India-Pakistan tensions and the threat of nuclear war

The central strategic assumption of Islamabad's nuclear strategy has been that New Delhi cannot impose a conventional war.

 |  6-minute read |   17-03-2017
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For more than five decades, the strategic situation in the South Asian region continues to be dominated by the strained India-Pakistan relationship. While the intensity of the tensions between the two neighbours has varied, the current decade has witnessed escalation in tension levels, increasing mistrust and inability to communicate between the two nations.

Recently, General Joseph L Votel, Commander US Central Command, in his statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee, raised concerns about the tensions between the two countries.

He said: “India remains concerned about the lack of action against India-focused militants based in Pakistan and even responded militarily to terrorist attacks in India-held territory earlier this year. We assess that these types of attacks and the potential reactions, increase the likelihood for miscalculation by both countries.”

Commenting on India’s stance on Pakistan’s diplomatic isolation, General Joseph said: “India’s public policy to ‘diplomatically isolate’ Pakistan hinders any prospects for improved relations. This is especially troubling as a significant conventional conflict between Pakistan and India could escalate into a nuclear exchange, given that both are nuclear powers.”

General Joseph’s statement caught ample media attention which was not unexpected. No doubt, the situation in the region is risky with two nuclear states sharing a hostile relationship. The question here is: Is New Delhi expected to absorb continued terror attacks without any response?

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Is New Delhi expected to absorb continued terror attacks without any response?

India has shown considerable restraint until now and has been a responsible nuclear state which has abstained from issuing nuclear threats. India’s actions via-a-vis Pakistan in the last few months have been in response to Islamabad’s constant support to terrorist organisations operating against India and its resistance to alter its strategic options.

The threat of nuclear weapons has been created and hyped by the Pakistani leadership in order to restrict India from retaliating against Pakistan’s acts of terror. Islamabad’s support to non-state actors is not unknown and General Joseph in his testimony admits that:

“20 US-designated terrorist organisations operate in the Afghanistan-Pakistan sub-region; seven of the 20 organisations are in Pakistan.”

Both India and Pakistan became overtly nuclear in 1998 and the two states differed in their objectives of going nuclear. For India, nuclear weapons were important in order to combat the threat of nuclear weapons emanating from its neighbourhood where it has a border dispute.

Indian nuclear weapons are aimed at defending itself against nuclear weapon use and thereby, New Delhi adopted a much debated “no first use” doctrine implying that it would use nuclear weapons only in retaliation of a nuclear attack.

India has not ruled out the option of conventional war even after it declared itself as a nuclear state. It has a written doctrine with clearly stated “no first use” and has never in the past indicated any willingness to use nuclear weapons. In fact, leveraging the threat of using nuclear weapons has not been an option for New Delhi even in the most stressed situations.

On the other hand, the central assumption on which Pakistan has progressed and built its nuclear arsenal is that a credible nuclear deterrent would compensate for the inferiority of its defence forces.

Pakistan received direct support from Beijing for its nuclear programme, and in its pursuit of nuclear power status, it also got financial support from Saudi Arabia and Libya. Eventually, it shared nuclear data and expertise with Iran, Libya and Iraq.

Pakistan has long held the belief that being the weaker state, it can compensate that weakness by taking bold initiatives, preferably with strategic surprise, to attack Indian military capability and reduce the adverse margin of capabilities. This was the military strategy that it practiced in all the wars it waged against India.

This was evident in the last war in Kargil in 1999 and, perhaps even more importantly, in the war which it continues to wage through terrorism across the border for the last quarter of a century.

The specific concentration of terrorism in the border districts in Punjab, west of River Beas, was clearly aimed at similar goals. Seen in the context of this strategic mind set, it is not surprising it has adopted a nuclear doctrine of “first use”.

For Islamabad, nuclear weapons serve threefold objectives: avoid conventional war, support non-state actors conducting terrorism against India, ultimate guarantor of its security against India and the major powers (such as the US).

Islamabad believes in ambiguity, as it enhances deterrence, and till date does not have a written doctrine. It claims to be extremely transparent on the safety and security of the nuclear arsenal, but has maintained silence on other aspects of its nuclear programme.

Pakistan has used the nuclear card to facilitate and implement its strategy of terrorism as a foreign policy tool for more than three decades now (Pakistan acquired the nuclear weapon capability in 1987.).

In 1989, the then Pakistan Army Chief, General Aslam Beg announced the famous “offensive defence doctrine”. It is noteworthy that during the late 1980s, the activities in the Valley witnessed a shift and the terrorist acts increased significantly in numbers and were planned in a more organised manner.

Pakistan has been pursuing the strategy of covert war through terrorism for more than four decades now. It used nuclear weapons to blackmail not only India but also send a message to the international community, feeling that it could potentially put pressure on India not to retaliate militarily in stressed situations and help Pakistan to attain its diplomatic and political objectives.

The central strategic assumption of the Pakistan nuclear strategy has been that India cannot impose a conventional war against Pakistan, leave alone achieve a decisive victory, without the risk of catastrophic consequences of Pakistan’s nuclear attack.

Pakistani leadership believes that Islamabad’s possession of nuclear arsenal, its first use policy, and, now, full spectrum deterrence would be sufficient to deter war. This logic in Pakistan has been reinforced by the common Pakistani perception that it was able to deter Indian military action on various occasions after highly provocative terrorist attacks.

India’s reaction to the Uri terrorist attack is a distinct departure from the strategic position it adopted in the past. India’s restrained positioning as a responsible power has been misunderstood by the Pakistani leadership as lack of its political will and military capability.

India’s stance on demanding diplomatic isolation for Pakistan did get support from many major powers, particularly the South Asian region. The countries in the South Asia region stood in support of India’s positioning and the scheduled SAARC summit (2016) to be held in Islamabad was cancelled due to boycott from all the member nations due to lack of a “conducive atmosphere”.

Pakistan certainly needs to opt for a change in its strategic options through its continued actions and not just statements and projection of victimhood. The recent string of terror attacks in Pakistan in February have led Pakistani leadership to adopt counter-terror measures and the military is very optimistic about Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad.

But whether the latest military operation targets terrorism as a whole or is “selective” remains to be seen.

Also read: Why Pakistan will always threaten India with a nuclear attack

Writer

Shalini Chawla Shalini Chawla

The writer is a senior fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi.

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