India-Pakistan tensions lay bare one of the major problems of conflict: wars can be started at any time but ending them takes far longer

Now is the time for these historically antagonistic nations to avert disaster by taking a mature and statesmanlike approach to their differences

TOPSHOT - Pakistani soldiers stand next to what Pakistan says is the wreckage of an Indian fighter jet shot down in Pakistan controled Kashmir at Somani area in Bhimbar district near the Line of Control on February 27, 2019. Pakistan said on February 27 it shot down two Indian warplanes in its airspace over disputed Kashmir, in a dramatic escalation of a confrontation that has ignited fears of an all-out conflict between the nuclear-armed neighbours. / AFP / STR
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Long before the actual displays of military power, a battle of narratives was playing out in TV studios and on social networks. In fact, it was almost immediately after the Pulwama attack of February 14, that the Indian media declared its own war on Pakistan.

The present crisis between these rival nations highlights two major issues that dominate popular discourse in South Asia: the internal political issue of India's Kashmir policy and the external security concerns of terrorism.

With India facing general elections in April and May this year, campaigning by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has invested more in the continued India-Pakistan stand-off and its impact on national security than it has on many issues of domestic governance.

The war of narratives that followed the suicide bombing by a local Kashmiri and claimed by Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), which killed 40 Indian soldiers in Indian-administered Kashmir, has led to growing public demand to teach a lesson to the “enemy” across the border. Initially, questions were raised about the BJP’s security policy and the failures of its intelligence. Then accusations came from the opposition parties, particularly the Congress. Mr Modi’s administration even came under fire from its own media and opposition.

Under growing public pressure for vengeance, the BJP put into action its election rhetoric of protecting the motherland. However, the claim of killing 300 or more in airstrikes on a JeM training camp inside Pakistan has made the things even more complicated for India. No proof has been provided by the Indian government. But perhaps the numbers are not really important – what appears to matter is demonstrating to the Indian public that, under Mr Modi, the nation has the ability and the will to strike Pakistan.

Against this backdrop, two clear positions emerged in the public conversation. One, that a good leader focuses on issues and executes carefully considered decisions that are made quietly within expert circles. The other is that the best way to handle problems is by loudly and publicly challenging the “enemy”. Mr Modi has chosen the latter.

One of the many problems of war is that it’s possible to start one at more or less any time. Finishing it, however, rapidly becomes far beyond anyone's control. History is full of conflicts that were only supposed to last for a few days or weeks, but have carried on for years.

After Pulwama, the ball was in India's court. It had the option to engage with Pakistan, while exerting diplomatic pressure for action against the alleged terrorist camps. But its incursion into Pakistan has altered the dynamics of this situation from the pursuit of a terrorist group to an attack on a sovereign state. Perhaps not realising the consequences of its actions, Mr Modi’s government has now set a precedent for the public to demand, by means of mass outcry, the punishment of any neighbouring state hostile to India. Worse still, that burden will have to be carried by every subsequent administration.

Now, instead of talking, two sovereign states are militarily engaged, while public discourse centres not on the dangers posed by extremist, non-state actors, but by those states themselves.

Since the 2008 Mumbai attacks, India's policy has been to invoke the global war on terror – which followed the events of September 11, 2001 – in order to take action against Pakistan's alleged harbouring of terrorist groups. Unlike in the past, however, the international community's reaction to recent tensions between India and Pakistan is less forceful and more diplomatic.

Mr Modi's handling of domestic politics through divisive anti-Muslim rhetoric and an aggressive stance towards Pakistan has resulted in alienating the Kashmiris. But it has also provided openings for extremist groups to attempt to justify violence against the Indian state. A combination of hyper-nationalism and religious zeal may help Mr Modi to secure votes, but it will also fuel extremism at home and elsewhere. Can India afford to take that risk? For a nation that aspired to become a global power, this shortsighted approach will certainly not help.

Mr Modi's high-handed policies towards Kashmir have only added fuel to this already raging fire. What was once limited to a few groups dissatisfied with New Delhi has now grown into a mass movement there. This will further weaken India's position as a secular democratic state. Five years of BJP rule has not served India’s international image well. The combination of use of force and religious nationalism will only widen the gap between the Kashmiris and the rest of India.

One of the most dangerous aspects of a war scenario between India and Pakistan is not the ways in which both countries will target each other militarily, but how they will deal with the public hysteria surrounding the conflict. The media culture of boasting about every move will lead to a frenzied environment, filled with voices urging politicians ever onwards and leaving less and less room for de-escalation.

The thinking heads in both countries should focus on the fact that, while chest-thumping may look and sound good to an impassioned public, it is difficult to dial back. Especially when an insatiable appetite for tough talking and decisive action has been created.

Given the strategic location of both nations and the global political climate, diplomatic engagement is the only responsible course of action and the only way to appear to like nations that can be trusted by the international community. This is certainly not the most politically attractive option and will be, to many, far less satisfying than talking about airstrikes and casualties on the ground. However, it is the best hope if war is to be avoided and can be clearly seen in Pakistan's stated commitment to the release of the Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman

The international community – and particularly, the United States – has historically played a crucial diplomatic role in efforts to avert full scale war between India and Pakistan. But is America ready to take on that responsibility today? While the US now has less leverage on Pakistan than it did during the 2001-02 stand-off, the Afghan peace talks still give it a foothold in South Asia.

So far, the crisis in the region has been met with calls for restraint by some nations, including the UK, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Clearly the time has come for these historically antagonistic nations to finally sort out their own problems with maturity and statesmanship.

Dr Arshi Saleem Hashmi is an Islamabad-based expert on peace and conflict in Pakistan