Investigating Crises: South Asiaâ€™s Lessons, Evolving Dynamics and Trajectories
That frequent spikes, near crises and real conflict situations punctuate the chronology of the India-Pakistan relationship provides a platform for extrapolation and construction of other possible contingencies. Equally, and somewhat naturally, each crisis leads to a detailed analysis of causes, whether it was possible to anticipate and, most of all, were both governments equipped to address it. Ever since both countries developed capacities to weaponise their nuclear programmes, scholarship in this particular area has also grown, with the US-USSR face-offs during the Cold War providing readymade templates to compare and evaluate against.
Post-May 1998, with both countries becoming declared nuclear weapon states, each successive bilateral crisis has acquired greater salience. Kargil, the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, further escalation following another major terrorist attack on an army camp some months later, and the Mumbai terrorist attack of 2008 are amongst the major milestones in the India-Pakistan chronology of the past two decades, and each of these was potentially escalatory. Since 2013, with a generally fraught political relationship, terrorist attacks by Pakistan-based groups and frequent fire fights on the Line of Control (LoC), the risks of tactical situations getting out of hand are ever present.
Investigating Crises is devoted to exploring this history and the issues that arise from it. Its ten chapters revolve around India-Pakistan crises and their management. The authors are academics, journalists and diplomats so inevitably the treatments and the respective methodologies vary. Equally inevitably, since this an India-Pakistan study, foundational differences between the two sides creep in to inform different perspectives. Each of the chapters merits a read. Since they address substantively varied issues this review will not attempt to address all the different points made but will confine itself to identifying a few of the general themes that arise from these detailed and rich treatments.
Indian Strategic and Tactical Responses
The chapters by Shyam Saran, a former foreign secretary of India, and Saikat Dutta concentrate on the infirmities of Indian strategic and operational responses in terms of anticipating and managing crises. Shyam Saran develops his critique by contrasting the successful management of a hostage situation in Iraq in 2004 with two experiences he deems as failures: the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack and that on the Pathankot airbase in 2016. It is of course open to question whether the scale and quality of these situations are comparable. That said, Saran’s point is of the contrasting procedures and mechanisms invoked and used while dealing with these crises. The Iraq situation, he shows, was coordinated through established inter-ministerial channels of the government of India. This was a smooth process till the successful resolution of the crisis. In the Mumbai attack, management of the situation was taken on by the national security advisor and consequently, according to Saran, this led to a situation whereby resources available to the state outside those with the security agencies were not utilised. Similarly, during the attack on the Pathankot airbase, there was an absence of inter-agency and inter-departmental coordination, in large part because established procedures were departed from. The central issue therefore arising form Saran’s treatment is whether a revamping of India’s national security architecture amidst the complexities and size of the country and its federal structure has sufficient elements of a ‘whole of government’ approach.
For Saikat Datta, the problem is a more fundamental one than of departure from established and sound mechanisms of inter-agency coordination. In his critique, responses to and corrective action after intelligence failures beginning from the 1962 Chinese aggression and upto the present have been unimaginative and have not addressed systemic issues. There is some merit to this view and it has been advanced often. Nevertheless, it is questionable to reduce policy decisions or decisions based on judgement to an intelligence or coordination failure or inadequacy. For example, in Datta's view not crossing the LoC during the Kargil operation and thereby prolonging the conflict reflected confusion or poor strategic coordination. Notwithstanding such questionable conclusions, the general point being made by him is an entirely valid one. Given the scale of national security threats and crisis India has faced and faces, change and reform has not been substantive and decision-making remains ad hoc. Enhancement of technical capabilities and acquisition of new technologies have in fact been much easier to achieve than addressing the more difficult issues of breaking down silos and enhancing a shared national security culture that cuts across different agencies.
The Pakistani Perspective on Crises
The chapters by Riaz Mohammad Khan - a former Pakistan foreign secretary - and Zafar Khan have a different focus. Both argue that crisis being endemic in the India-Pakistan context, institutionalised channels to deal with these should be set up alongside focusing on conflict resolution (in the main read Kashmir) issues. Riaz Mohammad Khan points out after a historical survey of different crisis situations that India and Pakistan have demonstrated capacities to manage and contain crisis. This capacity however is ad hoc and needs to be institutionalised through bilateral dialogue, confidence-building measures and avoiding communication breakdowns. The central issue for Riaz Mohammad Khan is what can be done to prevent an act of terror sparking off a subcontinental crisis when "Understandably Pakistan cannot provide guarantees that there will never be an act of terrorism against India inspired or planned from its territory." This, although overstated, in fact constitutes the crux of the present India-Pakistan conundrum as the central issue is of trust and whether Pakistan is doing what it can to reduce or prevent such attacks. Zafar Khan similarly seeks to glean lessons from past history to reduce strategic ambiguity and lays emphasis on much the same portfolio of measures: CBMs, arms control, Kashmir resolution, etc.
Both these chapters are sober and analytically sound statements of Pakistani perspectives on the fundamental issues bedevilling India-Pakistan relations. The issue remains however whether "reduction of strategic ambiguity" is a realistic option to serve as a possible instrument for crisis prevention or containment. Strategic ambiguity or maintaining a level of unpredictability has in fact been deeply engrained in Indian responses as a means of deterrence given limited options otherwise. Notwithstanding the charges of inconsistency levelled against the government of the day, a varied and unpredictable response has in fact been the only consistent feature of Indian postures. The Kargil crisis saw intense force application in parallel with a self-imposed restriction on not crossing the LoC. Operation 'Parakaram’ with full-scale mobilisation without any intention of going to war was the response to the attack on the Indian Parliament. On the LoC, from 2013 to 2016, the position taken was that tactical responses to provocations and infiltration attempts will be robust, even disproportionate; a further variant added to this post-2016 was that cross-LoC strikes would be made public. There are other examples, too.
In brief, choice and variability is a structural feature of the Indian portfolio of responses. Limited as that portfolio is by its very nature, it is difficult therefore to envisage both countries agreeing to a set of agreed measures to deal with the aftermath of a terrorist attack.
What Constitutes a Crisis and its Public Ramifications
The essay by Sameer Lalwani and Hannah Haegeland after reviewing a number of crisis situations and also situations that did not reach crisis proportions concludes that while the trigger event is obviously important, ultimately what constitutes a crisis is also a matter of "political choice." In the India-Pakistan context, such a conclusion does not lend itself easily to policy takeaways in terms of developing mitigation strategies. If there is a general takeaway, it is the obvious one that the best containment and prevention strategy is an ongoing political initiative or dialogue process.
Ruhee Neog’s chapter on the interface of the media, policymaking, and public opinion in India-Pakistan crises is a clinical and insightful analysis of the Indian print and electronic media through the various stages of different crisis. Her closely argued analysis concludes that the assessment that media in India shapes crisis policymaking is exaggerated. It does, however, while taking its cue from the government, amplify and frame public conversations around crises, thus impacting the crisis narrative itself. She also suggests that it is through this framing role that the media could potentially have an indirect influence on future crisis management. How this is actually to be is of course easier said than done. Nevertheless, what is of interest in this chapter is the analytical detail it offers about perceptions of policy and crisis as they unfold. One of her conclusions thus is that in UPA II (2009-13), a weak government in India in effect led to a vacuum in which the media steered conversations to a greater extent. Her conclusion is that the independent variable determining media behaviour is consistently the state of the political leadership.
The Emerging Chinese Role
The chapter by Yun Sun and Hannah Haegeland on China’s role in South Asian crises is a valuable addition to the existing literature particularly as it addresses the question that with a declining US, Pakistan's relationship can China play a stabilising or moderating role in Pakistan’s approach to India. Their conclusions certainly merit a pause. China’s approach to its South Asian neighbours does not reflect a zero-sum perspective; periods of improved Sino-Indian relations did not lead to a weakening of China’s long friendship with Pakistan. Pakistan, rather than India, is the cornerstone of China’s South Asia policy but China nevertheless seems to be trying to hold on to a more active and neutral third-party approach to handling India-Pakistan crises. However, it is unlikely to play a central role or even leading third-party mediator role in a future India-Pakistan crisis as such a proposal would be rejected outright by India. The authors conclude therefore that an expanded role for China as a third party in a future India-Pakistan crisis would likely involve cooperation with the US.
The nuclear dimension to future crises (Michael Krepon and Liz Dowling), some dangerous scenarios for South Asia (Iskander Rehman), and a concluding chapter on the contours of the US role in future crises (Michael Krepon) make up the other chapters in this well brought-out and thought-provoking volume.