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Indo-Pakistan conflict has dangerous escalation potential By Praful Bidwai in New Delhi May 27, 1999 Barely three months after what was claimed to be their "historic" summit for peace and reconciliation at Lahore, India and Pakistan are back shelling each other and exchanging bellicose and vicious rhetoric across the Kashmir border near the town of Kargil, 200 km from Srinagar. The conflict, involving the use of Indian air power at the border for the first time in 27 years, this time to repulse alleged intruders, has the potential to escalate to dangerous levels. Although India says the operation is confined to its side of the line of control (LoC), as the disputed boundary is called, Pakistan claims that some bombs have fallen on its territory and it regards the matter as "very, very serious", grim enough to put its forces on high alert. Menacingly, the border is undemarcated on the ground. Both states accuse each other of having acted in bad faith, started hostilities, and breached the letter and spirit of both the Lahore Declaration of February 21 and the Simla Agreement signed after the Bangladesh war of 1971. India says it will hold Pakistan alone "responsible" for any escalation of the Kargil conflict. The Pakistani foreign minister says: "Pakistan is already retaliating and will retaliate." At work in the Kargil conflict is a complex dynamic driven by mutual suspicion and distrust on a range of issues, unresolved but deep differences over Jammu and Kashmir, insecurities about each other's military capacities and intentions, opacity in strategic and foreign policy-making and in sharing of pertinent information with each other and with the public, and above all, domestic political factors, particularly the severe crisis of legitimacy which the two governments face. The Kargil crisis further highlights the perils of the crossing of the nuclear threshold in South Asia exactly one year ago. This confrontation began three weeks ago when the Indian army first detected the presence of what it called armed "infiltrators", or mujaheedin guerrillas allegedly backed by Pakistan, near the heights of Kargil and Drass. (Pakistan denies supporting them, but says they are Kashmiri "freedom-fighters"). Such cross-border forays have been routine for years, especially after the winter snows melt, as are exchanges of heavy artillery fire. More than 350 exchanges were reported in less than six months after the nuclear tests. What is new about the present case is the relatively large number of guerrillas crossing the border (officially estimated in India first at 300 and later at 680, and unofficially at 1,000 to 1,500) and their success in penetrating seven km into Indian territory and establishing relatively well-equipped camps over an area reportedly as large as 15 square km. Apparently, the Indian army's routine operations failed to dislodge the militants. Army sources say this is the first time in 50 years that India faced a virtual occupation of its territory near its western border, however small--and that too in "peace time". Why the army allowed the situation to aggravate and reach this point remains unexplained. The official line as stated by Indian home minister L.K. Advani is that the infiltrators included "army regulars along with mercenaries" from Pakistan. "This is incursion into our territory with the clear endorsement of the Pakistan army." India says it had no option but to use air power to soften up the intruders and cut off their supply lines. Semi-official Indian briefings emphasise that the air strikes' rationale is that any delay would have encouraged Pakistan to extend its operations; non-eviction of the "infiltrators" would have changed the alignment of the LoC to India's disadvantage; the security of the vital Srinagar-Leh road would have been threatened; and continued occupation of the heights would have led to further infiltration. In the absence of full and verifiable information, the only inference that can be drawn is that after the Indian army failed to dislodge the militants, perhaps after sustaining high casualties itself (according to the local Kashmiri press), the government decided to launch air strikes. Such strikes are apparently being carried out by helicopter gunships and a range of combat aircraft including MiG-21s and MiG-27s, with MiG-29s, providing cover. These strikes add a new element of speed to the military confrontation and involve the risk of aircraft straying across the border, and bombs and rockets missing targets and hitting militarily significant assets in Pakistan. Given the many grey areas along the undemarcated border, the chances of escalation through retaliation and counter- retaliation, or through strategic misperception or miscalculation, are distressingly high. The history of India-Pakistan rivalry is replete with miscalculation. In 1965, for instance, Gen Ayub Khan thought that merely parachuting troops into Kashmir would trigger a popular rebellion against India. This started a bitter war which Pakistan did not win. In 1986-87, a routine Indian military exercise ("Operation Brasstacks") went out of control. Pakistan's generals read some of its manoeuvres as threatening and deeply offensive. An eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation ensued. The most serious such crisis occurred in 1990 when another military exercise spun out of control. The Pakistan government apparently felt threatened enough to want to "brandish the nuclear sword" in an indirect and oblique fashion. According to a number of experts, it lined up trucks at the Kahuta uranium enrichment plant to demonstratively indicate its willingness to escalate the confrontation to the nuclear level. The crisis was defused only when the U.S. sent a high-powered functionary, Robert Gates, to New Delhi and Islamabad, urging restraint. The present stand-off raises three serious questions: Was the Pakistan army or its Inter Services Intelligence agency really involved in the "infiltration"? If so, did it act independently or with the civilian administration's concurrence? Why did all the mutual-consultation and confidence-building measures agreed by the two states to avoid conflict fail? And what determined the timing of the Indian air strikes? If the Pakistani army was involved, that would cast doubts both over the viability of limited "good faith" agreements such as those reached at Lahore and the ability of the Nawaz Sharif government to prevail over the army which is considered all- powerful and the final arbiter of political decisions in Pakistan. If, on the other hand, the Indian claim is false, then that would put a question-mark over the transparency that "democratic India" professes. Such transparency has always been low in Kashmir where the public has limited access to information and cannot verify official claims. Secondly, the crisis exposes the flimsiness of the substantive (as distinct from symbolic) aspect of the Lahore process. The Lahore accords are not really about serious arms restraint and control. They are at best about good intentions to improve relations and about transparency of a very limited kind. For instance, India and Pakistan did not agree to bilateral measures to reduce the danger of nuclear war, but only to (unspecified) "national measures" to reduce "accidental or unauthorised use of nuclear weapons under their respective control." They agreed not to suspend their nuclear and missile programmes, but only to inform each other of test flights, etc. They agreed "to continue to abide by their respective unilateral moratorium on conducting further nuclear test explosions--unless either side ... decides that extraordinary events have jeopardised its supreme interests." Thirdly, it is entirely plausible that the timing of the Indian decision to bring air power, and hence greater mobility and speed, into play, had something to do with the temptation of the Vajpayee government (itself a "caretaker", which has lost Parliament's confidence) to outmanoeuvre its domestic political opponents. The ruling coalition is in deep trouble and its principal opponent, the Congress, is on the upswing with the return of Sonia Gandhi as president after her resignation following the questioning of her credentials to lead the country on account of her "foreign origins" by dissident leaders. Domestic considerations have indeed played a role in the past--as in 1986-87 and then again in the early 1990s. They also explain why the political opposition in India is not unconditionally supporting the government on Kargil and criticises it for mishandling the issue. In Pakistan, the Sharif government has brutally cracked down on critical journalists and public-spirited NGOs and women's groups as it desperately seeks a figleaf of legitimacy through Islam to cover up corruption and misgovernance. Kargil starkly demonstrates the falsehood of the assumption that nuclearisation has imparted stability or maturity to India- Pakistan relations, or reduced the danger of a conventional conflict. If anything, it has created more insecurity.--end--