New Strategic Realities in South Asia

One theme that became part of the strategic narrative being churned out by the American think tanks after the Mumbai attacks in 2008 was that the in the future, if a terrorist attack on India emanated from Pakistani territory, the US will not intervene and would let India do whatever it felt necessary to do. It meant that India could resort to all options like going for surgical strikes against militant training grounds or camps, allegedly deep inside Pakistani territory, animating the much flaunted Cold Start or the Proactive Doctrine or even resort to a nuclear first strike. This was the recurrent message being communicated to Pakistan at official and unofficial level. It sounded very grave and very clear. Pakistan had to do more to rein in Jihadi groups that have their support. The Pakistani response that it wasn’t state policy to sponsor any terrorist group would fall on deaf ears. Scholars of repute discussed the fragility of strategic stability in times of crisis and the various twists and turns in the Kargil conflict, 2001-2002 standoff and Mumbai 2008 and how the US intervened to deescalate and defuse these crises. The US, it was emphasized was no longer interested in getting involved in a firefight, if South Asia plunged once again in another cataclysmic situation leading precipitously up the escalation ladder.  The two countries could give up the notion of outsourcing deescalation to the US. The incessant barrage of this talk was more for Pakistani consumption than the Indian. The Indians were actually being given a green signal to feel free to do what they felt like doing to teach Pakistan a lesson, if it did not behave or did not keep its Jihadi organisations under control.

Officially India subscribes to a nuclear No First Strike Policy (NFS) but it has created loopholes to carry out a nuclear first strike e.g. in a 2003 update, it was stated that it can go for the nuclear First Use (FU) option, in case of an chemical or biological attack. Before the BJP released their 2014 election manifesto, it was made known that the party leadership under Narindera Modi was considering giving up on the NFU option was seriously considered during the BJP election campaign in 2014. More recently the Indian defence minister Manohar Parrikar has talked of giving up on the NFS option altogether. These are all indications that the extreme right wing party in power is itching to use the nuclear option in case it felt there was a dire need to do so.

Now let’s see what happened after a string of terrorist incidents that happened over the last one year i.e. Gurdaspur (2015) and Pathankot and Uri (2016). Whereas, the first two incidents got only a muted response, after the attack on a Brigade Headquarters in Uri in which a dozen soldiers were killed, the response was stronger. As usual the Indian media went into a frenzy. The government had to respond. It was an attack too many, second against a heavily guarded military target. The Indian forces seemed unable to stop the infiltration from across the heavily guarded, wired and mined Line of Control (LOC) and unable to stop the militants from penetrating inside military installations under several layers of security. So what happened? The Indian Army claimed that they had launched surgical strikes. This ludicrous claim could not be substantiated by any credible proof.  Skirmishes were reported at various points along the LOC but nothing serious. Soldiers were killed on both sides but than nothing serious happened. No loss of territory was reported. In fact an Indian soldier was reported to have been captured. Artillery shelling created problems for the civilians, who had to pull out to safer places. Fishermen were apprehended for allegedly poaching inside Indian territorial waters.  Very recently an Indian submarine was found lurking in Pakistani waters that the Pakistan Navy says it sent scurrying back to safety. Diplomats were expelled in a tit for tat manner for activities not commensurate of their status. Repeated demarches were issued by the Pakistan foreign office to the Indian high commissioner and his deputy for aggressive behavior on the LOC. The matter was raised in the UN. Ban Ki-Moon, the retiring UN secretary general offered to mediate between Pakistan and India but as usual there was no resonance from the Indian side. The US state department spokesperson cautioned restraint but there were no offers to arbitrate.

For the moment US policies are undergoing a paradigm shift. Trump, the President elect has made it known that he would concentrate on domestic policies. His election promise is to rebuild America and create more jobs. He has expressed his desire to leave NATO. The foreign threat he visualizes is from the Islamic state and here he would like to collaborate with Russia. He hasn’t outlined a clear cut policy about South Asia. Obama’s eight years in office indicates a fatigue from overseas wars. The US watched helplessly as Russia annexed Crimea and it took a secondary role in Syria as compared to the dominant one by Russia.

In the short term, these crises in South Asia did not climb up the escalation ladder in the traditional manner as neither the Cold Start Doctrine was executed nor was the nuclear option was resorted to. Deterrence held. The full spectrum deterrence policy was validated for now. Although the matter was raised at international forums, deescalation was not outsourced per se. Indians were held back because they could not afford to engage in war with Pakistan. This would have set back their ambitions to become an economic power. The world in general wasn’t interested in the petty squabbling in the South Asian subcontinent and the US in particular was trying to recover from the election results and trying to form new foreign policy options.

The situation may change in the coming years. The China-Russia diad is emerging as the new power pole in the new world order as role of the US as an influential power broker in the South Asian power politics diminishes. This does not mean, however, that new regional powers would be interested in intervening in Pak-India problems. These can only be resolved by the two countries themselves. Understandably, this can only be possible if India shows a willingness to discuss Kashmir and other outstanding issues. For Pakistan it is incumbent to improve its economy and law and order situation to be taken seriously internationally. One hopes that with the materializing of CPEC Pakistan may just be on the road to stability. If somehow India can be convinced that i has economic fruits to share from this regional connectivity, the bait would be taken