The dangerous escalation between Pakistan and India should not be swayed by the media frenzy that currently operates parallel to reality and its terrifying consequences.
Here’s what we know so far:
A suicide bomber rammed his explosive-laden car into a convoy in Pulwama district in India-administered Kashmir on Feb 14 killing at least 40 personnel of the Indian Central Reserve Police Force. Since Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), an anti-Indian militant outfit outlawed since 2002 in Pakistan claimed responsibility - India blamed Pakistan for the attack.
Pakistan denied involvement, pointing out the bomber was a local Kashmiri but did not deny that JeM continues to have a presence in Pakistan. It also moved to take over the JeM seminary and headquarters in Bahawalpur.
But on Feb 26, Indian fighter jets crossed the Line of Control — the ostensible border separating the parts of the disputed Kashmir region controlled by Pakistan and India — and dropped bombs that hit areas near Balakot in northwestern Pakistan.
India asserted they had targeted JeM terrorist training camps and leaked claims to Indian media that it had killed up to 350 militants at a facility there.
Pakistan said no one, except a crow and some pine trees were cut down in the sparsely populated hillside area. It also denied there was any JeM training camp in the area, but vowed that the Indian attack on its sovereign territory would be met with a response.
On Feb 27, Pakistan said its air force targeted “open spaces” on the Indian side of the LoC, “only to show our capabilities” but that, in the ensuing fracas, it shot down two Indian MiG aircraft that had again crossed over into Pakistan air space in pursuit of Pakistani jets.
One of the Indian jets shot down, it said, fell on the Indian side, the other on the Pakistan side and that Pakistan had taken two Indian pilots into custody. Later, one pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, was shown on Pakistani media as well as the wreckage of his plane.
The reference to the other pilot ostensibly in custody disappeared altogether. Eventually, India admitted the loss of its aircraft but said only one jet was lost and claimed it had happened while it was shooting down a Pakistani F-16 that had intruded into Indian airspace. Pakistan denied any F-16s even participated in the recent events.
Military analysts often speak about the ‘fog of war’ — a term whose origin is traced back to Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz who wrote about the “fog of uncertainty” on the battlefield. In contemporary times, however, it is often also used to refer to the competing narratives of propaganda put out by adversaries. And if this is the lack of clarity surrounding a few skirmishes, one can only imagine the thick fog that would envelop an actual all-out, potentially devastating war between two nuclear-armed rivals.
How to we stopped worrying and learned to love the bomb
The greatest drum-beaters for a ‘decisive’ war are not in the militaries of both sides who would naturally be on the frontlines; they seem to be in the media, specifically the Indian media, and those with public platforms who have obviously neither ever experienced combat nor have any prospects of being on the battlefields.
From play-acting ‘war rooms’ on television screens replete with anchors in military uniform, to shouting rhetoric and abuse and amplifying unverified propaganda, to shutting down those daring to raise critical questions, media seems to have become the raison d’etre of the war machine, the one egging on conflict and for whom the spectacle is performed.
Indeed, given the lack of substantial evidence presented so far — about how the Pulwama attack was organised, about the militant camps taken out in the initial Indian sorties and the militants killed, about the targets hit by Pakistan in India-administered Kashmir, about the second Indian jet and the Pakistani F-16 downed — it does seem like mostly a spectacle for the benefit of the media.
The belief of many in Pakistan and India, that much of this posturing has to do with the upcoming elections in India — image-building so to speak for the embattled incumbent prime minister Narendra Modi — may not be too far off the mark.
If on-battlefield uncertainty is the ‘fog of war’, perhaps the accompanying media froth can be termed the ‘white noise of war.’
What these tit-for-tat bombing runs have done, however, is forced Pakistan to put many of its cities, including the southern port metropolis of Karachi, on high alert in anticipation of potential missile attacks and to shut down its airspace.
Its military spokesman had earlier vowed that Pakistan would “dominate the escalation ladder.” And therein lies the danger: nobody knows exactly what this might entail.
For its part, Pakistan’s National Command Authority which oversees its nuclear arsenal has already met and ostensibly taken certain decisions. Nobody knows what those might be.
Prioritising people over history books
From India’s perspective, if the Narendra Modi-led government prioritises its election prospects and ego over rational decision-making, it might feel it needs to have the last word still and go for another military adventure.
Certainly, the downing of its jet and the capture of its air force commander undercuts its initial triumphalism regarding the first strikes. But can Pakistan afford not to respond? And if it cannot, how would it react and would that further ratchet up the stakes?
Indian hawks may also want to consider whether the triumphalism of merely seeming to ‘do something’ and looking hard-nosed is the best way to neutralise the threat from Pakistan-based groups, or in fact, the best way to deal with the alienation of the Kashmir population in the area under its control, the real underlying problem.
From Pakistan’s perspective, it knows that its traditional military might is dwarfed by that of the much larger India. In attempting to ‘dominate the escalation ladder’, or in an escalating crisis, a point would inevitably come that it would need to fall back on the “unthinkable” — in the words of its military spokesman — the nuclear option. But can it afford to do so?
The results of that can only be catastrophic for both sides. Pakistani hawks may also wish to reconsider the supposed benefits of nurturing militant groups that have periodically led to such existential crises and who have torn apart the social fabric of Pakistan’s society, its real underlying problem.
Ultimately, as Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan pointed out in a sombre televised address, the real danger in such delicate situations is the danger of “miscalculation.”
Hawks and even brilliant military minds might feel they can plot the course of developments. But all it takes for disaster is one erroneous judgement about oneself or about what one’s adversary is thinking.
The last time Pakistani and Indian armed forces went into such a heightened state of alert and war-preparedness — in 2002, incidentally after another deadly attack on the Indian parliament also attributed to the JeM — there was hardly any private media and social media had yet to take over the world.
Now the white noise of private TV channels and social media seems to dictate policy directions. The alleged ‘surgical strikes’ across the LoC by India in September 2016 — after yet another JeM attack on an army post in Uri in India-held Kashmir — had produced similar media apoplexy but was not, thankfully, matched by any further military build-up at the time.
Rational and cool-headed decisions require cutting out extraneous noise. At the very least, policymakers on both sides owe it to their billion-plus citizens to begin ignoring the white noise of war.
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