Is a Pakistan-India war just one terrorist attack away?

If a new attack occurs and inflicts major casualties in India, especially among civilians in the heartland, the kudos the Modi government won at home for the response to Uri will compel it to act more forcefully. Pakistani military and civilian leaders, fearful of each other and of militant political forces, cannot let a substantial Indian military operation against targets on Pakistani soil go unanswered.

In this context, the lack of any apparent strategy and political determination (in both India and Pakistan) to change the current dynamic and establish a peacemaking process is dangerous. Can serious people in either country believe this situation is sustainable over a long-term period, that violence can continue to be managed?

All of this suggests a depressing, unstable equilibrium in India-Pakistan affairs. The equilibrium is based on strategic circumstances that do not allow either country to exploit the weaknesses of the other in ways that would bring about some fundamental change. Pakistan’s continued use or tolerance of terrorist proxies, its growing stockpile of nuclear weapons and its campaign to highlight Indian human rights abuses in Kashmir will not force India to negotiate the future of the Kashmir valley. And India’s recent diplomatic efforts to isolate Pakistan as an exporter of terrorism –and threats of military reprisal to future attacks – will be insufficient to compel fundamental change in Pakistan’s behaviour toward India, absent progress in and on Kashmir.

During and after our September visit to Delhi, several Indians with long, high-level governmental experience seemed resigned that this dynamic will not change. As Shivshankar Menon, the cerebral former national security adviser put it, “we may need to adopt the Israeli approach of ‘mowing the grass,’ recognise that you can’t change Pakistan’s behaviour and stop the terrorist grass from growing — you will just need to keep mowing it with reprisals and diplomatic pressure.”

But, as Menon acknowledged, this is not a permanent solution. Nor is it a stable situation. Israelis do not feel particularly secure for all the lawn mowing. They have no prospect of normal relations with the Palestinians living within and adjacent to Israeli territory. And in India’s case, unlike Israel’s, the fields to be mowed may contain nuclear landmines, as well as improvised-explosive devices. Stability, on the other hand, will require serious, analytically sound and politically courageous efforts to address five thorny challenges cooperatively: Kashmir, Pakistan’s control of terrorist groups (or lack thereof), Afghanistan, the advancement of military technology and divergent perceptions about escalation. …

If the stakes in Afghanistan are well known, there is less awareness of the challenges posed by new military technologies and their potential use by India and Pakistan if violence widens from the LoC in Kashmir. India is on a major military spending spree — procuring advanced air, land and naval weapons platforms. Over time, these new capabilities should enable India’s armed services to better combine forces to project military power with greater precision and lethality. …

Indian and Pakistani leaders may continue to be lucky but, as all gamblers know, luck can depart without warning. Continuing to rely on luck to prevent escalation, rather than seeking to stabilise the existing equilibrium and to pursue actual means and structures to guide relations, is a strategic risk for both states.

To achieve their fundamental long-term interests, there is no plausible alternative for the two countries except direct talks and negotiations. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) process may provide some thin political cover but the talks will not go anywhere if leaders in India and Pakistan are so unresolved or weak that they feel the need for such cover. Nor can China, any more than the US, compel or cajole either India or Pakistan to make the hard compromises necessary for mutual accommodation.

China wants stability in South Asia. It will quietly press Pakistan to curtail terrorism and is unlikely to participate in military adventurism against India. But Beijing will also not reward Indian bullying by pressing Pakistan to give in on Kashmir. Meanwhile, the American policy under the incoming Trump administration is likely to depart from past conventions but in unpredictable directions. One day the administration may offer to negotiate Kashmir but the next, it could join efforts to isolate Pakistan internationally. …

Again, all of this is rather well known at the top of the two governments and civil societies. Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, the highly experienced former Pakistani diplomat, wrote recently in daily Dawn that “for Pakistan to be simultaneously locked in a zero-sum relationship with two of its most immediate neighbours [India and Afghanistan] is pure folly. Pakistan can never be stable in such a situation.” Qazi continued, “Pakistan must address India’s core concerns and move towards a principled compromise settlement acceptable to the Kashmiris.”

In India, shortly after Modi came to power, an exceptionally experienced former defence official offered a complementary insight. “The bigger state has to be willing to give more,” he told us. “It’s counter-intuitive: if we are bigger, we can force them to give in and do what we want. But, the psychology of it is the opposite. The only way forward with Pakistan is that we have to be seen conceding more than we are getting. The reality is that we would be getting enormously more by normalising relations and ending their story of conflict etc. We would gain greatly overall.”

Is a Pakistan-India war just one terrorist attack away?