Diplomatic engagement in a post nuclear use environment
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 27 May , 2014

Strike corps exercises are usually well covered by the media. Inevitably mentioned in write ups from reporters over the past decade since Exercise Poorna Vijay has been the nuclear backdrop. The subtext is that the military is ready to fight through in a nuclear environment. The intent is to reinforce deterrence by messaging that nuclear first use is not going to stop the army in its tracks, but that it would pursue military aims as dictated by political goals set, and political goals as modified by the nuclear foregrounding, with the necessary military means.

Given its conventional forces are capable of handling Pakistan in hostilities, nuclear moves will most likely be for serving deterrence, not employment.

It is clear that a post nuclear use environment is quite distinct from what precedes it. While the military is prepared to face the nuclear aftermath, a post nuclear use environment would make demands on all institutions and agencies of the state. In particular, intelligence and diplomacy will be on test. Intelligence resources and strategic forces will be twinned in their employment as part of unfolding nuclear retaliatory strategy. In this circumstance, diplomacy will surely not sit by idly. This article attempts to outline what would busy diplomats at this juncture.

Indian diplomacy would be advantaged by starting off at the moral and political high ground. This has been eminently facilitated by India’s nuclear posture of restraint, best exemplified by the No First Use pillar of its doctrine. Even if this pillar was withdrawn as consequence of a forthcoming review, it does not necessarily imply India would ‘go first’ with nuclear weapons. Given its conventional forces are capable of handling Pakistan in hostilities, nuclear moves will most likely be for serving deterrence, not employment.

In the pre-nuclear phase, as the conventional war progresses Indian diplomacy would be engaged with ‘selling’ India’s casus belli. It would also be reassuring not only the international community but also the adversary of India’s limited political aims and strategic objectives. This would be necessary reinforcement of the impression forming in the minds of Pakistani decision makers from the emerging military facts on ground. Since India’s limited war doctrine reportedly is cognizant of nuclear dangers, the same will be communicated to the adversary directly through all formal and informal channels available, including the media, and indirectly through pressure from the international community to stay its nuclear hand. Diplomacy may also be used for nuclear signaling assuring Pakistan of retaliation, the onus for which would it’s to bear.

Assuming deterrence failure does occur then diplomacy would require working along three lines. One would be to explain Indian compulsions of retaliation; second would be to act in concert with other elements of nuclear strategy for escalation control; and last would be to ensure exertion towards the political goals as modified for and by the nuclear environment.

The key deterrent factor in this case will be the nuclear power held in reserve by India and the targets India has spared in Pakistan from inclusion in its nuclear retaliatory strike.

In light of Pakistani first use, superficially it would appear that diplomacy may have it easy. However, this is unlikely to be so, even though India would be on a strong wicket. Diplomacy would require facing up to untold pressures for India to continue down the route of nuclear maturity and sobriety. The international community would galvanise in the UNSC to clamp down on South Asia, fearful of an environmental catastrophe not only for South Asia but the world in case of escalation spiral. Countering Pakistan and its supporters in the UNSC will be challenging. Therefore, diplomacy would require gaining Indian decision makers time and attention spans necessary to undertake nuclear strategy moves duly informed by declaratory and operational nuclear doctrines.

Alongside, diplomats will require creating the rationale for the retaliatory strike(s) India chooses from its options. In case the declaratory nuclear doctrine informs nuclear conflict strategy, then diplomats will likely have a prohibitive task on hand, especially in case nuclear first use by Pakistan is of lower opprobrium quotient. The international community would be alert to the issue of proportionate retaliation since they would stand to be affected by a regional nuclear exchange of higher order magnitude. This diplomatic drawback of the declaratory nuclear doctrine requires factoring into the expected review.

However, in case India’s nuclear retaliatory strategy is cognizant of proportionality and escalation control, in that Pakistan hurts appropriately while not being provoked into spasm counter retaliation, it would be an easier case for diplomacy to pursue with concerned interlocutors.

Escalation control will require maximum diplomatic exertion to ensure that nuclear messaging is credibly conveyed to Pakistani decision makers. The key deterrent factor in this case will be the nuclear power held in reserve by India and the targets India has spared in Pakistan from inclusion in its nuclear retaliatory strike. Conveying that there is more punishment held in reserve would be the most effective deterrence on Pakistan. This will supplement on actions on the ground such as special forces and conventional operations directed at Pakistan’s nuclear forces and nuclear readiness displays.

Post conflict diplomatic offensive will need to be launched to ensure that India’s case is not misperceived by those who may have supported Pakistan.

Finally, diplomacy would require complementing conventional operations as they continue in a nuclear environment. The focus of diplomacy and an information campaign will be the mind of the Pakistani decision maker and the avenues to this end many, including the Pakistani public at the receiving end while the decision makers are ensconced safely in nuclear bunkers. Firstly, nuclear exchange termination will be take priority and thereafter conflict termination. A distinction may need to be drawn between decision makers who have authorized the strike and the Pakistan people and state so as to bring about conflict termination. Reassurance of traditional Indian respect of Pakistani sovereignty, backing of pro-peace constituency and isolating the leadership in preparation for indictment for crimes against humanity would be key areas.

Post conflict diplomatic offensive will need to be launched to ensure that India’s case is not misperceived by those who may have supported Pakistan. There would be pressures for a ‘root and branch’ conflict resolution. Ensuring the national interest is preserved in this circumstance and long standing national positions not compromised unduly will be the effort. India, being the regional power, would require measuring up to the role, with suitable diplomacy as part of consequence management and disaster control. Through the entire conflict period, overworked diplomats would require supplementing their arsenal with the resources of the diaspora and the media.

Currently, diplomatic engagement with nuclear matters is on the non-proliferation and nuclear security front. Thinking through of the different challenges of the nuclear genii in conflict may perhaps have been done behind closed doors. The same will now require factoring into the nuclear doctrine review and the diplomatic prong of nuclear strategy must form part of war games hereafter. The existential dangers of nuclear war brook no less than an ‘all of government’ approach and indeed an ‘all India’ approach.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Ali Ahmed

 is a retired infantryman, blogs on security issues at He is author of India's Doctrine Puzzle: Limiting War in South Asia (Routledge 2014). 

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One thought on “Diplomatic engagement in a post nuclear use environment

  1. Nuclear war is unthinkable but probable in an unstable environment. Mr. Ahmed is much too generous in his assessment of Pakistan. It is not out of a realm of possibilities that an extremist general draped in hate and anger might relish the idea of pressing the button for the sake of Jihad. The military in Pakistan regardless of how professional they are defined by the media, is the joker in the deck. Given the current dilemma of the Pakistani civilian government lack of control of the defense and foreign affairs, the military is cooking its own stew, shielded from scrutiny of the civilian administration. The Kargil war was the work of Musharaff’s military and military alone, while leaving Nawaz Sharif in the cold with Bajpai, after the aggression had started. The Mumbai 26/11 massacre of civilians, lacking any logic or rationale, was a bizarre undertaking from the beginning. Based on the testimonies of Pakistani agents arrested by FBI in US, it was planned and executed by the Pakistani military/ISI team. Again the civilian government of Zardari had no clue until the event had occurred. These real life examples provide a window into the mindset of the Pakistani military that owns the nuclear button. India therefore has no choice but to include a possibility of a nuclear first strike from Pakistan in her security calculus. How should India prepare for such an apocalyptic event? Taking a lesson from the US-Russia last fifty years of military suspense, the reason there has been no third world war between them is because both sides understand the hair-trigger-readiness to retaliate if any side launched the first strike. India’s state of readiness to retaliate with nuclear weapons, massively at lightning speed, must be put out for Pakistan to see. It is far better to convince Pakistani military of the futility of the first strike with potential consequences in military terms, than worry about the diplomacy after the first strike.

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