The Cheat Sheet

Pulwama, Balakot, and Indo-Pak war games

Venky Vembu | Updated on February 27, 2019

Is war ever a game?

Fair point. And particularly after the Pulwama terrorist attack, India’s air strikes on a terrorist camp in Balakot in Pakistan on February 26 and the claims and counter-claims of aerial combat on the Indo-Pakistan border on February 27, the prospect of a serious escalation in hostilities between the two nuclear-armed neighbours has ratcheted up several notches. But watching television anchors — on both sides of the border — in recent days, you get the feeling that they are war-mongering cheerleaders at a World Cup T20 match.

But television anchors are always an excitable bunch…

They are, of course. But to rant, as one Pakistani television personality did, that his country would respond to an Indian ban on export of tomatoes by dropping a nuclear bomb borders on criminal recklessness of language. His outpourings were matched — syllable for hysterical syllable — by anchors and panelists frothing at the mouth on the Indian airwaves.

But isn’t the anger justifiable, given Pakistan’s perfidy?

As the universally acknowledged epicentre of jihadi terror, Pakistan has a lot to answer for. And, of course, patience in India, which has been the primary target of export of terrorism by the Pakistani military complex, is running thin. Successive Indian governments have also failed to frame a coherent policy of deterrence in respect of Pakistan. So, the anger is understandable. But you can’t win Pakistan’s proxy war with television theatrics and scenario-building in studios.

Was India wrong to launch surgical strikes?

India’s responses, after the attacks at both Uri and Pulwama, have signalled to Pakistan that its low-cost proxy war strategy is past its ‘use by’ date. But such attacks may not be enough to deter Pakistani adventurism or its sponsorship of terror attacks.

Because it has nuclear weapons?

Pakistan has for long been resorting to nuclear blackmail in the hope of getting the world to acknowledge it as a military power on a par with India and to exploit the Kashmir issue. It hasn’t helped that successive Indian governments too have played a bad hand in Kashmir.

Doesn’t India enjoy a military and economic edge over Pakistan?

It does, but these things count only on the margins because Pakistan has been rather more astute at playing the Big Power game. Western powers too have, in pursuit of their interests, armed and plied Pakistan with aid — all of which its military-ISI complex has milked to fatten itself. More recently, it has found a patron in China, which is looking to use it to keep India boxed in within the subcontinent.

So Pakistan is more war-ready?

I don’t know about that. Pakistan has its vulnerabilities — both economic and military. It can ill-afford a war, even less so than India can.

Aren’t wars good for the economy?

If you believe that, you’re a victim of the ‘Broken Window Fallacy’.

What’s that?

It’s a parable cited by French economist Frederic Bastiat in 1850 to refute the contention that money spent to recover from destruction brings a net benefit to society. As the Institute for Economics and Peace has noted, it is possible that increasing military spending can provide an important stimulus, particularly when an economy has excess capacity and unemployment. But if there are budget constraints, excessive military spending can displace more productive non-military outlays in other areas such as investments in education, health and infrastructure.

A weekly column that helps you ask the right questions

Published on February 27, 2019

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