Pakistan and India don’t seem to be ready for full-blown war

The wreckage of an Indian warplane shot down over Pakistani territory. (AFP pic)

New developments in the India-Pakistan conflict have led to terrifying headlines — “brink of war”, “nuclear war on our doorstep”, “threatens the world” — in the media across the globe.

Is it time to panic? Probably, not yet. Instead, there is a window of opportunity for the parties involved to de-escalate. After all, they don’t seem to be in favour of a full-blown war.

This should not be the reason for Malaysia to turn a blind eye to how these two South Asian nuclear powers handle their conflict by exhibiting their military might.

Tensions exacerbated when a suicide bomber crashed an explosive-laden sports utility vehicle into an Indian paramilitary convoy in the Pulwama district of Indian-administered Kashmir on Feb 14.

It is not clear what the task of that convoy heading to Srinagar was, but all the victims – 44 dead and 35 injured – were military personnel.

It was the largest death toll in a single incident in the past 18 years. Pakistan-based armed group Jaish-e Mohammad (JeM) claimed responsibility for the attack.

India suspects the group is tied to the Pakistani military, which Islamabad denies.

The disaster, however, put Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi under pressure at home. And he had to give an effective response to the attack.

On Feb 27, media reported that Pakistan downed two Indian fighter jets and arrested two Indian pilots.

In fact, only one plane was shot down by Pakistan, a MiG21 that crossed the border in pursuit of Pakistani jets, but the truth was hard to detect in the aftermath at first.

A day before this dogfight, Indian forces claimed a successful attack on a JeM training camp, beyond the border of Kashmir in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. This was the first strike of that kind since the war between the countries in 1971.

However, Pakistan claimed the strike hit a mostly uninhabited forest with just one civilian reported to have sustained minor injuries.

Modi, as the head of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), can use the incident to boost his prospects ahead of the upcoming general election.

Anti-Pakistani sentiment in Indian society is on the rise and satisfying demand could well unite people behind BJP.

Modi took the chance to assure the nation that “the country is in safe hands” while speaking at an election rally in the state of Rajasthan, hours after the strike on JeM.

Such tactics helped in 2016 when India launched “a surgical attack”. It might help now, except that the current standoff is not going to end just with a single exchange of fire.

There have been reports on the exchange of heavy fire along the Line of Control (LoC) between the armies of both countries since the escalation. However, exchange of fire along the LoC has been a new normal since 2016.

According to some sources, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan even called for a meeting of the National Command Authority, which is responsible for policies involving the country’s nuclear arsenal.

Yet, it is unlikely that any party would want to escalate the current standoff into a nuclear war. Both countries understand the cost, but Modi might want to keep the drums of war sounding a little longer to harvest whatever is possible for domestic political gain.

Rhetoric on both sides shows that no one wants escalation to spill over into a nuclear conflict.

“History tells us that wars are full of miscalculation. My question is that given the weapons we have, can we afford a miscalculation?” said Khan and called for talks.

On the public side, social network users got into a war of words, which is normal for both countries when faced with such a situation. Important, however, was the treatment of the surviving pilot by Pakistan.

The Pakistani military had rescued him when locals looked determined to harm him.

Some Pakistanis demanded a response by conducting a ground operation against the Indian military posts along the LoC.

Indeed, Pakistani Air Force executed strikes at six targets in Indian-administered Kashmir, hitting “open spaces” as a demonstration of Pakistan’s capability, a spokesperson said.

Both parties have displayed their might by breaching each other’s airspace before the entire situation heads towards a settlement. Now, Pakistan is promising to release the captured pilot back as soon as possible.

In Malaysia, supporting Palestinians in the Arab-Israeli conflict often obscures the problem of Kashmir, which has been around for about just as long. India was partitioned in 1947 and the state of Israel was officially founded in 1948.

Jawaharlal Nehru’s pledge for a referendum to determine Kashmir’s destiny never happened, and now, millions of people are caught up in the fight between India and Pakistan.

India and Pakistan have been at loggerheads for so long that they know how to handle each other and when to stop.

The fact that they have been settling their disputes by the demonstration of force instead of resorting to international mechanisms is not surprising, even if neither India nor Pakistan is a member of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

When the great powers have a floating definition of the sovereignty of others, why can’t others operate in the same manner?

Still, the neighbours to India and Pakistan must issue their own statements on the need to de-escalate.

Asean has done an exemplary job of keeping its tensions under control, while Malaysia, in particular, spoke of the need to resolve problems through regional efforts.

That is why its call for maintaining effective communication might make perfect sense, as it comes from neighbours in the region, instead of the US or Russia.

None of the South and Southeast Asian countries would approve of making such dispute resolution methods the new normal — especially when the precedent is being set by two nuclear powers.

Julia Roknifard is a director of foreign policy at Emir Research, a think tank focused on data-driven policy research.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.