Villagers show damage in front of a house after shelling by the Pakistani Army in Poonch near the Line of Control, on Feb 27, 2019. (Photograph: PTI)

India-Pakistan Tensions: Room For Dialogue And De-Escalation?


Tensions between India and Pakistan escalated on Wednesday as the Indian Air Force pushed back an attempted air strike by the Pakistan Air Force.

The Ministry of External Affairs said that India foiled a Pakistani attempt to target military installations. In that aerial engagement, one Pakistan Air Force fighter aircraft was shot down, but India lost one MiG-21 jet, and an Indian pilot is in Pakistan’s custody. India has demanded his swift and safe return.

Meanwhile, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan offered to defuse tensions through talks, even as he cautioned against any “miscalculation” and escalation between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.

Top foreign policy and military strategy experts detail the options before India and Pakistan.

No Dialogue Without Action From Pakistan

- Kanwal Sibal, Former Foreign Secretary

We gave every possible chance to Pakistan not to escalate matters. On their side, if they wish to escalate matters, their only option was to attack Indian military target, unlike in our case. We attacked only terrorist camps in Balakot, and went out of our way to emphasise that it was not a military operation. It was not directed at the Pakistani military. It was purely an anti-terrorist operation, and no civilian casualties were found.

The hope was that Pakistan would assess its own positions very carefully, its vulnerabilities, public opinions, in their international public opinion, and take the right decision. As we know, in Pakistan the armed forces and its ego are important. They have therefore taken an escalatory step by targeting the Indian military with the result that we have lost an aircraft and a pilot is in custody, and they have lost an F-16.

Now, it cannot, and will not rest here. There is bound to be further escalation.

What the nature of this escalation would be, is difficult to say at this point in time. We must not rule out some additional steps by India on the military side, to drive home to Pakistan that it is very vulnerable, and will suffer acutely for its mistakes.

Pakistan in a very dire situation. It is seeking bailouts from the World Bank and from its friends in the Gulf states. But, as we have seen, the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has already cautioned Pakistan against military escalation. Both Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. have been very strongly condemnatory of the Pulwama attacks. And, what is also pleasantly surprising is that the trilateral Russia-India-China communique from the Foreign Ministers’ meeting has been rather balanced. It has focussed on terrorism, and the responsibility of states not to promote it, and to take responsibility for combating it.

The concern that China will back Pakistan on this has not proved right.
India-Pakistan Tensions: Room For Dialogue And De-Escalation?

International opinion is not in favour of Pakistan. Australia, France and the European Union have called on Pakistan to weed out terrorist organisations from its soil.

If the Pakistan military behaves irrationally as it has already done, then I fear that we may be in for some ‘action-reaction’. However, that may not amount to a war overnight, I’m quite confident of that.

If Pakistan has captured the Indian pilot, that puts India in a difficult situation, in terms of public opinion. Some action will be required, to hand over the pilot, if they have him, to our side, immediately.

Pakistan has no stamina, no resources, no backing, no capacity to actually escalate matters beyond a certain point. Therefore, I don’t see a massive escalation happening. It’s certainly not in our interest to escalate this, especially close to elections. The focus should be on the formation of a new government rather than being distracted by a conflict with Pakistan.

Doors have always been open to dialogue in Pakistan but the whole purpose of the dialogue would be Pakistan’s prior commitment and verifiable commitment to combat and weed out the jihadi group from its soil.

Otherwise what does a dialogue mean at this stage? This means that we are no longer demanding that Pakistan end its terrorism, which means that the whole action with Balakot was pointless.

There cannot be any dialogue unless there is action by Pakistan, on the issue of terrorism. Of course, purely at the military level, if there is some conversation, in terms of some understanding, that would keep matters under control. That is fine.

I think Pakistan is not going to learn the right lesson from this episode. 

Pakistan’s involvement in jihad and in terrorism against India is long-standing and has got deep roots in that society. Its army and their leadership is also deeply involved in this.

It is not as if all the support that the jihadi organisations get is against the wishes and whims of the government, the civil society and the armed forces. Therefore, they will continue. India will continue to face this problem. This is not the end of the show.

Also read: India and Pakistan Have Lost Control of the Narrative

Give Negotiation And Diplomacy A Chance

- Uday Bhaskar, Director, Society For Policy Studies

Pakistan’s military retaliation on Wednesday was in the matrix of probability because after the Indian attack on Balakot on Tuesday, all the speculation was that there would be a response from Pakistan. That it could be a military response, or alternatively it could be a covert response, since the target that India had attacked was the Jaish-e-Mohammed. So to that extent, it was within the matrix of probability that Pakistan used the military option and its air power. So, there’s no surprise there.

Pakistan has done what it thinks it needs to do. It is partly for its own domestic compulsion, and to demonstrate that they are in a position to respond. This is what Imran Khan said in his meeting on Tuesday, that “we will find a time and place of our choosing and respond”. There is a certain amount of ‘izzat’ involved as well, for the Pakistani fauj. So, they’ve done their bit by downing an Indian aircraft. They also have a valuable bargaining chip in the fact that they have captured a pilot.

Now India has to take a call on how it wants to respond to the offer made by Imran Khan, that he is ready to enter into a dialogue and negotiation if India provides evidence, which Delhi has done today. We have given the Deputy High Commissioner a dossier.

India should give negotiation and diplomacy a chance. This is my personal view.  It may not be the most dominant or popular view in India now, where lots of people think that we should escalate and teach them a lesson, etc.

We have to keep our target and objective in mind – which is the Jaish-e-Mohammed, and what was said in January 2004 – that Pakistan would desist from supporting terror. I think we should be firm in what we expect from Pakistan and see how they would respond at this point in time to whatever dossier has been given.

Pakistan’s track record of keeping its commitment to what it pledges to do is dismal. The 1972 Shimla agreement is a case in point.

With the amount of media transparency that has been brought into this issue now, Imran Khan is also trying to package his story and get support, both regionally and internationally, to say that he is offering to negotiate. He is projecting himself as a man of peace.

However, there is also a structural issue here. Pakistan’s civilian prime ministers have had very little say over policies related to terrorism, nuclear weapons and India. This is cast in stone, as they say.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, left, chairs a meeting of the National Security Committee in Islamabad, Pakistan on Feb. 21, 2019. (Photograph: AP/PTI)
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, left, chairs a meeting of the National Security Committee in Islamabad, Pakistan on Feb. 21, 2019. (Photograph: AP/PTI)

Therefore, I think India should maintain its resolve about what it expects from Pakistan. If we have to go up the escalatory ladder, India should take a call on this. We have already lost one aircraft, we have a pilot in their custody, so we have to be prepared for more such exigencies if they do occur. You are then taking the military path of trying to establish whatever you think, in terms of imposing compellence.

Can India exercise compellence to make sure that Pakistan complies? This may be more complex than what meets the eye now.

We have seen that positive and empathetic diplomatic statements supporting India have been made by various countries. But, if you recall in the last 24 hours, the Organisation of Islamic Countries has condemned India.

I think countries will hedge their bets. This isolation that we are talking about, every country looks at it in a very objective way in terms of ‘what’s in it for me?’ For India to imagine that we have isolated Pakistanis I think bit exaggerated.

I think if Pakistan is able to convey through Prime Minister Khan that it will take the first step against Jaish-e-Mohammed – which is what India had asked immediately after Pulwama – then I think the window for diplomacy and negotiations will widen.

Pakistan’s investment in these terror groups is very deep. So to unwind these organisations, which operate like corporates, will be a long haul. Will Pakistan take that first step? On current balance, I would say it is a low probability. We have to keep trying, because what is your other viable option? You can’t say that you’ll do what the Americans did and say ‘I will take only the military option’.

If you remember, after 9/11 the U.S. said that it would bomb Afghanistan to the Stone Age if the Taliban would not hand over Osama Bin Laden. After 18 years, they are now talking to the Taliban.

That’s why I keep saying, be a little careful when you insist that the military path alone would lead to the desired political objective. It may not. The kind of triumphalism that we saw immediately after Balakot was misplaced.

Also read: How the U.S. Can Avert an India-Pakistan War

There Is Enough Room To De-escalate

- Richard Rossow, Wadhwani Chair in U.S. India Policy Studies, Center for Strategic and International Studies

I think there’s enough room to de-escalate. You need to find that moment when both sides can walk away and claim that they got some level of victory and can claim credit for that. That’s the day they can walk away. But there are different forces that are driving India and Pakistan. With India you have got a vibrant democracy. The people have a pretty strong say in terms of what they expect their government to do, to react when you have terror attacks, and to follow through with that.

With Pakistan you have a strange dual beast where you have a weak civilian government and a military that drives most of the establishment which will really take the final call on when its time to stand down. They are not as driven by elections and voters, and have a tighter control on the media. That leaves a little bit more space on the Pakistan side.

Pakistan wants to have a little bit of tension in the relationship at all times, because that’s what allows the military to retain its position of top governance in the country.

They also do want to make sure that this doesn’t spill over more widely. Compare this time to 2002 [after the attack on India’s Parliament] and 1999 [Kargil]. The world, including China has taken a side more starkly than ever before. We are seeing very different reactions to Pakistan from the world, from previous escalations. India is more widely recognised than ever before as a responsible state actor, dealing with a terror organisation in a neighboring country that has impacted the U.S. and others.

What I think is most important is how the international community looks at this is, and all the non-military steps that I expect India will double down on.
Sergey Lavrov, Wang Yi and Sushma Swaraj at the meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Russia, China, and India, in Wuzhen, China, on Feb. 27, 2019. (Photograph: MEA)
Sergey Lavrov, Wang Yi and Sushma Swaraj at the meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Russia, China, and India, in Wuzhen, China, on Feb. 27, 2019. (Photograph: MEA)

Can the United Nations Security Council take a stronger stand against Pakistan? Blocking IMF lending is something that’s being talked about right now. There are all kinds of alternative measures, using the international systems, to continue to corner and isolate Pakistan, hoping that will change its behaviour.

Those are the areas where India has tremendous credibility in the international community, which can really come to bear.

Also read: Air Strikes Won’t Fix India’s Pakistan Problem

Pakistan’s Reaction A Highly Structured One

- Manoj Joshi, Distinguished Fellow, ORF

India wanted to show that it has the right to strike at terror camps. The beginning of the story was the worst attack on paramilitary forces in the history of the Kashmir conflict. If anyone expected that India would not retaliate, they were living in a fool’s paradise.

Knowing the psychology of the Pakistan Army and the enormous insecurities viz-a-viz India, I’m not surprised that it did react. But, if you look at the reaction, it’s a highly structured one.

They claim that they fired from their side of the LoC, and that they fired at non-military targets. What they are trying to say is that they made a demonstration strike. They have demonstrated that they will react to what they call India’s provocation. That having being done,  all the conditions are in place for the two sides to de-escalate.

Responses From Both Sides ‘Very Contained’

- Virendra Gupta, Former Deputy Director General, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses

In situations like this, very often one doesn’t act rationally with reasonable response. The response that has come from Pakistan is far better than what I had feared. When we struck against a terror camp inside Pakistani territory, we justified it as our right to undertake a preemptive strike. From Pakistan's standpoint, it was India violating its sovereignty.

One would have been naive not to expect some kind of retaliatory action by Pakistan because it needed to save face. Pakistan’s government and military also needs to show to its public that they have responded to the provocation from India.

The responses from both sides have been contained. All things point to the situation not being escalated any further.

Pakistan does realise the futility of escalation because if it were to have escalated, it would go absolutely against Pakistan's interests. Former Pakistan President Musharraf has already warned its establishment that any escalation, any misadventure, on Pakistan’s part, will lead to its own devastation.

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