On October 19, 1945, The Tribune carried George Orwell’s fantastically written essay ‘You and the Atomic Bomb’, it predicted that the dominant weapon so long as it is available to the weak will give it claws. The bomb as Orwell predicted would put an end to large-scale wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a ‘peace that is no peace’. In the next half of the twentieth century, South Asia saw threatening nuclear proliferation. In 1964, an ambitious People’s Republic of China tested its first bomb largely to boost its global image and to insulate itself from American threat emanating since the Korean War. Ten years later, in 1974, unsure of China’s intention with whom it went into a war in 1962, and in its desire to overpower Pakistan, India jolted itself and the world into being the sixth such nation to have the capacity to built the bomb.
It had become inevitable then, that someday in future Pakistan too would acquire the bomb for itself. In its quest, China became an all-weather ally supplying blueprints and weapon’s grade uranium. By 1998, both the nation not only had atomic bombs but also the much more powerful thermonuclear devices. Since then both the side have largely maintained ‘a peace that is no peace’. Pakistan’s conventional military weakness was reinforced by the bombs which are a guarantee against a ground invasion. Confident of its growing arsenal and in order to rehabilitate the retiring Afghan Mujahedeens post the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, it began to actively infiltrate the valley with battle-hardened war proxies. During the 1990s, the valley saw its bloodiest decade, beginning with the pushing out of Kashmiri Pandits and culminating in large-scale military deployment by the Union government.
In the meantime, three incidents changed how the world perceived the conflict. The first was the Kargil war, beginning shortly after the global acknowledgment of both India and Pakistan being nuclear powers and subsequent to the then Prime Minister Vajpayee’s diplomacy overtures through Lahore Bus visit. The war marked a turning point in Pakistan’s internal politics and created a dent in its international perception as a responsible state. It brought to the surface the open secret of the subservient nature of its civil government to its military and willingness of the military to push the deterrence theory up to the hilt. A thorough response by the Vajpayee government and the subsequent disgraceful and rather desperate withdrawal of the Pakistani forces, made it realised that conventional wars are yet not a ruled out possibility. The subsequent overthrow of the Nawaz Sharif government in the post-war turmoil brought Pervez Musharraf to the helm. After tasting defeat in Kargil, he once again turned towards militancy as a safer option for disrupting India’s hold over Kashmir.
The second was the parliament attack in 2001 soon after the Agra summit and the mobilization of troops subsequent to attack and the military stand-off during Operation Parakarm. For the first time ever, a direct war among the two nuclear nations seemed imminent. It took considerable efforts by USA, Russia, and UK to ease the tensions down. The stand-off brought the focus on the follies of Pakistan and its terror apparatus. It also brought forth India’s growing frustration with Pakistan and the possibility of India running out of self-imposed restraint. Thus marking the beginning of a genuine and yet brief transformation in Pakistan’s attitude towards the terror emanating from its soil, largely due to Musharraf newly gained maturity after continuous failures. The interlocutory period can be seen as the most peaceful period between the two nations disrupted decisively after the 26/11 attacks in 2008. Meanwhile, the period also marked the beginning of Pakistan’s economic decline due to overreliance on US economic aid in exchange for providing a military base for operation in Afghanistan. The move meant the military having a larger say in controlling the civil government which requires a perpetual adversary to sustain its position.
The third such event was the discovery of Osama Bin Laden on its soil safely harbored in Abbottabad in 2011 and his elimination in a covert operation by the US navy seals. It marked the beginning of USA’s realisation of the improbity in Pakistan’s commitment towards the war on terror. The gradual pull-out of US troops from Afghanistan also accelerated the process of USA’s withdrawal assistance to Pakistan and has since left it under the umbrella of an increasingly assertive China.
This brings us to the present and the air-borne strikes that happened in the wee hours of Wednesday morning as a response to the Pulwama terror attack, resonating the cycle of a ‘peace where there is no peace’. However, much has changed on the geopolitical front since the three incidents. Under the Trump administration, USA is not willing to interfere on behalf of Pakistan for mediations. Pakistan has also witnessed a steep decline in its economic capacity and ability to sustain even a controlled war, limiting its options. India too has learnt post the attack on Parliament that in order to bring reign in Pakistan and bring it to negotiating table, it is essential that its actions are preceded by strong defense mobilisation. Its experiences with Kargil as a lesson in limited conflict and the surgical method used by the USA to eliminate Osama has assured it of being able to contain the conflict while inflicting a response.
The strikes with its precision and limited damage are an indication that the patience is running thin and it’s now the responsibility of Pakistan to decide the fate of the sub-continent. It can leave its cannibalistic use of non-state actors and aim for genuine settlement of the issues through dialogue or it can further go down on the spiral with a retaliatory cycle. The deterrence theory in the meantime is increasingly losing its sheen and Pakistan is also losing possible venues of unconditional support with China giving a diplomatic statement advising restraint on both nations. It stands on its destined crossroad with its claws, as Orwell called them, being clipped.
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