March 07, 2021

American Factor in the Indo-Pak Equation

B Arjun

INDIA and China have agreed to begin 'a workable and sequential' disengagement and de-escalation at all the heavily armed “friction points” in eastern Ladakh. More surprisingly, New Delhi and Pakistan have secretly negotiated a ceasefire agreement on the Line of Control (LoC) and International Border (IB) in Jammu and Kashmir, which has witnessed intense military action over the past five-years.

The sudden shift in the China-policy was expected, the negotiation process was on and it was well known that protracted military presence at the Himalayan heights, was not feasible because of gruelling winter conditions in the area and prohibitive costs.

However, what surprised all was the ‘surgical’ announcement of a ceasefire with Pakistan, which came after more than 5000 times incidents of ceasefire violations were recorded in 2020 in which 22 civilians were killed while 71 were injured.

It is obvious that India has suddenly changed its stance because Prime Minister Imran Khan, had been regularly appealing for talks and restoration of peace. Imran’s pleas were based on a pragmatic understanding of the limitations imposed by poor economic health on his military. Modi kept rejecting the Pakistani offers because he was on the path of following offensive foreign policy irrespective of what it costs the exchequer in times of dire economic situation in the country. Modi’s penchant for use of the military for surgical action without a proper selection of clear strategic objectives to be achieved, is now a  national security problem.

What has brought Modi back to the negotiating table and go back on his earlier rhetoric that India will not talk to Pakistan until it gives up supporting the Kashmiri cause and terrorism? Pakistan has hardly become powerful over the past few years; the only possible explanation for Modi’s change of heart could be the change of American strategy in Afghanistan after President Trump’s exit from the White House. By bombing Syria, the Biden administration has shown that it is not averse to use of US force in international relations. As Biden prepares his Afghanistan policy, the return of the Pak military in the American calculus is not ruled out.


For years, the RSS ideology has visualised the military playing a pivotal role in establishing India’s leadership role in the region and in the world. Its strategic considerations have always prioritised status over people’s prosperity. This major contradiction in the right-wing’s nationalism stems from its links with the concerns of India’s super-rich elite to be in the good books of the imperial powers. The right-wing ideology is designed to serve a narrow band of the population that wants to preserve its elite privileges from the multitudes. It is largely for this reason, since independence, the  RSS and BJP have advocated bandwagoning with Washington and serving the metropolis. 

Since 2014, we have witnessed Modi going full throttle in upholding the foreign policy tenets dear to the RSS, appeasing America through technological alignment of the Indian military with the Pentagon and using it in a manner that would help the US military-industrial complex to sell more arms to India. 

Modi’s ascendency to power coincided with the rise of the Alt-right in American politics. Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential elections gave a further fillip to right-wing internationalism. This emboldened leaders like Modi to follow a more aggressive domestic and foreign policy agenda.  Exactly one year after assuming power, Modi approved a military operation that involved the military cross-border operation against insurgents in Myanmar. Ever since, Modi has relied on “surgical” military action, more to shape the domestic public opinion and win elections than to enhance national security. This method was extensively used before the general elections in 2019 when India carried out air strikes inside Pakistani territory in response to the Pulwama terrorist strike. 

Modi was bent upon proving his “will to dominate” to his constituency that he disregards the first principle of war – the selection of aim. He even disregarded the fact that weather conditions were not conducive to launch air strikes. That fog and friction of war could lead to a situation that would be advantageous to the adversary was expediently disregarded. This is exactly what happened when one of the brave pilots of the Indian Air Force was captured inside Pakistani territory.

This led the Indian security establishment to go on an overdrive to get the pilot back from Pakistan, to help Modi claim a pyrrhic victory and boast in front of his electorate. India warned Pakistani of dire consequences if the pilot was not returned. According to The Hindustan Times, PM Modi messaged Pakistan: “Our weapon arsenal is not for Diwali.” The HT article further adds: “To demonstrate that India meant business, the armed forces were ordered to ready mobile Prithvi ballistic missile batteries in the Rajasthan sector. It set alarm bells ringing in faraway Washington as well.”    

Pakistan retorted by saying that it would pay India in the same coin. The situation between the two nuclear neighbours took an ugly turn leading Washington to intervene and calm things down.  According to an article by Sameer Lalwani, “Privately, many American officials expressed alarm that events would spin out of control, and some later acknowledged that senior US officials basically ignored the crisis. Escalation was controlled, mostly by luck.” The facts of American intervention to save a possible full-scale war between India and Pakistan did not come to light in 2019 because the facts would have made Modi look meek. 

The American factor in the Indo-Pak equation explains Modi’s flip-flop on Pakistan. The fact is that America requires the Pakistani military to implement Biden’s policy in Afghanistan. This requires the Pak army some respite on its borders with India. This is the normal pattern that has been followed since the American intervention in Afghanistan. Modi has to oblige because of the help provided by America for the release of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman from Pakistan.

Till the time America is militarily engaged in South Asia, peace between India and Pakistan will always remain a difficult proposition. In American strategic calculus, Pakistan is essential as a counterpoise to India and New Delhi is required to tame Islamabad to fulfill US needs. Since neither Modi nor the Pakistan military is interested in defying America, the situation will continue to fluctuate between war and peace leading to futile sacrifices of innocent soldiers and civilians on either side of the border.  

In 2019, Modi, driven by his ambitions, jeopardised national security, once again allowing America to prove "South Asia is the most dangerous place on earth” and to show that the leadership in the subcontinent is immature and cannot be trusted.

One remains skeptical about the longevity of peace in the region because who knows when Pakistan may decided to intensify terrorism against India and when Modi may decide to use the military against Pakistan to boost his sagging image and to hide his failures on multiple fronts in the era of high inflation and rising unemployment.