India-Pakistan Tensions: When Reality Bites – Analysis


By Sushant Sareen*

The good news is that there is some new evidence that despite all the adventurism and brinkmanship, the top echelons of the Pakistan Army have, by and large, remained rational and not radicalised players. The bad news is that the Pakistan Army’s bluster and grandstanding have injected exaggerated notions of its military prowess in the minds of most Pakistanis, who are unable to accept that the Army they genuflect before isn’t exactly the all-conquering, invincible force they were brainwashed into believing. In a recent TV interview, Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir revealed some very interesting details of a meeting that the former Pakistan Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa held with more than two dozen media personnel in 2021.

According to Mir, Gen Bajwa told the journalists that the Pakistan Army was in no position to fight a war against India and that it, therefore, made sense to go for a truce. It isn’t clear if this meeting was held before or after the agreement to restore the ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC) in February 2021. Mir claims that Bajwa took a similar line in a briefing at the Pakistan Foreign Ministry to make a case for a rapprochement with India. The half a dozen retired foreign secretaries who were part of the briefing vehemently opposed any move towards normalising ties with India. Clearly, these retired diplomats were living in the past and unable to come to terms with the new realities, threats, compulsions and geostrategic shifts that had left Pakistan in a difficult situation.

If Mir is to be believed, Gen Bajwa was aware of the Indian decision to usher in constitutional reforms in Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019. Mir claims Bajwa informed Farooq Haider, the then ‘Prime Minister’ of Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir (PoJK), of India’s plans. When Haider demanded immediate military action to stop India from ending the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, Bajwa told him that Pakistan was in no position to wage war. The statement issued by Inter Services Public Relations after the constitutional reforms in J&K makes it very clear that the Pakistan Army wanted to downplay the development and avoid the trap of being forced to respond militarily. But Mir, who has been something of a flag bearer of jihad in Kashmir, accused Bajwa of selling out Kashmir. The deal that was purportedly worked out on the back channels included ‘freezing’ the Kashmir issue for 20 years. Neither was this a new revelation—Pakistani journalist Javed Chaudhry had disclosed this way back in January after a conversation with Bajwa—nor was this a novel idea—putting Kashmir in a deep freeze was also part of the peace plan that had been worked out between Gen Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

What really seems to have incensed Mir was Bajwa’s admission before Pakistani journalists that the Pakistan Army has serious problems with equipment and logistics and couldn’t afford or sustain a long and open conflict with India. Apparently, Bajwa said that the armed forces faced shortages of fuel, equipment, and armaments and ammunition. The tanks were not in good shape and neither were the fighter aircraft. The interviewer Nasim Zehra wanted Bajwa to be court-martialled for making such disclosures. She and Mir were both convinced of Pakistan Army’s warfighting capabilities. They both recollected the Pakistani response to the Balakot airstrike to question Bajwa’s assessment of the Pakistan Army’s war preparedness.

What Bajwa told the Pakistani journalists and later the diplomats and the PoJK ‘Prime Minister’ was really an admission of how the continued confrontation with India was becoming unaffordable, more so because of the continuing economic squeeze since 2018. The Pakistani economy was in a tailspin. The Balance of Payments (BoP) crisis had become unmanageable forcing Pakistan to seek an IMF bailout in the latter half of 2018, which came through only in mid-2019. There was no way that a country trying to stay economically afloat could have indulged in an aggressive military action against a much bigger neighbour while it was a part of an IMF programme. Such a military adventure would have led to economic bankruptcy, and as anyone with a modicum of knowledge of economics knows, wars are not fought with an empty treasury.

Between 2018–2022, the Pakistani defence budget went from around PKR 1.13 trillionto PKR 1.53 trillion. During this same period, the Pakistan Rupee depreciated from PKR 121 to a US Dollar to PKR 204 (these are average rates for the years 2018 and 2022). In dollar terms, the Pakistani defence budget was virtually static. The armed forces were being forced to undertake austerity measures, which affected their training and operations. The cross-LoC firing was also extracting a big price. Even though Pakistan spends probably a third or even a fifth of what India spends in the firing across the LoC, it cuts the financially-strapped Pakistan Army to the bone.

By 2021, the financial crunch became much worse because while the economy remained anaemic, the security situation on the western border with Afghanistan was in flux. With the endgame in Afghanistan looming large, Pakistan needed stability on its eastern borders so that it could focus on its western borders. After the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and a resurgence of terrorism in Pakistan, the security situation sharply deteriorated, requiring greater operational involvement of the Pakistan Army and Air Force. The last thing Pakistan could afford militarily or financially were two active frontiers. Clearly, Pakistan needed a ceasefire on the LoC and a reduction in tensions with India as much as India needed it because of the rising tensions with China along the LAC.

Unlike politicians and journalists, the Pakistan military was seeing the writing on the wall. It naturally wanted to avoid being pushed or pulled into a situation that could spell disaster for the country’s security. Bajwa’s briefings were part of an effort to change the narrative in Pakistan. The idea to make a move to reduce tensions with India appear pragmatic rather than pusillanimous. In other words, he was giving a positive spin on a difficult situation that the Pakistan Army was facing. The Pulwama crisis in 2019 had brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war.

While Pakistan was forced to respond to India’s airstrikes in Balakot, the Pakistan military didn’t want things to escalate. A skirmish like the one after Balakot is one thing but an all-out or even a limited war is quite another. To put it simply, Pakistan just didn’t have the wherewithal to sustain an open conflict. It comes as no surprise that Pakistanis were keen to defuse the post-Balakot crisis. They agreed post-haste to return the Indian pilot who had been captured after the aerial skirmish because a delay could have become a casus belli for India.

Will the ceasefire last?

By 2021, it  became clear to Pakistan that there was very little they could do to snatch Kashmir from India. The global propaganda blitz that was launched after the 2019 constitutional reforms fizzled out. Bajwa realised that with Pakistan’s economic crisis deepening, it was a national security imperative to drastically reduce tensions with India. The back channel between the two countries provided a tentative path towards normalisation and allowed things to be taken back to the pre-Pulwama period. But this was not a renunciation of Pakistan’s claims over Kashmir. It was at best a strategic pause, even if a longish one. The idea was to bide time until confrontation became practical, feasible, and sustainable. The time bought in this pause could be used to rebuild political capital in Kashmir, re-energise the separatist ecosystem in the Indian state in a way that when the issue was re-opened after 20 years, India would have no leg to stand on. Of course, the Pakistanis were banking on the traditional Indian proclivity to take the eye off the ball under the illusion of having settled the issue for all times to come.

Thanks to Imran Khan’s fear of losing political ground, the choreography that had been carefully worked out on the back channel was disrupted when he blocked the proposalto restart trade with India. The ceasefire has, however, survived for over two years, in part because it suited both sides—Pakistan, because of its growing involvement on its Western front and its economic difficulties; India, because of its growing problems with China, which has led to troops being redeployed from the LoC to the LAC. How long this ceasefire holds will depend on the current Pakistan Army Chief Gen Asim Munir and perhaps his successors.

If Bajwa’s successors are rational players, they will have no incentive to do anything that heats up the LoC. If, however, they are swayed either by the Clausewitzs, Metternichs, and Guderians in the Pakistani media, or by the need to rally a divided polity and society behind the Pakistan Army, they will once again resort to old tactics that raise the temperature on the LoC and resume hostilities with India. While the benefit of being rational players might not be great, the cost of being influenced by radicalism and the spirit of military adventurism (even if it is only of the proxy kind) will be prohibitive for Pakistan’s basket-case economy.

The Indian perspective

From an Indian point of view, there are many takeaways from these revelations:

One, while Pakistan is in no position to impose war on India, it would be a mistake to think Pakistan is lying prostrate, waiting to be run over.

Two, any peace deal with Pakistan is at best a pause and not an end to the hostility and confrontation. The pause is dictated by circumstances, compulsions, and lack of capabilities. The moment these stop being inhibiting factors, things will be back to normal. In other words, when it is Pakistan (for that matter any adversary), India can never ever afford to be complacent, much less delude itself that peace will rule.

Three, India doesn’t yet enjoy the superiority that can make her dictate terms to Pakistan. That could happen in the future, but it isn’t the case for now.

Four, the next time India decides to launch a punitive operation, it will need to work out the escalation ladder. A punitive operation isn’t a school yard scrap but a lot more serious. Had India worked out the escalation dynamics, it would have responded to Pakistan’s ‘Operation Swift Retort’ post Balakot. Not doing that diluted the message of the Balakot strikes.

*About the author: Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation.

Source: This article was published by Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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