India's recent war of words with Pakistan has been a strategic mistake.
- By Prem M. TrivediPrem M. Trivedi is a lecturer at Georgetown University and a Fellow at the Truman National Security Project. He was a Fulbright Scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, where he researched student political culture. The views expressed are the author’s own.
India has never lost a conventional war against Pakistan. Perhaps this track record makes it too easy for Indian governments to forget that a war of words with Pakistan is always unwinnable. In recent weeks, India and Pakistan have traded verbal volleys over a number of issues, including India’s alleged support for militants in Pakistan, India’s operations against militant groups operating from Myanmar, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s disparaging comments about Pakistan during a visit to Bangladesh, and a Pakistani court’s decision to grant bail to Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, a Lashkar-e-Taiba leader and the alleged mastermind of the 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the increase in tensions “of enormous concern to all of us for all the obvious reasons.” These obvious reasons include the following facts: (1) both countries are nuclear weapons states; (2) they have fought four wars since 1947; and (3) since both states are vital to U.S. strategy in Asia and the Middle East, their conflicts have a broader destabilizing effect.
Temperatures finally appear to be cooling. Just before Kerry’s comments, Modi seized a ceremonial opportunity to call his Pakistani counterpart, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, on the eve of Ramadan. Both leaders expressed their wishes for better ties, and according to a leading Pakistani newspaper, committed to “stop issuing controversial statements.” In recent remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations, Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said India wanted to normalize bilateral relations, but reiterated the long-standing Indian view that the “onus is on Pakistan.”
It isn’t hard to see why the United States views India-Pakistan tensions with concern, but an unrestrained war of words is also detrimental to India’s interests and ambitions. Indian officials may want to talk tough for domestic political reasons, but the onus is certainly on the Indian government to avoid the self-sabotage of inflammatory rhetoric. Verbal battles are contrary to India’s strategic interests in at least five ways.
First, Indian officials’ statements have been both needlessly provocative and utterly unmindful of the Pakistani military’s fundamental strategic logic. Indian Information Minister Rajyavardhan Rathore took to Twitter to praise India’s counterterrorism operations in Myanmar for sending Pakistan the message that “[w]e will strike when we want to.” When a Pakistani official responded with outrage, Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar boasted that “[t]hose who fear India’s new posture have started reacting.” Parrikar, whose portfolio of intemperate remarks is growing, also recently offered this curious observation: “Today, that respect [for the Indian Army] has diminished … One reason is that for 40-50 years, we have not fought a war. I am not saying we should go to war. I am saying that because we haven’t fought a war, the importance of the Army in our minds has dwindled.”
These sorts of comments are welcome fodder for the Pakistani military, and play right into its hands. As C. Christine Fair argues in her book, Fighting to the End, the Pakistani military has long defined “victory” as “simply retaining the ability to challenge India.” And “to acquiesce,” she explains, “is tantamount not only to defeating the Pakistani Army but also, fundamentally, to eroding the legitimacy of the Pakistani state.” The military, as Fair and many others have noted, remains preoccupied with the notion that Pakistan is a religious, martial, and cultural rebuttal to the idea of India. Under this construct, the mere exchange of fighting words reaffirms Pakistan’s raison d’être, offers opportunities to declare victory because to challenge is to win, and bolsters the military’s ability to call the shots and marginalize the country’s civilian government.
Predictably, Pakistani leaders (civilian and military) have pointedly reminded their Indian interlocutors that “Pakistan is not like Myanmar” and that “the Pakistani atom bomb is not for firecrackers.” The argument that similar bravado from Indian leaders is necessary to deter Pakistan is unsupported by history and current events, and willfully ignores the dueling narratives of nationhood that have dogged India and Pakistan since 1947.
Second, the more India engages in vague bluster, the more it constrains its own options in future conflict situations. Issuing non-specific threats makes it harder for India to subsequently choose subtle strategies or the path of restraint. Measured and strategically sound responses that follow a history of bluster might create the impression that India speaks loudly but carries a small stick. Delhi may be crafting a more assertive foreign policy, but careless boasting will erode India’s ability to project power, not enhance it.
Third, verbal brinkmanship erodes international support for India and is incongruous with Prime Minister Modi’s otherwise cheerfully energetic foreign policy. Modi’s first year of foreign policy was an ode to India’s faith in a multipolar world and a diverse portfolio of strong bilateral relationships. He started by inviting South Asian leaders, including the Pakistani Prime Minister, to his inauguration. He has made stops and embraced photo ops in a long list of locations including the United States, Mongolia, China, France, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. He has tirelessly plugged opportunities for investment in India, emphasized India’s civilizational links around the world, and implicitly signaled that India is confident about navigating any tensions among its friends (the United States and Russia are easy examples). But if India is seen as willing to destabilize its own neighborhood, Modi’s global political and economic strategy is likely to founder.
Fourth, and relatedly, Indian statements that contribute to Pakistani insecurity only strengthen China’s position relative to India. Bruce Riedel recently observed that Asian geopolitics has seen the gradual hardening of a “bipolar alliance system” with China and Pakistan in one camp, and the United States and India in the other. Late last month, China again demonstrated its support for Pakistan by blocking India’s efforts (pursuant to U.N. Security Council Resolution 1267) to seek clarification about Pakistan’s release of Lakhvi. While India is certainly closer to the United States than it is to either China or Pakistan, it does not favor a rigid alliance system. India and China view one another as both competitors and potential partners, but China enjoys the clear upper hand in military and economic matters. Beijing will welcome developments that leave India, already struggling to make up ground against China, preoccupied by conflict with Pakistan.
Fifth, and finally, if his government continues to produce inflammatory rhetoric, Modi will set himself up for a net loss of domestic political capital. While some of his supporters might applaud a muscular stance toward Pakistan under any circumstances, most of the votes cast for Modi were not emphatic endorsements of a resurgent Hindu nationalism. Modi’s impressive electoral mandate was largely built on his promise of a stronger economy and less corruption. While bellicose nationalists constitute an influential faction within Modi’s base, he shouldn’t play to a section of the gallery that does not represent mainstream voters’ priorities.
Analysts of Indian politics are fond of saying that Modi seems to be operating on a ten-year plan (national governments typically serve five-year terms). If Modi is aiming for a long, productive run as Prime Minister, he should avoid a repetition of recent events and steer clear of the potholes that inevitably accompany verbal battles with Pakistan.
This article represents only the views of the author.
NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images