Qureshi’s UAE Presser: Some Thoughts

Qureshi’s UAE Presser: Some Thoughts
Last Friday, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi called a presser while visiting the United Arab Emirates. At the presser he said that Pakistan had credible intelligence that India was planning a strike against Pakistan. Sequence: a false flag to accuse Pakistan and stage-manage the strike.

Immediately after Qureshi’s presser, Dr Moeed Yusuf, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on National Security and Chairman Strategic Policy Planning took to Twitter and penned a thread essentially repeating what the FM had said.

This appeared to be coordinated pre-emptive signalling, denuding any putative Indian plan of its element of surprise.

However, questions remain, and they have been asked.

For instance, this is not the first time since India’s illegal annexation of occupied Kashmir that Pakistan has warned of a possible Indian false flag operation and a subsequent strike. None has happened. Some think Pakistan has been crying wolf. The other side of the argument is that nothing happened precisely because Pakistan, by calling out India, put paid to the latter’s plan.

It is difficult to decide between these two arguments unless one is actually privy not only to the intel that someone has brought to the table, but more importantly the entire process through which such intel was received, collated, determined and analysed. Here’s why I think examining the process is imperative.

Intelligence agency X can bring to me a report that speaks of an imminent strike. How do I determine the veracity of the report or determine how it has been analysed? The optimist says the glass is half full; the pessimist says it’s half empty; the pragmatist might just drink the water, but the intel guy is more likely to say it’s half empty and leaking. Put differently, unless there’s external audit of the report, the analysis will most certainly be informed by organisational biases and even bounded rationality.

Let’s go back to Qureshi here. As I mentioned, he was visiting the UAE. It is safe to surmise that he was in no position, given his commitments and itinerary, to have had the time to look at the process that went into generating the intel on the basis of which he found it urgent to call a presser on foreign soil. This would also be more or less true of the NSA. In other words, the intel was fed to the FM and he went with it. There was no time nor is there any likely practice that I know of where any civilian principal will ask to weigh the intel being fed him.

Let’s now move to the possible reasons that might inform India’s decision to plan a strike against Pakistan. Pakistan says this is to divert attention from the troubles Narendra Modi and his government are facing at home — namely, Covid-19 challenge, economic slowdown, farmers’ protests, prestige problems with respect to events at the Line of Actual Control, ideological biases etc. The problem here is that the same set of issues can be invoked to argue that India is in no position at this point to plan a foolish strike against Pakistan. Pakistan’s argument is that India is planning a strike because it is extremely troubled at home; the other argument is that because India is troubled at home, it’s unlikely to become troubling externally.

But let’s look at this issue some more. International Relations literature calls it the diversionary hypothesis. Leaders, when they come under pressure at home, choose to stoke an external conflict to divert attention and gather everyone under the flag. In other words, instead of the state making such a decision as a unitary actor, leaders decide to go for a “wag the dog” scenario.

This hypothesis has accumulated much literature, but as Taylor Fravel argues in his The Limits of Diversion: Rethinking Internal and External Conflict, despite offering a “powerful alternative to rationalist explanations of war based on the state as a unitary actor…, quantitative tests have produced mixed and often contradictory empirical results regarding the relationship between domestic unrest and external conflict.”

Fravel also argues, referring to other works that the theory must have “two scope conditions” for it “to operate as hypothesised”.

“The first condition is the presence of an opportunity for escalation, namely a salient issue around which leaders can increase social cohesion or demonstrate their competence and frame the use of force as legitimate, serving national and not private interests. The second condition is the possession of military capabilities sufficient for the execution of a limited aims operation (short of war) over the salient issue, which depends on assessments of military hardware and strategy.”

Next we have the problem of what type of leaders and systems are more likely to initiate diversionary conflict. In three different papers (1995, 2002 and 2005), Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder have argued that democratising states are “more prone to initiate the use of force than other types of states.” Giacomo Chiozza and Hans Goemans argue in Leaders and International Conflict that “leaders of autocracies do have the incentives to both fight and gamble for survival. Leaders of presidential and parliamentary democracies need fear only a regular removal from office and enjoy a low hazard of a forcible removal from office. They are therefore not expected to gain any benefits from conflict initiation.”

Without going into further detail, it appears that the indications from the literature on diversionary hypothesis are at best mixed. In other words, while in some cases one might point to some domestic variables, it is difficult to prove that they do all the “heavy causal lifting”.

Let’s move now to the most important question: what are (or would be) India’s gains from planning and executing a strike against Pakistan?

Remember the two scope conditions: presence of an opportunity for escalation and possession of military capabilities sufficient for the execution of a limited operation. Juxtapose them against two other factors: the problem of escalation under the nuclear overhang and Pakistan’s inevitable retaliatory response.

In September 2016, India claimed to have conducted a surgical strike against Pakistan across the Line of Control. The claim was made at a presser by India’s then-Director-General Military Operations. The Indian DGMO also said that he had spoken to his Pakistani counterpart and informed him that India did not want any escalation, it had not targeted the Pakistani military posts and it had fulfilled its objectives. By saying what he did, India’s DGMO was (a) aiming to avoid Pakistan’s military retaliation and (b) informing the domestic audiences that India, under the BJP government, was prepared to undertake a military operation against Pakistan.

He was helped in this by Indian Studio Corps whose warriors patrol the narrative ramparts at various TV channels. They ran away with the story, calling the surgical strikes the “new normal” — i.e., India will henceforth always respond to any perceived Pakistani ‘action’. Pakistan, for its part, denied any surgical strike had taken place, saying the Indian army had tried shallow fire-raids at three places, been blocked at two points but infiltrated one point where they had hit a couple of hutments and left.

At a military level, India had achieved nothing; its action neither impressed upon Pakistan its (India’s) ‘resolve’ nor helped change — by India’s own narrative — Pakistan’s ‘behaviour’. Domestically, however, it scored major political brownie points for Modi and his government. What no one realised at the time in all the brouhaha in India was the simple fact that by making such a claim, Modi had also locked himself in a commitment trap. What would he do if he perceived another action by Pakistan as punishable?

We got the answer on the morning of Feb 26, 2019. Modi got his on the morning of Feb 27. Not only would Pakistan not be deterred, it would respond. The IAF had a bad day, downing its own helicopter in the confusion of that battle. While the public was focusing on the downing of an Indian MiG, the IAF knew that was a lesser problem. The much-greater problem was the PAF’s complete dominance of comms and the electronic spectrum. If anything, the IAF was lucky to have only lost one aircraft that day.

But then as in 2016, the winner was Modi. He managed to spin the entire episode to his political advantage, going on to win a second term with an even bigger majority.

Corollary: at present, in a limited conflict the military capabilities are more than matched. That may not be the case a couple of years down the line, given India’s acquisitions. But right now, India does not have many options. Shallow ground incursions run the risk of attackers getting killed or captured; air has its own problems. Long-range artillery (especially multi-barrel rocket launchers with greater accuracy) has its own simple problem: Pakistan’s retaliation with a quid pro quo-plus.

In fact, and that’s a bigger problem for Modi himself: if he is indeed troubled, spinning the yarn this time and making it work politically will be more difficult.

Corollary: no matter which way one slices, dices and cuts it, a strike at this time doesn’t fulfil the two scope conditions we talked about above.

That said, things can change. And they do. As Hamlet said: “If it be now, ‘tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come — the readiness is all.”

The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times and writes on defence and security affairs. He reluctantly tweets @ejazhaider

The writer has an abiding interest in foreign and security policies and life’s ironies.