Pakistan’s PM Imran Khan Niyazi, in a sense outlined the basic contours of Pakistan’s Kashmir strategy. He harped on bloodbath post lifting of curfew. He also in a way threatened that Indian move will radicalize Muslims not just in Kashmir but rest of India as well. From this he concluded that there will be terror attacks and retaliation from India leading to escalation. He drew attention to the post Pulwama incident air attacks by India and an attempted Pakistani reaction.
This is a new version of ‘Mad Mullah strategy’ of 1980s when Pakistan enhanced its nuclear deterrence (based on undeclared nuclear weapons) on the basis of seeming ‘irrationality’ of Pakistan vis-a-vis a mature India.
He further developed this scenario into a conventional war that Pakistan may lose and then will be forced to use nuclear weapons. His and Pakistan’s punch line is that Indian actions in Kashmir pose a threat of nuclear war in the subcontinent. It is with this rhetoric he attempted to blackmail the world body to act against India.
This is a new version of ‘Mad Mullah strategy’ of 1980s when Pakistan enhanced its nuclear deterrence (based on undeclared nuclear weapons) on the basis of seeming ‘irrationality’ of Pakistan vis a vis a mature India. This nuclear bluff worked right till 2016 Uri attack when India retaliated with strikes across the LOC. The bluff was decisively called in 2019 with Indian air strike on Balakot in February 2019.
Strictly in theoretical terms Pakistan is attempting ‘deterrence’ through threat of escalation when in actuality it wants ‘compliance’ from India in terms of reversing its decision on Kashmir. There is a great difference between preventing an action-that is what deterrence does and compelling a course of action. In the second case mere speeches, threats and scenarios do not work. Pakistan will soon learn the hard way that compelling India or world to act according to its wishes needs ‘actions’ that credibly create a nuclear war threat.
From a military historian point of view there is a delicious irony as the situation is exactly reverse of what prevailed earlier in Indo-Pak confrontations. It was always Pakistani actions (7/11 Mumbai train bombing, 26/11 Mumbai attack, 2016 Pathankot air base attack) when India was reduced to wailing and threatening, like Pakistan is doing now.
Presently; all Pakistani ‘hopes’ rest on India lifting the restrictions in Kashmir and a violent uprising leading to a bloodbath. One is sure that decision makers in Delhi are well aware of this danger. India has shown in the past that it has the necessary wherewithal as well as well-honed technique of crowd control to prevent such a situation. As an aside, one must remember how Russia has successfully dealt with separatism in Chechnya. In last several years one has not heard a whimper of protest from that restive province of Russia.
Given the reputation as harbourer of terrorists (Osama Bin Laden, Hafeez Sayeed et al), Pakistan will be wary of attempting a repeat of Mumbai 26/11 type attack as a provocation. With its impending blacklisting on terrorist finance by FATF (financial action task force) on money laundering and terror finance, Pakistan is likely to wary of using its terrorist card against India.
Inability to confront India on Kashmir may not threaten Pakistani security but will be beginning of the end for army hegemony.
The above discussion leaves only an option of a limited surprise military attack across the LOC (Line of Control) as the only viable option for Pakistan to start the ‘escalation’.
As time passes and Kashmir situation stabilizes, Pakistani army (the real rulers of Pakistan) will be under immense popular pressure for action. If Pak army fails to act, its carefully constructed image of being the ‘only’ savior of Pakistani state will be severely dented. The loss of prestige will be fatal for the Pakistan army’s future as it has much to lose in terms money and power. Once the army’s grip over power is loosened, real democracy may well begin to take root in Pakistan. Inability to confront India on Kashmir may not threaten Pakistani security but will be beginning of the end for army hegemony. The current crisis is thus seen as a threat to existence of the Pak military dominance. We should expect Pak army to resist this process.
The Balakot air attack and earlier retaliatory strikes post Uri, has firmly established credibility of India’s nuclear deterrence based on no first strike. Our enemies no longer have any doubt that any misadventure by them will meet with full force of our retaliation. Defence Minister’s recent comments have introduced sufficient ambiguity (of positive kind) in our pledge of ‘no first strike’.
India’s biggest challenge therefore is to assuage the world that the conflict in South Asia does not cross the nuclear threshold.
The stability of nuclear deterrence in the subcontinent is based on the rationality that ‘no nuclear attack’ is the best of all possible outcomes. But as in the present situation if Pakistani ruling elite perceives that even in the case of no nuclear attack, they are going to be the eventual losers (as shown above) there is a strong incentive to carry out a surprise attack even at the cost of destruction of the nation in retaliation. The Pakistanis launched the 1965 adventure on similar basis as they sensed that the defence build-up in India in wake of the 1962 debacle would make it impossible to get Kashmir in future. At that time there was no palpable threat to Pakistan or its ruling elites from India. Today the situation is much worse. Not only does Pakistan feel that its Kashmir agenda is lost, it also feels that the public pressure due to this failure has put their own survival in power in jeopardy.
India and Pakistan are learning the lessons that the US and erstwhile Soviet Union learnt during the Cuban Missile crisis of Oct 1962.
Indian response to this has to be based on twin pillars of both offensive and defensive measures. On the offensive side, India has to convince and demonstrate to Pakistan that it has the capability to 24×7 and 365 and ¼ days to monitor Pakistan; making a ‘surprise’ attack impossible. Pakistan has to be convinced that the combination of satellite surveillance and anti-aircraft/ missile shield together are sufficient to neutralize this. In short, make sure that surprise attack is not possible.
On the defensive side, India has to offer even more guarantees that it will not be first to use nuclear weapons. We have already made a commitment that we will not use nuclear weapons against non- nuclear states. We have to extend this guarantee to Pakistani provinces that do not harbour nuclear weapons. This should assuage the fear of provinces like Sindh, Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In addition we must tone down our rhetoric regarding POK in line with Shimla agreement wherein we have accepted non-use of force to solve territorial disputes. We should emphasize that we would seek only peaceful integration of POK with India.
India and Pakistan are learning the lessons that the US and erstwhile Soviet Union learnt during the Cuban Missile crisis of Oct 1962. During that crisis, in return for Soviet withdrawal of missiles from Cuba, the US offered to remove its short range ‘Thor’ missiles from Turkey. This gave a face saving opportunity to Soviet Union. Indian politicians and strategists must seriously consider what face saving concessions they can offer to Pakistan to bring down the temperatures.
Accidental nuclear war can happen in case of lack of communication. It is like two persons walking at each other in a narrow corridor. Despite wishing to avoid collision many times both sides collide even while taking evasive action. The safe passage only occurs when both parties pause and communicate as to which side they are going to move to avoid collusion!
India as a stronger and more mature nation must take initiative to avoid the outcome that none wants.