One military episode cannot, by itself, decisively change the trajectory of one of modern history’s longest-running conflicts. But, as both sides — India and Pakistan — signal temporary de-escalation, it might be worth revisiting the historical and psychological dynamics that constitute the present moment.
The settlement of 1947, developments within Pakistan and the trajectory of geopolitics has produced a state of Pakistan with dual insecurity. The state has a problematic relationship to Islam that gives radical groups more state patronage than is healthy for Pakistan. The army requires perpetually feeding a sense of insecurity, inventing threats where there are none. Pakistan is internally diverse and complex, but its political currents don’t make much of a dent on these structural realities of the state. Pakistan’s internal dynamics and its identity are still the most important drivers of this story.
The great powers have consistently had a stake in the Pakistani state. Americans could not call the bluff of the Pakistani state, militarising the society to an unprecedented degree. Now, the Chinese see it as an indispensable asset. Saudi Arabia has close links with Pakistan. These realities are not going to change soon. There is enough international exasperation with Pakistan that India might have an opportunity for a diplomatic win or two (blacklisting a couple of organisations). But for the international community to truly put pressure on Pakistan, it will have to call its bluff on Afghanistan, China will have to bring its strategic asset to heel, and Saudi pressure will have to go beyond avoiding catastrophic conflict with India. This is still a tall order.
The consequences of military action against Pakistan are uncertain at best. Gains that accrue in the short term are nullified by simply shifting the conflict to another site. The 1971 victory produced a state that was more Islamist and insecure than ever; and, neither Kargil nor Uri produced immunity from terrorist attacks.
The simple truth is that military strikes may be fully effective only if they seriously hit elite interests in the other country. But this is a level of escalation that is hard to imagine. The supply of potential terrorists and the absorptive capacity to take damage to non-elite assets is not as low as we assume. In the short run, war might even embolden them. The human cost of the US’s conventional war on terrorism was devastating and the world is still not immune from terrorist threats.
The issue is not simply of whether you can undertake a conventional war under a nuclear umbrella. There are of course, unconscionably high risks there. But, the issue is also whether conventional military means can help you secure objectives against terrorism. There is reason to doubt this. It is not war, but India’s internal resilience that has frustrated Pakistan.
Military action is effective if it concentrates the international community’s attention. The international community has been complacent on Pakistan because they could count on India’s good behaviour. India’s stature grew. But it also could be taken for granted. What the military strikes could possibly do is re-engage the international community. But this is a double-edged sword, unless the international community really makes Pakistan’s elites pay a price. It is not clear that the engagement of the international community will breach the limits on Saudi and Chinese support for Pakistan mentioned above. Whether we acknowledge it or not, the subtle re-hyphenation will, over time, begin. India should, of course, engage all parties. But the only short term winners in this round in international stature are the Saudis; they seem to be emerging as the indispensable state in the international system. The ideological consequences of this need to be watched.
India’s domestic imperatives are also double-edged. This government, in particular, seeks domestic validation by taking a hard line. This government also uses nationalism as a narcotic. It wants to induce a sense of crisis that makes people rally around a strong leader. This government also totally lost the plot in Kashmir. In some ways, the Pulwama attack was probably designed to give fillip to communal forces in India, and it mildly succeeded. The Indian public is also rightly exasperated with Pakistan. But these tendencies are countered by one fact. As A B Vajpayee had sagaciously understood, democracies like India have a low threshold for military casualties. Despite the nauseating dominance of Twitter and TV warriors, Indians will not be casual about the loss of military lives, especially when strategic objectives are not clear. The sense that India’s triumphant narrative lost steam since Wing Commander Abhinandan was captured is testimony to that. This is not weakness. It is humanity. So the government is now caught between two imperatives: Its pressing electoral needs (its top leaders have made it a political issue) to present a triumphant, muscular narrative on the one hand, and, the recognition that the risks of something going wrong are very high, on the other hand. Hopefully, it will find an artful way of declaring victory and move on. This will be tricky because it, in the short run, lost the narrative of war, after inflating expectations of what escalation can achieve.
Pakistan, for its part, really does need to ask the question: Are characters like Masood Azhar, and groups like Lashkar and Jaish, serving its national interests? Pakistan’s obduracy on this issue has all the classic symptoms of spite, as described by the philosopher Robert Solomon. In acting out of spite “one acts for itself, but it acts against one’s interest.” It is more comforting for Pakistan to play victim at the hands of its own creations than to face an adversary, or look at itself in the mirror. Imran Khan’s test is whether he can take Pakistan out of its own victim syndrome.
So, despite the de-escalation we are locked in a position where we can neither endure our situation nor the means to overcome it. War is at best an expression of exasperation, not a solution; at worst, it is cynical politics. Revenge is psychologically satiating, but self-destructive: Just look at Pakistan. In the short run, we hope diplomacy works. But the underlying challenge remains: Finding a win-win narrative that can help deal with the treacherous psychological complexes that have so scarred South Asia. The Manmohan-Musharraf formula was one sensible and practical proposal on the table — a win for all parties including Kashmir. But, more deeply, the long struggle, for converting South Asia into a zone of exuberant freedom, rather than a contest between pinched up identities, has to continue. The cost of war and militarisation will not just be economic, it will be a warping of our souls, which will forever diminish our possibilities.