The latest international crisis sparked off by United States President Donald Trump’s whimsical decision most likely made while golfing at his lush Mar-a-Lago resort to ‘get General Qassem Soleimani’ reinforces some of the lessons from our home-grown regional crisis of last year. The good part is that the crisis some reckoned heralded World War III subsided as quickly as it heated up prime-time, if at a tragic cost of a passenger-full Ukrainian airliner.
What the crisis spells is that what passes for peace is being taken as war in strategic circles. Such wars that are not quite wars have acquired the moniker Grey Zone.
Just as one has been ongoing between Iran and the US since Trump turned on his policy of ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran, the state of relations between India and Pakistan must be seen as a grey zone war.
Grey zone war entered into the regional lexicon with the army’s adoption of a new doctrine in late 2017. Faced with an escalation in the proxy war by Pakistan in Kashmir, the Indian Army shifted to robust retaliation through surgical strikes. The 2019 aerial surgical strike pointed to an inter-services endorsement of the doctrinal imprimatur.
The trend has been taken forward with the integrated battle groups, the new-fangled organization for the new kind of war, awaiting a ministerial nod. For its part, the Indian Air Force’s determination to be part of the action is spelt out by its former chief, ACM BS Dhanoa, indicating its readiness in his news making now and then from retirement. Not to be left behind, the Indian Navy recently sailed its aircraft carrier into the Arabian Sea in response to joint Sino-Pakistan exercises off the Pakistani coast.
The key take-away from the latest international crisis and the regional crisis is that national security establishments are constantly engaged in a game of bluff, which when and if called they have to be ready and capable to deliver in quick-time. Even as they do, each is to be mindful that the ensuing violent exchange does not acquire a life of its own.
Their actions, while provocative enough to announce a telling threat to the other side, must be amenable to control and reversal, thereby allowing the other side to step back without loss of face. Both sides have to pretend to be willing to chance war while wishing the other side does not call its bluff.
Grey zone war also posits that bellicosity in people be kept alive in order that in case push comes to shove the side can up the ante. Orchestration of a war sentiment in people helps transmit to the other side that you mean business.
For 40 years now, Iran has been a reliable bogey for the Americans. Within South Asia, there is little love lost between the two protagonists, with the people on the two sides reflecting suspicion, if not hate, of the other side.
However, in the latest crisis, Trump overplayed his hand. Beset with impeachment, he kept alive his appeal to his base. The opportunity arose with a spiral starting with the loss of an American civilian contractor to missiles fired by an Iran-allied Iraqi militia. Subsequent US air strikes accounted for over-a-score militiamen, forcing Iraqi militias to in turn penetrate the ‘green zone’ in Baghdad to get at the American embassy there.
This seeming upping-of-the-ante, at the behest of Soleimani, the Iranian conductor of the Shiite militia in the region, led to Trump’s crossing the line. The Iranians responded with over two dozen missiles hitting two American bases in Iraq without drawing blood. Making a virtue of a necessity, the Iranians announced they were merely sending a message, not one drenched in blood.
This has resonance of the in-region crisis, when the Pulwama car-bomber set off the aerial strike by India at Balakot, which was followed soon enough by a Pakistani riposte at Rajauri-Naushera. Neither side struck respective targets. The Pakistani claim that they never intended to hit Indian military targets is plausible as the Indians missed Balakot, their claim otherwise disproven since.
Both crises witnessed bold, if not reckless, action by all sides. While neither crisis escalated, the contextual conditions giving rise to both continue in place. This guarantees future crises without a guarantee of similar de-escalation, while assuring a higher threshold of violence.
The Iranians may well draw the inference that nuclearisation is their only option left. After all, rhetoric is all Trump deploys against nuclear-armed North Korea.
Within the region, the Pakistani Prime Minister — and by extension its deep state — has it that India may not await the next crisis, but, enabled by a permissive grey zone environment, manufacture one through a ‘black operation’. The recent arrest of a decorated Jammu and Kashmir police officer with two Hizbul Mujahedeen militants, adds to credibility of such fears.
The key take-away from the two crises is that it is best to post-haste get out of the Grey Zone, especially because, while Iran and the US had Iraqi territory to spar in, India and Pakistan don’t have such luxury.