The deterrence red line of not crossing the Line of Control between India and Pakistan has been breached using military air power – something that last happened around 50 years ago during the 1971 war. That Indian planes reached within around 100 kilometers from the Pakistani capital Islamabad is a game-changer. It is a signal that Pakistan cannot afford to ignore.
But between the lines, are the two countries keeping some space for negotiation no matter what the rhetoric?
The answer might be yes.
It began with India’s declaration that its air strike was ‘non-military’ and ‘preemptive’, aimed specifically at a terrorist base and avoided civilian populations. This was followed by the Pakistani gesture of returning the Indian pilot who was captured in Pakistani territory.
India’s has also officially said that it does not trust Pakistani intent until there is real action against terrorist groups, and while there has been some noise on this, nothing concrete has emerged. After all, it cannot be forgotten that General (retd.) Pervez Musharraf too had banned terrorist groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) in 2002 after the attack on the Indian parliament.
Suffice it to say that it would be difficult for anyone, far less India, to take such proclamations from the Pakistani administration with any seriousness. But will this doubtfulness lead to nuclear war? Maybe not. If one reads between the lines, there may be nuances and signalling that pausing, even if very briefly, hostilities, and striving to keep them under the nuclear threshold.
This might seem negligible, but it is not. Nuclear deterrence is all about doubt. Doubt can be good or bad. Bad doubt of course means that the opponent is likely to be more trigger-happy about the use of nuclear weapons. But good doubt creates space for other means, including conventional conflict, and the avoidance of the nuclear option. Good doubt creates, even if it’s a little, space for a wee bit of compromise before the irretrievable nuclear option.
By not launching a second air strike, which seems almost certain, India signaled a willingness at the very least to stall for a moment – and by conflicting rumours about the illness (some say even death) of Masood Azhar, Pakistan is trying to build compromise routes.
The pressure to declare the Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Azhar a global terrorist in the United Nations is immense, with the U.S., UK and China pushing for the case. But China vetoed a previous attempt in 2009. Will anything change this time?
The escape route for Pakistan of course is to declare him dead before March 13 – the veto deadline. And save China the tough decision in the face of pressure – and pacify India.
But even dead doesn’t really mean dead for a terrorist in Pakistan – as was proved in the case Osama bin Laden, who was declared dead by Musharraf in 2002. He was later killed by U.S. Navy Seals in May 2011.
The question now is what shall Pakistan signal about Azhar and how much will India believe it? The reports from Pakistan about arresting JeM’s members and taking over its bank accounts means little to India unless the crucial step of his curtailment, via the UN declaration, is done. Or, he is declared dead.
The question is – will India believe that he is dead? Should it after what happened with Osama bin Laden? Remember Musharraf said very similar things – about the Al Qaeda leader being on dialysis and suffering from kidney failure – as is now being said by Pakistani authorities about Azhar.
India can afford to pause for a moment and consider this doubtful space because it is, as far as the nuclear option is concerned, in a far more secure position than Pakistan, with a guaranteed second capability in its nuclear-powered submarine, the Arihant.
But whether this doubtful space leads to any progress – well, that we shall know by March 13.