By Mohammed Ayoob
March 02, 2019
Now that the first round of military
tit-for-tats is over, it is important that New Delhi settles down to parsing
the mixed signals coming out of Pakistan. While keeping all options open, it is
important for the government to make a definitive assessment regarding
Pakistan’s intentions before taking the next step in both the military and
diplomatic spheres. This is a difficult job, among other things because the
real decision-makers in Pakistan are not the Prime Minister and his cabinet but
the top generals ensconced in General Headquarters in Rawalpindi.
Nonetheless, one can get a fair idea of the
thinking by Pakistani decision-makers by analysing the statements and actions
of politicians because they are often orchestrated by the military high
command. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s pronouncements are, therefore,
worth following closely. His most recent statement in the Pakistan Parliament
betrays the internal conflict in both his and his generals’ assessment of the
current India-Pakistan standoff and its impact on the standing of the Pakistani
military in the eyes of the country’s population.
Mr. Khan has, on the one hand, emphasised
his desire for de-escalation without accepting blame for the initial action,
the Pulwama terrorist attack, that triggered the present crisis. While
ostensibly addressing the Indian government, he has attempted to present a
reasonable face to the international community by expressing his yearning for
peace in the subcontinent. He has especially emphasised the fact that both
countries are nuclear powers and, therefore, any further escalation could lead
to disastrous results.
The De-Escalatory Ladder
His announcement on Thursday that Wing
Commander Abhinandan Varthaman would be released “unconditionally” falls in
this category of de-escalatory signals. His statement also made it clear that
he wanted to link the release to the reopening of negotiations with India in
order to find a way out of the current crisis.
While India welcomed this move, it refused
to give Pakistan credit for what Islamabad considers a humanitarian gesture.
India has characterised it as an act undertaken in consonance with the Geneva
Convention that Pakistan, as a signatory, is compelled to follow. Therefore,
Islamabad does not deserve extra credit for merely fulfilling its international
In the same speech, Mr. Khan warned the
Indian leadership, “Do not take this confrontation further”, saying otherwise
Pakistan will be “forced to retaliate”. He also made no apologies for the
terrorist acts committed by Jihadi groups spawned by Pakistan’s military
intelligence. Instead, he once again asked New Delhi for proof that the Pulwama
attack could be traced to Pakistan despite the Bahawalpur-based
Jaish-e-Mohammad’s acknowledgement, immediately after the suicide bombing, that
it was responsible for the incident.
There are various reasons one can decipher
for Pakistan’s double-speak. Mr. Khan’s de-escalatory rhetoric is in part the
result of external pressure, especially from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. The
Saudi Foreign Minister made a dash to Islamabad to advise the Pakistan
government not to let the crisis get out of hand. It was also clear from U.S.
President Donald Trump’s statement in Hanoi, in which he suggested that good
news was about to emanate from South Asia, that Washington had put pressure on
Islamabad and possibly on New Delhi not to engage in further military action.
It is true that the fear of escalation to
the nuclear level haunts both Indian and Pakistani decision-makers and acts as
a formidable restraint preventing both from intensifying the conflict. An
action-reaction dynamic, such as the one that started with the Pulwama attack,
can conceivably graduate to the nuclear level if Pakistan, which does not
accept the “no first use” doctrine, decides to take recourse to tactical
nuclear weapons, which it has stockpiled, if it finds itself unable to
withstand India’s superior conventional power.
On the other hand, the Indian nuclear
doctrine does not make a distinction between tactical and strategic nuclear
strikes and implies that India will respond through massive retaliation even if
a tactical weapon use does only a limited amount of damage. It is, therefore,
difficult to predict in this context where the escalatory process, if left
unchecked, would end.
However, all these very real concerns about
uncontrolled escalation have to be measured against the Pakistani military
brass’s obsession with its honour and credibility among its people. Both have
been severely damaged by its inability to anticipate and thwart the Indian
aerial attack on Balakot deep inside Pakistani territory. The military is the
real power behind the throne in Pakistan. Mr. Khan’s ascent to office was
deftly managed by the military high command, which, unlike in India, is also in
control of the country’s nuclear weapons and delivery systems.
The Need for Care
These facts make any future escalatory scenario
look very scary. For, if pushed to the wall and in danger of losing control of
the state, the Pakistani military can employ a highly reckless strategy that
would unleash an unprecedented catastrophe in the Indian subcontinent. It is no
wonder that Mr. Khan has to speak with both sides of his mouth in a desperate
attempt to preserve the military’s honour while attempting to get off the
escalatory ladder that can lead to unpredictable consequences.
Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of
International Relations, Michigan State University and Non-Resident Senior
Fellow, Centre for Global Policy, Washington DC