War games

THERE is something to be said for strategic ambiguity. India’s claim of a surgical strike across the Line of Control (LoC) in divided Kashmir has been met with Pakistani denial. At least one side is being economical with the truth, although it may well in fact be both. Perhaps it is just as well.

The announced Indian incursion last Thursday was evidently in response to the terrorist attack earlier last month on India’s military base in Uri, in which 19 soldiers lost their lives. The immediate, and inevitable, assumption was that the perpetrators were Pakistani military proxies.

Pakistan has not only officially denied all responsibility, its defence minister Khawaja Asif has even claimed that India itself engineered the atrocity, presumably in order to defame Pakistan. Ridiculous rhetoric of this variety can only serve to reinforce Indian suspicions that the Uri tragedy may have been instigated from across the LoC.

Even without that insinuation, the assumption of Pakistani involvement did not come out of the blue. The nature and antecedents of outfits such as Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba are hardly a secret, and terrorist attacks in the past — notably the assault on the Indian parliament in December 2001 and the atrocities in Mumbai in November 2008 — have driven the nuclear-armed subcontinental neighbours to the brink of war.

In the case of Pakistan and India, fog is decidedly preferable to conflict.

Better sense eventually prevailed in both instances. It is frequently claimed that the very fact that both India and Pakistan possess nuclear weapons serves as a deterrent to all-out war. That may not be an utterly absurd claim, particularly when contrasted with a scenario where only one of the neighbours had nuclear capability. On the other hand, the arguments against going to war would surely be equally powerful in a nuclear-free South Asia.

At the same time, it is fairly obvious that conventional wars do not solve anything either. Almost every international news report pertaining to India and Pakistan refers to the three wars they have fought (not counting Kargil).

In the current context, India declared last week, without providing any details, that it had breached the LoC by attacking seven terrorist “launch pads”, claiming dozens of lives.

Pakistan claimed there was cross-border shelling that killed two Pakistani soldiers, but no incursion. An Indian soldier, meanwhile, reportedly ended up in Pakistani custody. India says he crossed the border inadvertently; Pakistan may almost be obliged to agree, unless it revises its insistence that no Indian troops crossed the line. Journalists shepherded to the Pakistani side of the LoC appear to have encountered no clear evidence of an incursion.

Whether this is a cover-up by a Pakistani establishment disinclined to embark on hostilities or an attempt by the Indian government to dampen the hysteria whipped up by short-sighted warmongers, or a bit of both, it arguably deserves to be welcomed. The fog of war is generally a much derided concept, often with good cause. But in this particular case, fog is decidedly preferable to war.

The very fact that the festering sore of Kashmir has never been allowed to heal in the nearly 70 years since it first stood out as a key component of the unfinished business of Partition is a severe indictment of erroneously, even perfidiously, irreconcilable attitudes on both sides of the border.

Pakistan and India are geographically destined to live side by side. The logic of peaceful coexistence is irrefutable. Good-neighbourliness makes equal sense. There is much to be gained from trade and from cultural exchanges — and it is particularly unfortunate that the latter have been among the first casualties of renewed tensions. Deep down, the cultural links are unbreakable. The interludes when cross-fertilisation can occur on the surface without attracting opprobrium — except perhaps from the most retrograde repositories of religious zeal — are always a positive sign.

It is obviously the Kashmiris, above all, who are the primary victims of belligerence, whether it takes the shape of jihadism sponsored by Pakistan or military repression dictated by New Delhi. Can the repetitive cycles of violence such as the Uri attack and the violent Indian response to Kashmiri protests ever be relegated to history?

For better or for worse, Partition cannot be redone any more than it can be undone. Imaginative alternatives have been proposed over the years, both publicly and in private. The idea of an autonomous, undivided Kashmir, involving no tricky territorial exchanges, with its borders jointly guaranteed by India, Pakistan and China retains a certain attraction. It can, of course, only be feasible in the event of India and Pakistan emerging from their juvenile delinquency. That may seem an unlikely prospect for the moment, but some of us are disinclined to abandon all hope.

Author: Mahir Ali


Published in Dawn, October 5th, 2016

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