PoliticsSecurity & MilitaryTerrorism

Pakistan can’t afford a war with India – unless China comes to its aid

By Sarosh Bana

A fifth of India’s population and a third of Pakistan’s live in extreme poverty. Another conflict between the two nations would devastate their economies and lead to people facing destitution

India’s airstrikes against Pakistan-based terror camps, in retaliation for the horrific 14 February suicide attack on Indian troops by Pakistan-based terrorists, threatens to lead the two nuclear weapon neighbours to a conflagration they can ill afford. There are also fears of an Indian government decision to impose a national emergency by citing “external aggression”, threatening the peace, security, stability and governance of the country.

There have been pitched war cries from both sides since the Valentine’s Day Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) attack on an Indian paramilitary convoy in Pulwama, in the terror-ridden border state of Jammu and Kashmir, which claimed the lives of 40 soldiers of the Central Reserve Police Force. JeM claimed responsibility for the carnage that saw a local Kashmiri youth, acting at the behest of the jihadi group, drive into the convoy of buses with an explosive-laden SUV.

Two days later, prime minister Narendra Modi sounded a warning – “We will settle the account in full this time” – and pledged to avenge “each drop of tear shed”, even as India started roping in international support to isolate Pakistan at the world stage and charting a retaliatory action plan. His Pakistani counterpart, Imran Khan, addressed India: “If you think you will attack us and we will not think of retaliating… We will retaliate. We all know starting a war is in the hands of humans, where it will lead us only God knows.”

Not only was the terror attack the worst on Indian security forces in the Kashmir valley this decade, India’s retaliatory airstrikes were the first across the line of control frontier since the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971. Both sides have now claimed responsibility for shooting down jets, as Pakistan has confirmed it is closing its airspace.

The sharp exchange prompted US president Donald Trump to tell the media: “Right now between Pakistan and India, there is a very, very bad situation. A very dangerous situation. We would like to see it [hostility] stop.” India’s foreign minister Sushma Swaraj will today visit China to take part in an India-China-Russia trilateral meeting, to anticipate the response of these powers in case India-Pakistan hostilities escalate. The group is expected to urge India to carry out its “fight against terrorism” through international cooperation.

India and Pakistan have gone to war four times – in 1947, 1965, 1971 and 1999. But another war today would prove mutually disastrous. A fifth of India’s population and a third of Pakistan’s live in extreme poverty, defined as those living on less than $1.90 (£1.43) a day. Not only would such an engagement ravage their economies and lead to civilian destitution, it may draw other global powers into the conflict too, deepening the discord.

While some quarters still predict the conflict can be contained locally, with some cross-border reprisals, that would depend on the two nations working together to avert any outbreak of further hostility by showing sensitivity to its consequences and by marshaling diplomatic interventions by other powers.

Already, Pakistani troops have violated a ceasefire by firing in the Akhnoor, Nowshera and Poonch sectors along the line of control. On the Indian side, movement of soldiers has increased, amid reports of a heavy troop buildup across the border. Flash points are erupting across the Indian sub-continent because military posturing is being matched by political grandstanding from the two country’s leaders. Political rhetoric needs to be scaled down on both sides to give peace a chance.

While the Modi regime is hamstrung by electoral pressures, with general elections due in May, Khan will also feel obliged to abide by his promise of retaliation.

There are broader economic issues at play, too. Although Khan promised a “new Pakistan” upon his swearing-in last August, his country is reduced to bankruptcy, with foreign exchange reserves critically inadequate to fund imports beyond a few months. While the country is now banking on an IMF bailout, Trump has warned against capitalizing Pakistan in order to help it repay its massive debt to China. Yet the country runs a serious risk of defaulting on its payments without the IMF dole.

To go to war against India, Islamabad will have to look to China. China’s entry into the affray would raise major questions for India, which lacks the military power to wage a war on two fronts for any length of time.

There are those in India who are interpreting the government’s “non-military” pre-emptive action as a political move. The prime minister urged the public at a rally to vote for him to ensure the “safety and security” of their homeland. His ministers, too, upheld the aerial offensive as indicative of a strong and decisive leadership that provided security to all Indians.

With Modi increasingly unsure of re-election, declaring a national emergency could potentially allow a delay to elections, extending the term of the incumbent regime for as long as the emergency continues.

The altercation between India and Pakistan is fraught with grave consequences. An event of war will physically endanger civilians living along the borders and jeopardise the lives of all Indians and Pakistanis by devastating both country’s economies. Scaling down the rhetoric to come to an understanding is the only way forward.

Independent

 

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