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India-Pakistan Tensions

Following last week’s tensions between India and Pakistan, Castlereagh Associates has interviewed an expert on South Asia, Arjun Chawla

Castlereagh Associates: IAF pilot Abhinandan Varthaman has been released by Pakistan as a de-escalating gesture. Are the tensions going to thaw from now on in your point of view?

Arjun Chawla: Pakistan’s prompt release of Wing Commander Varthaman of the Indian Air Force (IAF) was in accordance with the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war (POWs) and was widely seen as a positive step.

From Islamabad’s point of view, this action is one of goodwill and de-escalation. The promptness of the action showcases a civil-military consensus in Pakistan’s India policy, which officially calls for de-escalation and resumption of dialogue on Kashmir and other issues.

However, this release is unlikely to change New Delhi’s position, which calls for a comprehensive crackdown by Pakistan on terror outfits that target India, such as Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), its political wing Jamat ud Dawah (JuD) and Hizbul Mujahideen (HM), among others. Unless Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government genuinely clamps down on these outfits in tangible terms, India will continue a policy of diplomatic isolation, bilateral disengagement, and limited military counterterrorism strikes, vis-à-vis Pakistan.

Therefore, I don’t think that the release of Wing Commander Varthaman alone will lead to significant de-escalation in the immediate short term.

Why have we seen a more belligerent India and a Pakistan interested in decreasing tensions?

India and Pakistan’s reactions to the previous week’s escalations are reflective of the current domestic political landscape in each country.

In India, the looming general elections are roughly a month away. The incumbent party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has traditionally campaigned on a strong national security agenda and is perceived to be hawkish on Pakistan and issues pertaining to national security, including terrorism.

Already in September 2016, under the current Modi administration, the Indian Army conducted a surgical strike against militant launchpads across the Line of Control (LOC) in the Pakistani Administered Kashmir. This was a retaliatory move following the Uri attack on Indian armed forces earlier that month. Therefore, the 26th February 2019 Balakot airstrike does not set a new precedent but hints at a more assertive policy from India. While the nature and damage claimed by the strike is contested by Pakistan, the objective of the limited military action was to set a ‘new normal’, where India would retaliate with targeted military action in response to militancy and terrorism traced back to groups operating within Pakistan. This new ‘muscular’ approach towards Pakistan was displayed once again last week, given that the casualties suffered by Indian paramilitary forces in the Pulwama attack was nearly twice as much as in the 2016 Uri attack. Additionally, the proximity of the attack to the general elections, has allowed Modi to remind his domestic electorate about his hawkish stand on Pakistan and uncompromising stand on cross-border terrorism, both of which will win him political brownie points.

On the flip-side, Pakistan’s newly formed PTI government is undertaking a series of economic reforms in its bid to build a ‘Naya Pakistan’ (New Pakistan), which is socio-politically and economically stable. Currently, the country faces a severe financial crunch and debt burden. In order to service this deficit, Imran Khan has raised fresh investment and loans from China, Saudi Arabia, and UAE, and is expected to soon make a deal with the IMF. Any potential conflict with India further adversely impacts Pakistan’s economic stability. For instance, Pakistan’s airspace remained closed for over a week post the Balakot airstrikes. This has a significant commercial cost for the country.

Additionally, Pakistan’s armed forces remain actively deployed on the western front along the Durand Line. Despite the apparent success of counterterrorism operations like Operation Zarb-e-Azb and Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad, Pakistan still faces a threat to internal security from its western border areas, linking it to Afghanistan. As the U.S. withdraws its troops from Afghanistan, Pakistan is fencing its contentious border with Afghanistan sighting internal security. Therefore, the military establishment in Pakistan would also be actively seeking to avoid a protracted two-front conflict.

What was the situation between Pakistan and India prior to the Puwalma attack? Has Imran Khan been more effective than previous Prime Ministers in decreasing overall tensions with the neighbour?

Even prior to the Pulwama attack, India and Pakistan’s bilateral relations have been characterised by disengagement and mistrust, over the last five years. This is because both countries seek to apply a precondition to bilateral talks that is unacceptable to the other. Since the time of the Manmohan Singh-led Congress government, New Delhi’s precondition to the resumption of the composite dialogue has been that cross-border terrorism will be the top priority in the agenda of discussions. Similarly, Islamabad’s position has long been that Kashmir should top the list of discussions before other bilateral issues can be resolved. Despite isolated incidents of political and diplomatic thawing, this deadlock has resulted in the continuous suspension of dialogue.

Additionally, the recent surge in anti-Pakistan rhetoric in India’s domestic politics and media has conferred political premium to a hawkish Pakistan policy, reducing the political advantage of talks with Islamabad for governments in New Delhi.

Since assuming office in August 2018, Imran Khan has expressed that there is political appetite in Pakistan for better political and economic relations with India. The decision to open up the Kartarpur Corridor for visa-free entry for Sikh pilgrims from India was an early confidence building measure from Khan. Additionally, his measured and restrained statements post the Pulwama and Balakot incidents, in an effort to de-escalate tensions, has won him praise in Pakistan, India, and sections of the international community. However, the effectiveness of these attempts is suspect given that Pakistan’s military has a history of overriding its government’s foreign and security policies, especially in relation to India. In order to retain its inordinate share of resources and political influence, it is in the Pakistani military’s interest to have a precarious and tense relation with India- no war but no peace. This fact is appreciated in India and has made policymakers cynical of Khan’s peace proposals.

Were people in New Delhi, particularly those working in government and the army, worried that the tensions could get out of hand and escalate into war?

The IAF and the Indian Foreign Secretary were both prompt in stating that the airstrike in Balakot was a ‘pre-emptive non-military action’ not targeted at civilians or military installations, but specifically targeted against anti-India terror outfits operating within Pakistan. To that extent, despite the hyper-nationalist political rhetoric and media hysteria in India, the security apparatus in New Delhi (NSA, intelligence agencies, armed forces) very much views the Balakot airstrike as the initial step in an on-going process against terror outfit camps in the Pakistani Administered Kashmir and mainland Pakistan, as opposed to outright war.

Secondly, many within New Delhi’s security establishment view escalatory skirmishes, such as the one last week, as calling Pakistan’s ‘nuclear bluff’. Since Pakistan has developed short-range tactical nuclear missiles in addition to long-range strategic nuclear weapons, its security establishment has frequently claimed that the space for conventional war with India has been eliminated. Escalations post the Uri attack in 2016 and the Pulwama attack last week, are New Delhi’s way of demonstrating that the space for conventional military conflict at the sub-nuclear threshold still exists.

According to India’s Think Tanks, are there enough reasonable grounds to believe that Pakistan and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) were directly involved in the Puwalma attack in Kashmir? Who is Masood Azhar and why is a well and alive in Pakistan? How does Pakistan provide assistance to terrorist and militant groups?

Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) founded and led by Maulana Masood Azhar, officially claimed responsibility for the attack in Pulwama. Though the fidayeen style suicide attack was executed by 20-year-old Adil Ahmad Dar, a Kashmiri youth from the Kakapora division in Pulwama district, Indian intelligence agencies uncovered evidence suggesting that he was recruited and trained by JeM operatives in Kashmir.

Azhar is a Pakistani national and a resident of Bahawalpur in Southern Punjab, as confirmed by official Pakistani sources. Since the JeM is listed as a designated terrorist organisation by the UN, India has been pushing the UNSC to designate Azhar as a terrorist since the Mumbai 26/11 attacks in 2008. However, China has repeatedly blocked this proposal on technical grounds. In 1999, Indian Airlines Flight 814 from Kathmandu to New Delhi was hijacked and Indian authorities released Azhar (then imprisoned in India for his militancy in Kashmir) in exchange for freeing the hostages on board the aircraft.

Additionally, sources within the Indian intelligence community told the media that the Pakistani ISI was planning attacks in the Kashmir valley and other parts of India, emulating the suicide car bombings that are common in Afghanistan. This intel dates back to the second half of 2018, months before the Pulwama attack.

So, while policy makers and policy analysts in India are divided on how to go about responding to terror emanating from Pakistan, there is consensus on the fact that there are strong verifiable links between Pakistan’s security establishment and the so called ‘non-state actors’ such as Azhar and JeM.

A week after the warring events, how do you assess the economic impact of the India-Pakistan tensions?

The escalation of tensions has had an adverse impact on both countries in economic terms. Both the Bombay Stock Exchange and the Karachi Stock Exchange took a hit during the escalations. This was despite the visit of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud’s visit to South Asia that week, where he pledged over USD 120 billion in investment deals with India and Pakistan collectively.

The economic cost of escalation for Pakistan is likely to be higher than India for three additional reasons. First, its entire airspace was on lockdown for over eight days, severely disrupting commercial air traffic and business. In contrast, only limited airspace to the northwest of New Delhi was temporarily on lockdown for India. Second, if India provides Washington DC with adequate evidence to prove that Pakistan Air Force (PAF) used U.S. supplied F-16s in its aerial skirmish with the IAF, Pakistan could face further slashes in its U.S. funding, as the aircrafts were contractually allocated for counterterrorism operations only. Finally, and most importantly, any political and economic instability caused by such escalations, risk the stalling or cancellation of investments and projects under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Since India is the fastest growing major economy and economically roughly ten times the size of Pakistan, the economic cost of escalations is significantly less denting.


Arjun Chawla is a Research Associate at LSE IDEAS. Previously, he worked with the South Asia Programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, and Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, in Mumbai. He co-authored a chapter in ‘Democracy Under Threat’ published by Oxford University Press India in 2017. He currently writes on geopolitics and geo-economics with a focus on South Asia. He holds a master’s degree with distinction in international relations from the LSE.

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