What a war!

What a war!
Pakistan and India are, legally speaking, at war. This war broke out when Indian airplanes crossed the international border into Pakistan and dropped some bombs deep into Pakistani territory on an alleged “terrorist” camp. Strangely enough, this camp stopped existing after 2005, so the bombs didn’t kill anyone in 2019. In response, Pakistani jets dropped some bombs across the Line of Control (LoC) in Occupied Kashmir, which is legally disputed territory. But Pakistan isn’t saying who or what was targeted. So, naturally, the bombs didn’t kill anyone. Indeed, in the one week that India and Pakistan have been at war, no one has been killed. But nationalist passions are running high on both sides. Curiously enough, though, these are largely being expressed in newsrooms and social media platforms while both “warring” governments are conspicuous by their relative restraint. What a war! Is this a war?

India has crossed two red lines. It has resorted to “pre-emptive strikes” against Pakistani targets. And it has deliberately violated the international border. This is unprecedented. Pakistan has not allowed this to pass without reinforcing the red lines. As a measure of deterrence, it has shot down two Indian aircraft and captured one pilot in a retaliatory raid across the LoC.

Unfortunately, this may appear to India as an escalation in the scale of hostilities. If the Indian aircraft had been downed over Pakistani territory during their first aggressive sortie, it might have been par for the course. Each side could have claimed some success and then cooled off. But since the Indians lost two aircraft and a pilot in a premeditated retaliatory Pakistani strike, India is now compelled to try and even the score in a potentially spiraling conflict. It is ominous that both sides are moving troops to the borders. Many airports are closed to civilian traffic. What next?

It is true that the weight of international opinion is sympathetic to India’s position that non-state actors based in Pakistan continue to sponsor “terrorism” across Pakistan’s borders with India, Afghanistan and Iran. Pakistan is also struggling to acquit itself before the FATF. Its economy is weak and cannot take the strain of any serious military conflict. It is therefore understandable that PM Imran Khan should sue for “peace” while appearing to be strong after showing-off a burning aircraft wreckage and captured Indian pilot. On the other side, however, PM Narendra Modi is in a bit of a fix. After the first air raid across Pakistan’s border, with tall claims of “300 terrorists killed” and all aircraft returning unscarred to base, he was riding high. But after the “victory” was exposed as being hollow, followed by the loss of two aircraft and a pilot in captivity, his ratings are falling and pressure is mounting to “do something” to redress the balance.

Unfortunately, there is no back channel between the two countries to sort out this mess away from the flashing eyes of the jingoistic media on both sides. But hope of some sort of “resolution” has come from President Donald Trump who is predicting “good news” soon. Mr Trump’s “intervention” is not unexpected. Apart from the two countries directly involved in the conflict, it is the US that has the most to lose if this conflict gets out of hand and is prolonged. The US is seriously involved in fashioning a quick and “honourable” exit from Afghanistan in the next few months with Pakistan’s “critical” assistance. Should Pakistan’s facilitation to the US on its western border waver at this juncture because of its focus on the conflict with India on its eastern border, the US would be a big loser because its exit strategy is time-barred by the next US elections.

There are no winning or losing sides in wars between nuclearized countries. But a hard war between India and Pakistan can certainly lead to regime change in either or both depending on its perceived outcome.

PM Imran Khan is steering a shaky ship in a rough sea. His parliamentary majority is wafer thin. He is surviving only because the Miltablishment is propping him up. Should the Miltablishment’s support waver or slacken because it needs the help of the Opposition to protect itself from any unintended adverse consequences of conflict with India, he will be the big loser in Pakistan.

On the other side, PM Modi must know that a hard war with Pakistan which he cannot win may provoke the same consequences for him in the next elections. The Opposition understands this and could bait him to blunder in the next few days or weeks.

Might this conflict be managed to square the equation by enabling both sides to crow victory? Can de-escalation on the international border be swapped with escalation along the LoC in which both sides take prisoners and claim knocking out posts and camps of the other before agreeing to a ceasefire and talks?

There is no option. This soft war must translate into a hard peace for both countries and their political leaderships for their own good.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.