Indian missile ‘malfunction’: Pak seeks joint probe as both sides move to avoid escalation

The “malfunction” that sent an unarmed Indian missile deep inside Pakistan on March 9 had the potential to escalate into a full-scale crisis, but the two countries appeared to have made a deliberate effort at restraint.

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On Saturday, the Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs sought “a joint probe to accurately establish the facts surrounding the incident” as the missile had landed in Pakistani territory, and said the “grave nature” of the incident raised many questions about India’s “security protocols and technical safeguards against accidental or unauthorised missiles” in the “nuclearised” region.

“The Indian decision to hold an internal court of inquiry is not sufficient since the missile ended in Pakistani territory. Pakistan demands a joint probe to accurately establish the facts surrounding the incident,” the ministry said in a statement.

The statement raised seven questions including if the missile was equipped with a self-destruct mechanism, and if so, why that had failed, and if India kept its missiles primed for launch even during maintenance.

The Pakistani demand for “a joint probe” came a day after India acknowledged that a “technical malfunction led to the accidental firing of a missile”.

The Ministry of Defence, in a statement Friday, said: “On 9 March 2022, in the course of a routine maintenance, a technical malfunction led to the accidental firing of a missile. The Government of India has taken a serious view and ordered a high-level Court of Enquiry. It is learnt that the missile landed in an area of Pakistan. While the incident is deeply regrettable, it is also a matter of relief that there has been no loss of life due to the accident.”

While the statement raised more questions than it answered, it effectively quashed the “false flag” and other theories against Pakistan that had started circulating in Indian media, including social media.

Pakistan’s 24-hour wait to announce the incident may have given both sides time to contain the damage from an incident that could have quickly spun out of control.

When Inter-Services Public Relations chief Major General Babar Iftikhar held a press conference on March 10 to announce that an Indian missile had breached the international border and landed in Mian Channu in Khanewal of Pakistan Punjab – a full day after the incident — he made clear that the Pakistani side was not ruling out an accident, but it was for India to do the explaining. He reiterated more than once that it was “certainly unarmed”.

One assessment is that the Pakistani military, which said it tracked the missile from the start of its journey at Sirsa in Haryana, quickly came to the conclusion that it was a misfire, and did not see advantage in escalation.

Iftikhar said there had been no contact between the DGMOs after the incident. But a source familiar with the backchannel process said both sides have channels open and might have activated these to dial down the situation.

The nearly 13-month agreement between the two militaries reiterating their commitment to the 2003 ceasefire has brought calm to the Line of Control and International Border despite the hostile environment between the two countries, and neither wants this to be disrupted.

Observers said this was the most optimal outcome given the circumstances.

“This episode had all the makings of a huge India-Pakistan crisis. Given that the two countries have had no interactions at the political level for several years, have a scaled down diplomatic presence in the two capitals, no official-level meetings to discuss conventional or nuclear confidence building measures, and our political leaders are constantly attacking each other, this is the best outcome we could have hoped for,” said Happymon Jacob, who teaches at the Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament at the School of International Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, and leads a Track 2 dialogue between the two sides.

He pointed out that had the Pakistani side chosen to retaliate to the breach of its territory, the outcome could have been “very different”.

However, the war of words may continue. The Pakistan Foreign Office demand for “a joint investigation” has upped the ante a notch, and is an indication that this could be milked by the political establishment there, even if the security establishment is wary of doing so.

The missile incident has come at a time when Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan is battling to remain in office and needs to win an Opposition motion of no-confidence that is not looking easy for him given the cracks in his coalition. With relations between him and the Pakistan Army no longer of the “same page” kind, Khan may have to fight this battle on his own.

A resolution signed by 100 parliamentarians was submitted last week to the Speaker of the National Assembly, along with a requisition to convene parliament for the single-point agenda of taking up the motion. The Speaker must convene it by March 22.

On Friday, speaking at a public rally in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Khan referred to the missile incident, and said when Nawaz Sharif was in power, he had asked the Foreign Office not to issue any statement against India.

“A leader whose assets are abroad will never devise an independent foreign policy that focuses on protecting the nation and its rights,” he said, referring to the former Prime Minister’s self-exile in London.

Restrained handling by both sides may have prevented an escalation of the incident, but experts warn that India’s hard earned international credibility as a responsible nuclear weapons state could take a hit.

“There are few cases in history – if any – of a nuclear-armed rival accidentally firing a missile into the territory of another nuclear-armed rival,” said Frank O’Donnell, Deputy Director of the South Asia program at the Washington-based Stimson Center.

India would need to take corrective measures, he said, to reassure its own citizens and the world of the surety of its missile forces such as a suspension of missile tests and a review of the command-and-control procedures as first steps.

“A more significant step would be to exchange letters with Pakistan formally extending the 2005 ballistic missile test pre-notification agreement to also include cruise missiles. Agreeing to a similar protocol for immediate notification of accidental launch of missiles would also be wise in terms of limiting the potential grave impacts from a recurrence of this incident,” said O’Donnell who works on nuclear issues, militaries and national security-making processes in South Asia.

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