Pakistan's military spokesman Major Gen. Babar Iftikhar briefs the media on the ongoing tensions between Pakistan and India, in Islamabad, on November 14, 2020

The Pakistan army holds a deep conviction that India has never reconciled to Pakistan’s existence and sees the competition in ideological and religious terms – a Hindu India vs a Muslim Pakistan

by Lt Gen DS Hooda (Retd)

A series of intense artillery and mortar duels broke out along the Line of Control on November 13, leaving five Indian soldiers and six civilians dead, and dozens injured. In retaliation, the Indian Army claimed to have killed at least eight Pakistani soldiers, and the Dawn reported five civilians killed and 30 wounded in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

This was not an isolated incident. Ceasefire violations have been steadily increasing over the last five years. From 405 ceasefire violations in 2015, the figure has jumped ten-fold to more than 4,000 in 2020.

It is often asked why Pakistan, a country racked by political instability, economic woes, and internal turmoil, continues to indulge in military brinkmanship with India, despite the costs that it is paying. With an economy that is one-tenth of India and defence spending that is one-seventh, Pakistan is much weaker in conventional military capability. Its attempts to achieve its strategic aims in Kashmir have failed, both in the past wars with India and the ongoing proxy war Jammu and Kashmir. Why then does Pakistan persist with this seemingly irrational strategy?

The primary reason for this attitude is the thinking within the Pakistani military establishment, mainly the army. As Christine Fair notes in her book Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War:

“The Pakistan Army views its struggle with India in existential terms. For Pakistan’s men on horseback, not winning, even repeatedly, is not the same thing as losing. But simply giving up and accepting the status quo and India’s supremacy, is, by definition, defeat…Pakistan’s generals would always prefer to take a calculated risk and be defeated than to do nothing at all. Pakistan’s army will insist on action at almost any cost, even that of presiding over a hollow state.”

The Pakistan army holds a deep conviction that India has never reconciled to Pakistan’s existence and sees the competition in ideological and religious terms – a Hindu India vs a Muslim Pakistan.

It has also taken on the mantle of resisting India's ‘hegemony’ in South Asia, misleadingly describing its efforts as maintaining 'strategic stability' in the region. In his address at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in February, retired General Khalid Kidwai said, "Pakistan…must shoulder the responsibility of maintaining the vital strategic balance in the conventional and nuclear equation with India as the critical determinant of the state of strategic stability in South Asia.”

The Pakistan army also remains obsessively concerned about appearing inferior to the Indian army. The Pakistani Senate, in January 2017, sought details of casualties suffered by the Pakistan army in firing along the Line of Control. The information was refused because the army “did not want to show the enemy how many of our soldiers have been martyred”.

When the Indian army carried out the surgical strikes in 2016, the Pakistan army went to great lengths to deny that Indian soldiers had conducted this operation.

An inflated sense of superiority and the ideological struggle that must be waged at all costs are the reasons for Pakistan army continuing with its revisionist behaviour. Conscious of its inability to challenge India militarily, it resorts to the employment of terrorists as an integral part of its strategy. The fact that breeding terrorists has radicalised large sections of the society in Pakistan is ignored because sections of the military community are convinced that their strategy of employing terrorists is succeeding.

In Afghanistan, the US is readying to pull out the last of its soldiers even as the Pakistan-backed Taliban is sitting across the table with the Afghan government to hammer out a settlement that will shape the political future of the country. Kashmir remains troubled, in no small part a result of the continuing infiltration from across the Line of Control. From the perspective of the Pakistan army, all this may feel like a win.

The state of civil-military relations in Pakistan and the military’s dominant position in driving national security decisions makes for a situation in which flawed strategic assessments are made. As witnessed in the Kargil misadventure, the Pakistan army indulges in risky behaviour without fully comprehending the political and diplomatic fallout of their actions. With a weak political leadership, this balance of power in Pakistan is unlikely to change, notwithstanding the recent attacks by Nawaz Sharif on the army chief.

Countering Pakistan army’s intransigence is an Indian political leadership that has shown greater assertiveness and willingness to use the military instrument in dealing with terror incidents. This has resulted in an aggressive stance by the Indian army along the Line of Control. It could be argued that India’s policy towards Pakistan is also becoming unidimensional, with domestic politics playing an overriding role in foreign policy. However, this is due to the enormous impatience in the Indian public about Pakistan's support for terror activities in India, a sentiment that cannot be ignored by the political leaders.

We could wish for calm to return along the Line of Control, but a realistic assessment shows that this is unlikely. Unless the Pakistan army radically alters its thinking, stability in South Asia remains a mirage. And in the near future, such a transformation in the Pakistan army appears improbable.