Prospects are not bright for Dr. Manmohan Singh traveling to Islamabad on Mr. Gilani’s invitation extended at Mohali during the latest spot of ‘cricket diplomacy’. The foreign secretaries are to meet this week to set the stage for the foreign ministers meeting next month. This follows a round of the line ministries involved in the restarted dialogue having met over the past two months. At these meetings the two sides merely restated their positions and agreed to meet again.

A utility that such talks have is that they serve as a buffer for India to register its disapproval in breaking off talks in case a terror attack with Pakistani markings crosses its proverbial ‘threshold of tolerance’. It follows that the two countries are not out of the woods yet, the latest spat being the ‘aggressive maneuvers’ at sea between respective naval ships participating in international anti-piracy operations. Talks must be seen in the backdrop of the possibility of conflict. This article discusses the backdrop.

The Indian prime minister has ruled out recourse to military force. This is sensible since it would divert India from its economic trajectory, besides having unforeseen domestic effects for Pakistan that India may not wish to initiate. Yet there is strong advocacy in India’s strategic circles for an assertive Indian reaction to Pakistani provocation. The government has shown itself responsive to this, with the home minister and the minister of state for defense admitting to the possibility. While this may be to take advantage of the deterrent effect of such rhetoric, it may in the event of crisis prove a commitment trap.

The possibility of another terrorist inspired crisis is ever present. The conditions that prompted 26/11, that emerged from the testimony of David Headley, are present today. In case 26/11 was state sponsored, then Pakistan is once again being pressured to go into North Waziristan. It could do with a diversion. The revelations make India inclined towards military action. Pakistani reliance on Indian maturity, or ‘strategic passivity’, is to over-invest in a preferred perception of the adversary. If it was not state sponsored, then the non-state actors have only increased their capacity and autonomy since. In case military pressure builds on them with Pakistani state participation, they could engineer a diversion.

The juncture is appropriate therefore to reappraise prospects of war. Towards this end, two factors need examining. The first is if India can withstand the impulse to punish Pakistan. In case of another terror attack, India would have recourse to continuing its ‘strategy of restraint’ or to responding militarily. Indian military reaction by itself would not spell ‘war’. Its military doctrine seems to have worked in a suitable response option at the subconventional level itself. While being seen to be ‘doing something’, it may be restricted to the least escalatory level such as surgical strikes, etc.

War would instead be brought on by either inadvertence or deliberate ‘disproportionate’ reaction by Pakistan. The first is an ever present possibility in conflict. Measures need be in place, such as diplomatic channels, third party links, etc, to keep the other side informed of limited intentions. As for the second, India will have little control. But even then, escalation control measures could prove deterring for Pakistan to deliberately up the ante.

The bright side is that currently, between the two – inadvertence and choice – Pakistan will unlikely want a war, since in-conflict political dynamics in Pakistan would likely move the state more towards the jihadist deep end. While factions in the Pakistan Army may welcome that, this may not be true for the Army leadership looking out for the military’s corporate interest and the wider national interest.

Having acknowledged that, even as India goes about its military reaction, it would be bringing into place deterrence measures against escalation. These could be misperceived in Islamabad as signs of an imminent offensive. India’s disowned doctrine, ‘Cold Start’, lends itself to such a reading. Therefore, even if India has forsworn Cold Start, it may be stampeded into Cold Start. It may go into Cold Start mode if it, in turn, misreads Pakistani emerging reaction as eventuating into a disproportionate one. This is not unlikely given the perception that the Pakistani military lacks strategic sense and may resort to offensive counter action compelled by a convergence of strategic and organizational culture. Their recent demonstration of a capability advertised as a tactical nuclear one, will under the circumstance make South Asia appear to well-meaning observers and strategic partners of both states as the ‘most dangerous place on earth’.

The lesson for the two states is stark. India waged limited war at Kargil, mobilized during Operation Parakram, and exercised restraint after 26/11. It is left with the military option of subconventional response this time. The onus next time round will be less on India than on Pakistan. India has acquired a fund of understanding of its position by repeatedly investing in restraint over the past. It can afford to expend from this by offensive action. Pakistan instead would lay itself open to capture by fundamentalist-nationalist forces, set off by Indian military action.

In other words, as against prior crises points, Pakistan has more to lose this time. Therefore, Pakistan would need to blink. This it would not be politically able to do in the circumstance of crisis. It could instead do so in anticipation. At a minimum, it needs extra self-regulation, exercising control over its rogue elements and over its ‘strategic assets’. At a maximum it could signal its fresh intent by ensuring Kashmir stays peaceful through the summer or by legally ‘going after’ the 26/11 accused.

The forthcoming opportunities of engagement over successive months the two sides must put into place conflict avoidance measures. The confidence building exercise that the talks represent will only withstand buffeting of crisis in case these prove robust. India might even be incentivized for a trip of Dr. Manmohan Singh across. The war cloud can yet acquire a silver lining.