Line (Out) of Control?

06 Jan, 2017    ·   5219

Joy Mitra argues that risks to general stability in the region remain entrenched in the dynamics of the India-Pakistan conflict and that it could lead to an uncontrollable conflict trajectory

The Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan is witnessing a fresh spiral of violence post the Indian “surgical” strikes of 29 September 2016. The spike in violence seems to suggest that the ceasefire agreement of 2003 between the two countries no longer holds water. Some within and outside government circles have begun speaking in terms of ‘war’ and the general impression created is that the agreement has lost its sanctity. This may however be jumping the gun too soon given that the ‘dialogue of violence’ is not happening along the entire stretch of the LoC and there are more conventional threshold levels to be crossed. The risks to general stability in the region, however, remain entrenched in the dynamics of the conflict and could lead to an uncontrollable conflict trajectory.

Sanctity of the 2003 Ceasefire-Agreement
It must be noted that even before the Uri attack and the Indian strike back, certain sectors along the LoC were witnessing higher concentration of violent incidents. Post the Indian strike back the first repercussions were more an increase in the intensity of violence along those sectors and not a general escalation of the conflict along the LoC. Therefore, the ceasefire accords had value until the first spatial threshold was crossed with the attack at the Indian military base close to the Jammu border, which India refers to as the ‘international border’and Pakistan as the ‘working boundary’. This may still not be a general breach of the geographical threshold on the military escalation ladder given that the current spate of violence is still confined to the state of Jammu and Kashmir and ceasefire violations do not necessarily imply a ceasefire breakdown. The intensity of violations may however go up at a certain spatial and temporal location.

Probable Escalation Dynamics
Additionally, while both sides have resorted to heavy artillery and mortar shelling, neither has vertically escalated in terms of introduction of air assets or other platforms. The pattern of attacks clearly demonstrate that military installations are the prime targets. A qualitative threshold can be breached here in terms of the choice of targets. This will lead to a geographical expansion of the threat-perception and spread the Indian security forces thin.

The prospects for any horizontal escalation could entail attacks south into Punjab. Going by the history of previous such episodes, this escalation should not happen. India and Pakistan seem to have systematised a periodic bout of violence along the LoC into their relationship that ebbs and flows conditional on the political milieu associated with it. In 2013, a similar episode of violence saw the ‘Mutually Hurting Stalemate (MHS)’ reached before any spatial escalation.

Subjective Stalemates
It is not necessary for an objective MHS to be realised. The stalemate could be a dynamic normal with both sides not necessarily sustaining equal measure of losses, albeit it is the perception of this normal that matters. MHS can be reached if both sides believe that neither can escalate to victory and a negotiated solution is possible, i.e. both sides perceive the other to be willing to negotiate. Additionally, the victory condition can also be subjective.

At present, the dynamic normal that exists between India and Pakistan may seem like an objective MHS to neutral observers but the rhetoric on the Indian side suggests that it believes it has established escalation dominance. This seems to be part of the victory condition that India has defined: escalation dominance which goes in conjunction with diplomatic efforts to internationally isolate Pakistan. Without going into the merits/demerits of the policy objective, it is reasonable to assume that the politico-military leadership believes it can achieve this victory condition and this translates into unwillingness to consider a negotiated settlement, when a better outcome can be achieved by coercive bargaining.

In Pakistan, public attention is occupied with events in the domestic polity. The civilian arm has made attempts to negotiate, and this option would not have been pursued without blessings from their security establishment. Even if Pakistan believes that the MHS has been reached, it is then left with the choice of preventing India from achieving its victory condition, only by sustaining the conflict long enough to impress upon India that a negotiated outcome is the only way to avoid the loss-loss scenario of a prisoner’s dilemma.

Unpredictable Conflict Trajectory
The Nagrota attack seems to be a demonstration of Pakistan’s intent to continue the mutual hurt if not in the form of a stalemate. This could also be a consequence of increased risk propensity due to loss perception that Pakistan might have because of cumulative losses it has incurred in diplomatic, military and reputational terms. The existence of loss perception can lead to increased propensity to continue the conflict, perhaps even escalate in the sub-conventional domain. Pakistan’s intent to continue the mutual hurt may however have consequences for public perception in India and not necessarily in favour of restraint because public perception is a double-edged sword. A sustained campaign to inflict losses can generate enough vitriol to bind the government to its rhetoric and could lead to uncontrollable consequences. 

In conclusion, periodic bouts of such violence, combined with loss perception in Pakistan and aggressive rhetoric in India despite the existence of an objective MHS, can take a trajectory which may not be in either side's control.