NEW DELHI — The Kashmir Valley has been gripped by fear and confusion created by a slew of unexplained government orders, which in turn have led to speculation that something major is afoot. From the sudden induction of 100 paramilitary companies (over 10,000 men) into the region, to midnight raids on Jamaat-e-Islami cadre, to cancellation of doctors' leaves and instructions to hospitals to store medicines and food, these moves have sent people stockpiling supplies.
A journalist from Srinagar called me to say that people were talking about army movement to the border. He connected this information with the recent visit of the Pakistan army chief, General Qamar Bajwa, to the Line of Control (the de facto India-Pakistan border in the Kashmir Valley) and an order issued in Pakistan to prepare civilian hospitals to receive injured army personnel.
In the past hours, BBC News reports India had launched air strikes against militants in Pakistani territory. Pakistan said the strikes hit an empty area but vowed to respond. Relations between the nuclear-armed neighbors have been deteriorating since a suicide car bomb attack earlier this month in the Kashmir town of Pulwama killed more than 40 Indian troops. India blames Pakistan for allowing radical Muslim groups to operate in the disputed areas.
Taken together, does all of this mean that the Narendra Modi government's plans to avenge the Pulwama killing could lead to a wider war?
We can rule out this scenario because India doesn't have the capability, capacity or political will for war. A war is much more than localized army action along the Line of Control; it involves the air force and numerous enablers like space, cyber, electronic (to jam communications) and so on. It is certain that any crossing of the Line of Control by the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force (IAF), or the use of stand-off weapons or long-range artillery guns from within our own territory, would be met with an equal response from Pakistan.
Moreover, a war between India and Pakistan would quickly involve China too in some form. Since the Pakistan Army is responsible for security of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which is the designated flagship of President Xi Jinping's Belt and Road Initiative, the People's Liberation Army's support to General Headquarters, Rawalpindi against India is assured.
For example, the recent United Nations Security Council statement condemning Jaish-e-Mohammed for the dastardly Pulwama attack was delayed because China was keen that the phrase ‘state of Jammu and Kashmir," which Indian wanted, be replaced by India-administered Kashmir, which suited Pakistan.
Since the Chinese gloves are off, it would be instructive to recall the December 2010 declaration made by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Indian soil that China has a 2,000-kilometer border with India. According to India, the border is 3,488 km; China does not recognize the 1,488-km border it shares with India in Ladakh (Jammu and Kashmir).
Given its stakes in Pakistan's security, China would (a) heighten its military activities on the disputed border with India in order to ensure that the Indian Army is unable to move troops from there to the Pakistan border; (b) send unlimited spares and other war support materiel to Pakistan to enable it to outmatch Indian military reserves for intense war; (c) provide its space, cyber and electronic warfare capabilities to the Pakistan military, which the Indian side would have difficulty contending with; and (d) be ‘forced" to enter the war in self defense if its own civilians and security personnel working on the CPEC are killed or injured by Indian strikes.
Once that happens, the Indian war would not remain limited to two fronts – Pakistan and China. The Indian Air Force would be compelled to fly over the airspace of neighboring nations. This would transform it into a regional war with extremely high stakes, since the three main players are nuclear-armed.
There is added pressure on the Modi government from its ideological mentor.
This progression of war should underscore the fact that since escalation has its own dynamics, it would be impossible for India to restrict or control war. All talks about limited war (in time and space) that Indian generals are fond of discussing are peace-time activities, with no relationship with the reality of war.
The reality, unfortunately, was laid bare by the so-called 2016 surgical strikes the Modi government advertized, where a localized tactical operation had political rather than military objectives. For one, surgical strikes which are akin to blitzkrieg are done by the air force and not the army, which can at best do raids. For another, they were, as the then foreign secretary, S. Jaishankar, described, "low level, targeted counter-terror operations'. Given the army leadership's complicity and eagerness to please political bosses rather than serve their command, something similar to surgical or fake strikes could be on the cards.
There is added pressure on the Modi government from its ideological mentor, the Hindu nationalist RSS paramilitary organization. The latter has reworked its priority for the coming general elections, where instead of the Ram Mandir issue, the Pulwama tragedy would be the focus. The RSS is expected to assert that only a muscular and stable government can ensure that more Pulwamas do not happen, demanding hard choices from the Modi government.
Writing in the Sunday Times of India, the pro-government columnist Swapan Dasgupta has said, "India will have to exercise hard options, including the grim sight of body bags." Sadly he knows little about with India's or Pakistan's hard power choices, not to mention China's enormous military capabilities that would come in support of Pakistan.