Hold My Chai: Escalation and De-Escalation Scenarios in South Asia

In a tense, highly fluid interaction between India and Pakistan, there is a great deal of uncertainty. As of this writing, however, we do have some facts: we know that India blames Pakistan for harboring—if not outright abetting—the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) terrorists that attacked an Indian military convoy and killed 40 soldiers in Pulwama, Indian Kashmir, on February 14. We know that Indian aircraft entered Pakistan’s airspace to target an alleged JeM training site, striking an alpine mountainside instead—prompting charges of “eco-terrorism”—in the Pakistani town of Jabba. We know that Pakistan responded by firing weapons from aircraft within Pakistani airspace, striking an uninhabited area within India. We know that in a follow-on engagement between Indian and Pakistani air forces, an Indian MiG-20 was downed and its pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was captured and held prisoner, until being released unconditionally released as a “peace gesture” by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Friday. And we know that India will hold closely contested elections in May 2019, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made the Pulwama attack a large part of his closing campaign message.

The exact details around most of these incidents remain murky. What JeM training facility was India seeking to target? What happened to the Pakistani plane that Indian pilots allegedly shot down? What happened to the second Indian plane and pilot that Pakistani pilots allegedly shot down and detained? What is Prime Minister Khan’s plan to tackle JeM leader Masood Azhar and the rest of the militant outfit? How will Prime Minister Modi respond to the return of Wing Commander Abhinandan?

Although Pakistan’s release of Wing Commander Abhinandan has allowed for a cooling of hostilities and a potential opening for the resumption of dialogue between India and Pakistan, tensions are far from being diffused. In the past, U.S. leadership played a significant role in backchannel mediating between India and Pakistan, counseling strategic patience and brokering diplomatic talks even at the height of Indo-Pak tensions. With the United States currently showing little leadership in South Asia, what scenarios could play out and what might their implication be for the United States and other interests? Below we offer three potential scenarios that could play out over the coming days and weeks.

Scenario 1: Militants Strike Again in India

The first hypothetical scenario: Just as the conflict between India and Pakistan seemed to de-escalate, members of JeM pre-positioned on the Indian side of the Line of Control carry out another attack against the forward-deployed Indian Armed Forces. There are significant civilian and military casualties as a result. JeM claims the attack as a retaliation for Indian military abuses against the Kashmiri people in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack.

Indian Armed Forces increase their presence around the Line of Control and potentially lash out against suspected militant supporters within Indian-occupied Kashmir. Prime Minister Modi’s cabinet lays the blame on Pakistan for the attack, promising further retaliation. In Pakistan, Prime Minister Khan condemns the attack and tries to distance the Pakistani state from JeM and the unfolding events. Pakistan’s military is again put on high alert for Indian retaliation, particularly from airborne or missile attack.

With the militaries in both India and Pakistan already on edge because of the attacks and subsequent exchange of fire over the previous two weeks, a second terrorist attack would pose a very high risk of escalating quickly. This risk would be compounded by jingoist media and public figures in each country that would likely continue a trend of using hyperbolic and bellicose rhetoric, making it politically more difficult for leaders to deescalate. Should tensions deteriorate into conflict, limiting escalation would become even more difficult—and dangerous, given that both India and Pakistan are nuclear-armed states and that Pakistan does not have a “no first use” policy.

In this situation, the United States would need to be actively engaged in diplomacy and defense outreach aiming to bring the two sides to dialogue, assist in the capturing or identification of the terrorists, and find new ways to isolate, disrupt, or destroy the militant groups. At present, however, the United States lacks an ambassador in Pakistan and an assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia. With senior administration leaders also seeking to manage complex challenges with regard to Venezuela, China, and North Korea in addition to its domestic political cacophony, it is unclear that the administration—at present—has the focus or energy remaining to engage in another major diplomatic push.

Scenario 2: India Seeks Sanctions on Pakistan

Using the Pulwama attack as a hook, India seeks to build an international coalition to impose restrictions on movement, trade, or investment with specific Pakistan-based entities as a result of ongoing—real or perceived—support from Pakistan’s security services to terrorist outfits. Building on existing Financial Action Task Force pressure on Pakistan, India seeks to impose long-term costs on Pakistan’s security services, potentially limiting Pakistan’s access to international engagement and arms markets.

The Indian and Pakistani prime ministers and foreign ministry officials will be scrambling to get international support on their respective sides, particularly jostling for support from the United States, the United Kingdom, members of the European Union, and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

This Indian approach would likely take months to begin to coalesce, and even then, would be difficult to achieve. It would likely be viewed by India’s public as a positive—and long overdue—step but would fall well short of what India’s more jingoist press has called for. Pakistan would see sanctions as wholly unacceptable, especially as it could potentially impact an already struggling economy. In step with its current public relations strategy, sanctions may increase Pakistani willingness to tackle terrorist groups and highlight its efforts to date against groups on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border so as to stall international support for India’s claims. Simultaneously, Pakistan would likely court its GCC partners—Saudi Arabia being the most salient example—to offset the international pressure.

The U.S.-Pakistan relationship has deteriorated over the past decade, despite the United States continued reliance on Pakistan as a transit corridor for equipment to sustain the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. An effort by India to impose sanctions on Pakistan would create a challenge for the United States as it would support efforts to constrain or degrade terrorist organizations, however, supporting sanctions against Pakistan could lead to difficult decisions regarding U.S. supply routes that run through Pakistan.

Scenario 3: India and Pakistan Commence Peace Talks

Following conciliatory overtures by Prime Minister Imran Khan, Pakistan and India agree to a temporary cessation of hostilities and a beginning of talks between representatives of the two countries’ prime ministers in a neutral location. Prime Minister Modi and his cabinet demand the arrest and handover to India of JeM’s leadership for the attack in Pulwama, while Prime Minister Khan and his cabinet demand an investigation into human rights abuses carried out by Indian forces in Kashmir.

These talks take place amid significant domestic and international pressure, forcing India and Pakistan to come to some conclusion and compromise that can be seen as face-saving on both sides. Both sides must concede something. As with past experiences in India-Pakistan talks, tensions may deescalate for some time, but spoilers (militant groups on the Pakistani side of the border, right-wing nationalists on the Indian side of the border) may be tempted or empowered to derail these attempts at brokering peace.

A further twist could be that the talks are brokered by China and Russia. Both Russia and China have shown interest in gaining greater access and influence in South Asia. Hosting dialogue between the two parties would present an excellent option to advance that agenda. Furthermore, it would demonstrate through action the message being pushed by both Russia and China that the United States is not only less powerful than it was only 20 years ago, but it is no longer the standard-bearer for peace and security. Additionally, the move would enhance China’s position as Pakistan’s all-weather friend and would significantly erode progress made over 15 years of effort by a series of U.S. and Indian administrations to bring the countries into closer alignment and partnership—often at the expense of India-Russia relations.

Negotiations that come about due to genuine attempts by the leaders of Pakistan and India to deescalate the crisis are positive for the United States. Talks spearheaded by China and Russia would leave the United States with less influence both within South Asia and beyond. Ensuring the United States remains an important player will require continued investment of time and attention to these complicated issues.

Hijab Shah is a research associate with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. John Schaus is a fellow with the CSIS International Security Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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John Schaus

John Schaus

Former Senior Fellow, International Security Program

Hijab Shah