Analysis Of what the skirmishes of 2019 and 2020 tell us about the de-escalation of conflicts – analysis
The parallels between the recent clash between the United States (US) and Iran and the India-Pakistan conflict of February 2019 are being widely observed. In fact, there are strange similarities between the two episodes. First I will tell you the two main similarities and then I will draw the lessons that the two conflicts have to offer about the dynamics of climbing.
First, in both cases, the strongest power showed a huge appetite for risk-taking. While the impact remains disputed, India violates a red line by removing objects in appropriate Pakistani territory beyond Pakistani-occupied Kashmir. The United States, on the other hand, carried out a targeted assassination of Qassem Soleimani, a senior Iranian state official. The Indian action in Balakot was a response to a terrorist attack in Pulwama, but it also presented itself as “a preemptive strike” to prevent future attacks. Donald Trump, the US president, justified Soleimani’s assassination to prevent “imminent” attacks, as well as avenging “recent attacks on U.S. targets” that had already been concluded.
Second, the weakest power responded, in both cases, with the aim of restoring deterrence. The answers were calibrated to leave open space for de-escalation. Pakistan claimed that it only wanted to show determination and deliberately lost when it could have targeted Indian military installations. Iran, seems based on evidence so far in the public domain, used precision targeting in order to avoid US casualties. While the Indian Air Force lost a Mig-21 Bison, Pakistan quickly returned the captured pilot so as not to give India any more chances of climbing.
There are four broad factors that contributed to eventual moderation, in both cases.
First, both India and Pakistan are vulnerable to each other’s nuclear weapons. Fear of escalation, up to the nuclear level, functions as a significant restriction factor. This also leads to increased global interest and advice from major powers. It has traditionally been assumed that fear of nuclear escalation works disproportionately on India. However, the captured pilot’s rapid return showed that Pakistan was also not ready for an escalation. In the Case of the United States and Iran, there is no mutual nuclear vulnerability. The presence of U.S. troops in Iraq and other countries in the region, however, plays a similar role and creates some kind of mutual vulnerability. While Iran wants a complete U.S. withdrawal from the region, such a reduction would mean that the United States could, in conflict situations, use its long-range missiles, aircraft carriers and bombers to damage Iranian assets, while Tehran won’t have much to attack with its current levels of capability. Mutual vulnerability, therefore, is the key to de-escalation.
Communications with the audience is the second contributing factor to moderation. India could present its Balakot operation as a success. He also claimed that he shot down a Pakistani F-16 the next day, although he did not produce enough evidence to prove it. Pakistan is projecting the return of the Indian pilot as an act of magnanimity rather than one of necessity. Both sides, therefore, were able to project victory to their domestic audience. Iranian media similarly claim that 80 Americans were killed in their attack on the two Iraqi military bases. The United States has been able to descal because there were no American or allied casualties. Iran’s use of ballistic missiles could have been seen as an increase and responded to by further escalation. But the Trump administration, for now, has decided to look beyond this inconvenient fact.
Third—and this is more of a hypothesis that will need rigorous testing—de-escalation is not only a factor in the ability of leaders to sell victory to the national audience, but also the ability of the audience to restrict leaders. Even among the hawk section of the domestic audience, a fraction of people are ready to push for de-escalation, or not push for further escalation, if there are reasonable exit options to save face. One test of this claim would be to examine the divergence in shades of publishers in Indian newspapers before and after the capture of the Indian pilot on February 27, 2019. Trump’s ability to get out also shows that he was able to control the warists in his administration and the Republican party. Once the bombs and missiles start flying, even some war advocates become squats.
Finally, luck has a role to play in de-escalation. If the Indian pilot had died in the accident or, worse, lynched by a mob in Pakistan, the end result could have been very different. If the Iranians had even accidentally killed a number of U.S. personnel in Iraq, the American response could easily have been very aggressive. That luck can play such a big role, in itself, creates a deterrent effect. How strong that deterrence is is very difficult to fix, because when a dog does not bark, we do not know why it did not, or if it even wanted to bark in the first place. For what it’s worth, a Pulwama-scale terrorist attack hasn’t been repeated so far. Soleimani’s beheading does not in itself create a deterrent, but a sense that another ambitious Iranian operation could bring it, once again, so close to a war with the United States that might induce some caution.
Iran’s safest gamble is not entirely safe, as proliferating nuns can become military targets, would be to rush to their nuclear deterrence.
Kunal Singh is a PhD candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The opinions expressed are personal