Lessons From A Military Encounter

Talking to one’s adversary in the midst of a war, a limited war or even hostility is often viewed as undesirable in the public mind. However, the lesson from the long history of warfare and India’s own experience in dealing with past crises is that talking to one’s adversaries is a crucial requirement for de-escalation and for bringing the two sides back from the brink. Such talks are often done discreetly and soberly via the ‘back channel’, away from media attention and focussed on de-escalation, meeting the aims behind the war-talk and achieving an honourable exit from the tussle.

In this regard, it is important to ask, how did Indian and Pakistani decision-makers fare in the end-February military encounter that the two sides found themselves in the middle of after the Pulwama terror strike? Going by the information that is currently available in open sources, and conversations with analysts in India and Pakistan, I would say that there were hardly any pre-existing/dedicated channels of communication between the two countries; the ones that were in place were not put to use; and very little bilateral conversation actually took place to de-escalate the crisis. That should be of great concern to us. Therefore, the military stand-off that followed the Indian Air Force strikes on Balakot, in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, should encourage the two sides to urgently put in place dedicated bilateral conflict de-escalation mechanisms, in the absence of which the two nuclear-armed countries could potentially head towards an undesirable, inadvertent and unintended conflict with unpredictable outcomes.

It must be kept in mind that there is nothing to guarantee that military crises can be finely calibrated and controlled by central decision-makers — they cannot be. For instance, what would have been the nature of the escalation had the ordnance fired by the Pakistan Air Force actually hit forward military installations such as a Division HQ of the Indian Army in Kashmir and involved casualties?

Communication breakdown

The conversation at the Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) level, the highest military contact that currently exists between India and Pakistan and which has often played a de-escalatory role, was not activated during the crisis. Unlike previous years, since Pakistan did not have a National Security Adviser (NSA) or an equivalent official, there were no NSA-level talks either. The two High Commissioners, unsurprisingly but disturbingly, were called back to their home countries for consultations. If anything, it is during crisis periods that envoys should stay put in their respective High Commissions to find ways of defusing tensions and relaying messages and options back to their governments. Curiously, India and Pakistan chose to do the exact opposite.

More significantly, there were apparently no back-channel contacts between India and Pakistan during the February crisis. During the Kargil conflict, on the other hand, politically appointed interlocutors had conducted discreet discussions on de-escalatory measures between the two sides. For the most part of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) -I and II governments, there was an established mechanism of backchannel conversations by special envoys appointed by the respective Prime Ministers. The current Bharatiya Janata Party-led government decided to discontinue that time-tested and useful practice.

Against this background, it was puzzling that none of these tried, tested and somewhat successful mechanisms was used by the two sides. Did the government in New Delhi, for instance, want to keep decision-making and messaging during the crisis too close to its chest to ensure maximum political mileage from it?

Given the lack of abundant options for crisis communication, the two sides had to innovate on a war footing. Media reports have suggested that the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chiefs had communicated with each other about what might happen had the Indian pilot not been released by Pakistan, among other things, something the Indian NSA also conveyed to Pakistan via the U.S. Parleys between the intelligence chiefs is an unlikely channel and contacts between them, while useful during crises, would not be able to achieve as much as between politically-empowered interlocutors. In any case, serving spymasters aren’t perhaps best placed for conflict de-escalation.

The fact that there were fears in Pakistan that India was preparing to launch missiles at its territory and that the Pakistani concerns about a possible Indian attack have not disappeared in Pakistan also goes to show the poor state of crisis communication between the nuclear rivals.

It is not difficult to understand why India chose not to communicate with Pakistan in an effective and officially authorised manner. Doing so would have taken away the political utility of the ‘teaching Pakistan a lesson’ rhetoric: how can India be seen to be talking to Pakistan at any level (except perhaps to threaten) when it is avenging the deaths of its solders? But even such a calculation shouldn’t have prevented India, I would argue, from making high-level de-escalatory contacts with Pakistan, for doing so is nothing but wise statecraft. Not doing so allows domestic political calculations to trump the diktats of statecraft.

Too many third parties

When the hostile parties do not talk to de-escalate, others tend to step in. February and early March witnessed a slew of efforts by third parties to ensure that India and Pakistan de-escalate from the nuclear brink. The Americans, Chinese, Russians, Saudis, Emiratis were all involved one way or another in defusing the tensions between the two countries. During earlier crises, Washington was the only mediator, but this time around, thanks to the tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan and the rise of other prominent actors in the region, there were several interested parties in the fray, each with its own agenda. Not only does the involvement of several parties make the situation more chaotic, it could potentially lead to more miscommunication and mismanagement.

Here’s the problem then. On the one hand, there was very little crisis negotiation between the principal parties to the conflict — India and Pakistan. On the other, there were several third parties who jumped into the fray for mediation, and it seemed as if both the sides were happily outsourcing their crisis management to third parties with differing agendas and motives. Outsourcing conflict management to third parties, especially in the absence of one’s own mechanisms, is a recipe for disaster.

Reinstate backchannel talks

One of the biggest takeaways from the February crisis is the need to reinstate/re-establish high-level backchannel contacts with interlocutors in Pakistan, whether Islamabad or Rawalpindi. This is a lesson from various India-Pakistan crises, be it the backchannel through the 1999 Kargil conflict and the 2001-2002 crisis, discreet negotiations between the two sides preceding the 2003 ceasefire agreement and the post-Mumbai escalation.

This is also a lesson the two Cold War rivals had learnt, that they had to keep talking to each other through the worst years of their rivalry. As a matter of fact, it took the Cuban Missile Crisis to convince the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to negotiate arms control, discuss crisis management and put in place confidence-building measures, notwithstanding the state of their relationship. Remember, the Cold War also had domestic political implications especially for the U.S., but that didn’t prevent them from instituting conflict-management measures.

The Article First Appeared In THE HINDU

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