Children hold banners and Tricolour after Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan said Pakistan will release an Indian Air Force pilot on Friday. Reuters
Now that Pakistan has decided to release Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman from its custody, it is important not to get carried away and lose sight of India’s larger objective — achieving the end state against Pakistan’s low-cost asymmetric war that led to India effecting a radical shift in its strategic calculus.
If, in a state of euphoria over the IAF's officer's release — a welcome step in more ways than one — we again get sucked into Pakistan’s psy-op over “dialogue” and “peace process”, the Balakot strike instead of being a valid deterrence strategy will be reduced to an exercise in futility.
The well-executed IAF operation on Jaish-e-Mohammed terror facility deep inside Pakistan territory will become an aberration and Rawalpindi would have re-established its deterrence strategy.
In an age of televised war — where social media performs the role of a force-multiplier and raises the audience costs for a leader — it is easy to miss the woods for trees. ‘Audience costs’, a term in international relations coined by professor James Fearon, an American political scientist, refers to “domestic political costs a leader may pay for escalating an international dispute, or for making implicit or explicit threats, and then backing down or not following through.”
Since Narendra Modi was under considerable pressure following Pakistan's capture of Wing Commander Abhinandan — that seemingly reversed the gains over Balakot operation and made for terrible optics for a ‘strong leader’, that too right before general elections — there will be a temptation to talk up the release as a “tactical win” for India from an apparent “setback” last night. It may also soften India’s resolve to ratchet up the pressure on Pakistan and New Delhi might feel inclined towards taking up the Pakistani “offer for talks” in lieu of the release. That could be self-defeating and a terrible mistake.
At the other end of the spectrum, Imran Khan's announcement of the IAF pilot’s release should not be interpreted as some sort of a ‘grand gesture’ for ‘peace’. There’s no need to elevate the Pakistan prime minister to a semi-Mahatma status. This is a ridiculous narrative.
Let’s be clear on certain facts. Wing Commander Abhinandan's upgraded MiG-21 Bison was chasing a Pakistani formation that had violated Indian airspace. As he shot down one Pakistani F-16 (according to evidence furnished by India on Thursday) in an aerial engagement, his aircraft also took a hit from ground strike. Wing Commander Abhinandan ejected and drifted onto Pakistan’s side of LoC and was eventually taken into custody.
According to the rules of Geneva Convention, of which Pakistan is a signatory, Wing Commander Abhinandan is a prisoner of war (PoW) and enjoys certain rights and privileges clearly spelt out under the Convention. These rights are wide, detailed and not incumbent on a formal declaration of war. Pakistan, therefore, is obligated under the treaty to treat him with dignity and respect and is required to hand him over to India at the earliest.
Doing so won't be a 'peace gesture', as Imran has claimed, or a gesture of magnanimity — but a responsibility. Making a virtue out of this necessity is as futile as claims of an Indian "diplomatic victory".
Those with short memory need be reminded that Pakistan had handed over Group Captain K Nachiketa after eight days even at the height of Kargil War in 1999 after his jet had crash-landed on Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir. That wasn't a 'peace gesture.' Pakistan was required to do so, and it did. To the extent that our neighboring country has mistreated, tortured and even killed an Indian PoW (Captain Saurabh Kalia), we should note a welcome change in its behavior if Wing Commander Abhinandan returns home safe, sound and in good health.
But there is no reason for India to express gratefulness towards Pakistan for releasing the IAF pilot, nor tub-thump and tom-tom his return. It should also not goad us into straying from our stated goal of forcing a change in Pakistani behavior by imposing greater costs on its proxy war.
Let us also not forget that Pakistan's "offer" for release of the IAF pilot might be an obligation dressed as a "peace initiative", but the real motivation behind Imran's announcement is to obtain a face-saver to de-escalate from a position of military crisis. In light of the considerable diplomatic pressure that was brought to bear on Pakistan from the international community — including P5 powers and even Arab nations, it would have been difficult for Pakistan to keep Wing Commander Abhinandan in custody. The Pakistani 'gesture' is an attempt, therefore, to ensure that the crisis did not escalate.
The longer Pakistan would have tried to use the captured IAF pilot as a bargaining chip, the more it would have compelled India’s hands in going for the next rung in escalation ladder. India’s position wouldn’t have been treated as 'war-mongering', but compellence, justice and obligatory action from a nation acting in self-defence since it was Pakistan that had escalated the crisis by targeting India’s military installations in retaliation against India’s counter-terrorism operations (see how US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reacted)
A recognition of this dynamic in the India-Pakistan conflict is essential in understanding the position of strength from where India is operating. It is also crucial to recognise that the Indian public — primarily its vocal and expanding middle class — is fed up with India’s “strategic restraint” and running out of patience with Pakistan’s perfidies. As professor C Christine Fair writes, the old model of Pakistan hitting India with terror strikes and a hapless India wringing its hands before international community only to be told to remain “restrained” no longer works.
“Indian millennials have been raised in a post-Kargil media environment. Kargil was India’s first televised war. Prior to Kargil, few beyond north India cared about developments in far away Kashmir. The media coverage of the casualties, of bodies being returned to their homes for cremation, and nonstop reportage from Kashmir helped to create a national narrative about Pakistani predation. Indian millennials are fed up with Pakistan. A Rubicon has been crossed," writes professor Fair.
It is this dynamic that has enabled the Narendra Modi government to change its security architecture and embark on new red lines. India has now proven before the world and to Pakistan through Balakot strikes that Islamabad’s nuclear threshold is higher than claimed, and it will no longer deter India from using sub-conventional military action against Pakistan to mitigate terror strikes. India’s national security posture will now include such strikes, even deep into Pakistan mainland, into its calculus.
Therefore, in this context, true de-escalation will only be possible if Pakistan takes credible and verifiable action against terror infrastructure on its soil by degrading and dismantling it, or the world will have to somehow find a way to compel Pakistan to do so instead of lecturing India on how to defend itself. Failure to understand this scenario will mean that South Asia is just one terror strike away from reigniting the crisis that seems to have been just averted because India will not back down, nor anyone should expect it to.--FP