promotes terrorism and such incidents keep recurring.” Modi was there to sign a long-delayed border settlement. The contrast between New Delhi’s commitment to improve relations with Bangladesh and its lack of interest in improving ties with Pakistan could not be starker.

The blame games now underway mask an important shift in the dynamics of deterrence on the Subcontinent. New Delhi’s hand has been strengthened and Rawalpindi’s efforts to shore up deterrence by means of a nuclear buildup are being circumvented. Back in October, 2014,Doval reportedly said,  “We would like to resolve our problems through negotiations, through talks. I can’t think of any problem that cannot be resolved through negotiations. But on the other hand, India would like to have an effective deterrence to deal with terrorism.” The January statements by Doval and Parrikar suggest that the Modi government has landed on a strategy of sending deterrent messages in the coinage Rawalpindi understands best.

As the stronger power, India only loses by making nuclear threats, while threatening to respond to severe provocations with conventional military thrusts into Pakistan offer headache without gain — which is why the Indian Army’s interest in “Cold Start” lost traction. Doval and Parrikar are telegraphing a different Indian response if Rawalpindi turns up the heat in Kashmir or if the LeT carries out another spectacular act of terrorism within India. New Delhi can respond in Baluchistan or exploit other internal security problems in Pakistan, of which there are many. And as with the firing along the LoC, New Delhi can respond twofold to whatever cuts Rawalpindi inflicts.

Rawalpindi has been counting on a deterrence strategy that threatens first use if conventional capabilities are not up to the task. First use includes the detonation of short-range, or tactical, nuclear weapons against Indian troop concentrations and armor. New Delhi has studiously underplayed this threat; Rawalpindi can build as many tactical nuclear weapons as it likes and still not be able to use them against a strategy of fighting fire with fire — one that the previous Congress Party-led government was loathe to pursue.

New Delhi’s recent deterrent messages are far more convincing than beefing up conventional or nuclear forces, which is why Pakistan has reacted so vigorously against them. It knows that India’s leaders will seek to avoid using nuclear weapons and that New Delhi has backed away from threats to fight a limited ground war on Pakistani soil in the past. In contrast, India’s amped-up deterrent threats of proxy or sub-conventional warfare are credible because Pakistani leaders assume that India is already swimming in these waters.

Pakistan blames India for the widespread disaffection in Baluchistan, where its own military actions have sown disaffection, just as Indian military forces’ have in Kashmir. New Delhi has been able to handle everything Rawalpindi has thrown at it in Kashmir. Can Rawalpindi do the same in Baluchistan? China’s newly-announced, high-profile infrastructure corridor will pass through this province, where gas lines are periodically blown up and where Rawalpindi is raising a special security contingent for Chinese workers.

The hullaballoo in Pakistan over Doval and Parrikar’s statements is partly contrived, since the context and conditionality of these threats have been conveniently disregarded. But Pakistan’s concerns are very real, since hopes for the country’s economic future rest on Chinese investment through this corridor.

Deterrent messages can help avoid limited wars on the Subcontinent, but they cannot improve India-Pakistan relations. Diplomatic initiatives are required for this purpose. Once the sting of Lakhvi’s release subsides, New Delhi will be well-positioned to shift gears. No one’s interests are served by concurrent proxy campaigns in Kashmir and Baluchistan, so new deterrent threats could serve a useful purpose. But what then? It has been seven years since the Mumbai attacks. How much time needs to pass before resuming the composite dialogue?

This commentary originally ran in Arms Control Wonk and can be accessed here.

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Photo credit: Koshyk via flickr

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