July 27, 2020
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The War Mirage: India-Pak Standoff Can Assume Many Shades

When a conflict dares not declare its common name, the fracas between India and Pakistan can assume many shades

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The War Mirage: India-Pak Standoff Can Assume Many Shades
Dragon’s Lair
Sushma Swaraj with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi
Photograph by PTI
The War Mirage: India-Pak Standoff Can Assume Many Shades

As India’s ‘pre-emptive’ air ­­str­ike at Jaish-e-Mohammed’s Balakot camp, and Pak­­istan’s reaction to it the next day in Kashmir, culmina­ted with lusty cries demanding ‘war’, met instantly with a weaker clamour for peace, it is useful to examine the charged con­­­­cept of war itself. An armed engagement between two nations, irrespective of the nature of the weaponry used or the duration for which it lasts, rarely gets the official tag of a ‘war’ these days. In fact, since 1945, most countries have been reluctant to officially declare war on another country.

“Much of this stems from the fact that most wars now have a limited agenda,” says former Indian diplomat Talmiz Ahmad. “Once that is achieved the hostility also ceases.” Another possible reason could be that, during conflicts of a more indeterminate nature, diplomatic efforts through third parties or backroom neg­otiations are often conducted to resolve the outstanding problem. Experts say that while a formal declaration was once deemed a necess­ary legal prerequisite to war, indicating termination of diplomatic and com­mer­cial ties and treaties between combatants, the practice has largely fallen into disuse.

In the US, where checks and balances between presidential powers and those of the legislature have been embodied in their constitution, Congress and the president have together enacted 11 separate formal declarations of war against foreign nat­ions in five different wars, according to a 2014 Congressional Research System report. Each declaration has been preceded by a presidential request before a joint session of Congress. The two—the president and the legislative body—have also enacted authorisation for the use of force other than and short of formal war. In most cases, the president has requested the authority, but Congress has sometimes given him less than what he asked for.

But, crucially, such laws of war as The Hague and Geneva Conventions apply to all armed conflict, irrespective of a formal declaration or authorisation. A prime example of this could be Pakistan’s decision to release the IAF pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman, in its custody. Pakistani PM Imran Khan told parliament that he has decided to rel­ease the IAF pilot as a “peace gesture” on Friday. Sceptics in India see it as Imran’s attempt to make a virtue out of a necessity. Whether this ‘gesture’ leads only to a pause in the current hostility between India and Pakistan or ends it remains to be seen. However, hectic diplomatic eff­orts are on by international players—the US, Russia, China and oth­­ers—to ensure that the current bout of armed engagement comes to an end.

War Council

Pakistan Premier Imran Khan (left) chairs a meeting of the National Security Committee in Islamabad on Feb 26.

Photograph by AP

“The formal declaration of war has wider legal and diplomatic implications,” says former Indian foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. Thus, once a formal declaration of war is made, it is seen as a conflict involving all three armed wings, the army, air force and navy of the belligerents. More importantly, it allows one to target all assets of the adversary, including setting up an economic blockade. This invariably raises the stakes; in the case of nucl­ear-armed nations, dangerously so.

However, if there is no declaration, any of the combatants could halt, or resume, its armed action or keep its troops on high alert to pressure its adv­ersary and keep it guessing.

A formal declaration of war brings on too many things: all forces can be engaged, civilian assets turn fair game, even the N-option can come into play.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars since 1947 and two over Jammu and Kashmir, though technically, India has not been at war since 1971. The 1999 spring-summer crisis triggered by armed intrusion from Pak­istan into Kargil, lasting 60 days, was dubbed an ‘armed conflict’. Though heavy artillery and the air force were used by both sides, the conflict ended only after all the heights within India were cleared of Pakistani infiltrators.

The current spell of armed skirmishes between India and Pakistan has raised questions and forced diplomats and experts from both nations to find innovative ways to describe the fast-paced developments.

“The signal going out of India is clear: New Delhi will no longer be subject to nuclear blackmail and allow Pak­­istan to push jehadis into India to achieve its political agenda,” says Ahmed. Its efficacy will be measured in the near future, he adds.

In the early hours of February 26, 12 Mirage 2000 fighter jets, accompanied by other aircraft of the IAF, crossed the Line of Control and bombed with laser-guided missiles a Jaish-e-Mohammed hideout and training facility in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Balakot. It was a paradigm shift in India’s strategic doctrine vis-à-vis dealing with terrorist attacks.

Until now, as most Indian security measures against Pakistan were conducted from within its territory, gung-ho experts in Delhi feel that India has finally managed to break its defensive mindset with Tuesday’s airborne operation.


Officials show parts of an AMRAAM missile fired by a Pakistani F16 in Kashmir on February 27.

Photograph by PTI

Indian foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale fell back on inn­ovative adjectives to describe it. “This non-military pre-­emptive action was specifically targeted at the JeM camp,” he said, while recalling that the UN proscribed terror group perpetrated the Pulwama att­ack and was responsible for other terror acts in India, including the 2001 Parliament attack. “The selection of the target was also conditioned by our des­ire to avoid civilian casualties. The fac­ility is located in thick forest on a hilltop far away from any civilian presence,” he added.

It was obvious that Gokhale’s target audience was the Pakistani government and military as well as international players. His carefully worded statement was aimed at assuring that India did not want to escalate, that the target was neither the Pakistani military nor its people.

The IAF’s deep ingress 70 km across the LoC, avoiding detection by Paki­stan’s air defence system, took many observers by surprise. Many were more surprised by Pakistan’s response within 24 hours of the Indian action, when its fighter jets entered Indian air-space and tried to target Indian military ass­ets. In the process, it lost one of its F-16 fighter jets, while in their attempt to chase away the intruders India also lost an aircraft (two, says Pakistan), with Wing Commander Abhinandan bailing out from his shot up jet, landing in PoK and ending up in Pakistani custody.

Meanwhile, foreign diplomatic efforts were afoot to defuse the crisis. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the American media that he has urged India and Pakistan to avoid “any action that would escalate and greatly increase risk”. He said he was “very engaged” with the two countries and was “hopeful” that tensions would cool down. Russian president Vladimir Putin, while hoping for a de-escalation, spoke to PM Modi and expressed his support for India’s efforts to protect its interest against cross-border terror.

In Imran Khan’s decision to release Wing Cdr Abhinandan, sceptics in India see an attempt to make a virtue out of a necessity.

Similar efforts followed from China and the Gulf sta­tes—UAE and Saudi Arabia as well as Iran. All were busy in hectic parleys with Indian and Pakistani leaders and officials.

Alongside this, a move was also on at the United Nations Security Council—initiated by France and backed by US and UK—to designate JeM chief Masood Azhar a “global terrorist”. It is not clear yet how China, which has rep­eatedly blocked such a move, will react. Some speculate that Beijing may abstain and stop short of opposing it directly.

At a meeting with Sushma Swaraj at the Russia-India-China forum on February 27, both the Chinese and the Russian foreign ministers exp­ressed an understanding of the Indian position, but also urged New Delhi to show restraint. While assuring them on that count, Swaraj pointed out that a lot would depend on how Pakistan res­ponds to Indian concerns.

On the evening of February 28, PM Modi chaired a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security to take stock of the evolving situation. The three service chiefs were also present and shared their assessment of the situation.

In a joint press conference, the armed forces expressed their happiness at the announcement of the IAF pilot’s release, while maintaining that IAF objectives were met through its operation inside Pakistan and also in thwarting Pakistani fighter aircraft’s attempt to target Indian military ass­ets in Kashmir on February 27.

Though they maintained that they were well prepared to deal with any challenge, they stated that maintaining peace along the LoC and in the reg­ion was their main objective.

It is significant that Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj left for the UAE capital Abu Dhabi on February 28 to be the first-ever Indian guest of honour at the 46th plenary session of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation council of foreign ministers. The thrust of the meet is to stress on pluralism of thoughts, ideas and beliefs. It is undo­ubtedly an acknowledgement of India’s pluralism and its ability to accommodate people from different faiths, including its 185 million Mus­lims—equal stakeholders in the country’s progress. India’s policy of dealing with terror emanating out of Pakistan has also to keep the strands of social well-being in view—a ruinous war would be a terrible blow to a billion aspirations.

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