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Business News/ Opinion / The making of a strategic stalemate in South Asia

The making of a strategic stalemate in South Asia

Pakistan hasn't been able to fulfil its grand strategy objectives with the help of its nuclear weapons. And India hasn't found an adequate answer to Pakistan's skilful use of sub-conventional assets

Atal Bihari Vajpayee (centre) in Pokhran after the nuclear tests in 1998. Photo: HTPremium
Atal Bihari Vajpayee (centre) in Pokhran after the nuclear tests in 1998. Photo: HT

This month, 20 years ago, India and Pakistan became overt nuclear weapons states. This is a good moment to look at how the strategic balance has evolved between the two countries in the last two decades.

Grand strategy and nuclear weapons

In order to understand the role of nuclear weapons in South Asian grand strategies, one has to go back to the 1965 war. Pakistan’s Operation Gibraltar aimed to wrest back the control of Kashmir from India. The strategy didn’t work. India responded by opening another front in Punjab and Lahore was soon in the Indian Army’s sights. Nuclear weapons were supposed to solve this puzzle for Pakistan. The idea was that Pakistan would use a surprise conventional attack to grab Kashmir and nuclear weapons would make it difficult for India to re-gain its territory or open another front.

On the other hand, India’s nuclear weapons development was not bound to any coherent grand strategy. Therefore, many scholars believe that India developed nuclear weapons more for prestige than for addressing a specific security issue. But this article is not meant to go into this debate.

Immediately after the 1998 tests, Pakistan tested a limited variant of the “Gibraltar playbook"—a phrase used by Vipin Narang and Ankit Panda—in Kargil in 1999. Once again, Pakistan failed to change the status quo. And hence, the nuclear weapons couldn’t be used, as intended, to preserve the change in territorial realities.

Sub-conventional warfare and full-spectrum deterrence

Once the Kargil adventure misfired, Pakistan settled on using sub-conventional warfare against India. It has allowed, and at several times encouraged, terrorist groups on its soil to conduct attacks against Indian people and security forces. India has found it difficult to respond to these attacks because of the looming threat of Pakistani nuclear weapons. Pakistan has conveniently adopted a low and ambiguous threshold for first nuclear use.

After one such attack on the Parliament, India decided to use coercive diplomacy by placing its troops along the line of control (LoC) and the international border. The Indian demands—most notably, extradition of 20 terrorists located in Pakistan—were mostly not met. India also realized that the painstaking process of troop mobilization was too slow and did not have any surprise element. Thus was borne a doctrine of Cold Start—which never received official sanction—in which 8-10 integrated battlegroups will launch a surprise attack and pierce through Pakistan’s defences, seizing territory and calling off war before reaching the threshold of nuclear use.

Pakistan made the unofficial Cold Start doctrine an excuse to move from a policy of credible minimum deterrence to full-spectrum deterrence. The shift involved the development of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) which could be used against the thrust of Indian forces in Pakistani territory. The TNWs lowered the threshold for nuclear use and have almost taken the wind out of the sails of Indian strategic doctrine, which professes “massive" retaliation against first use of nuclear weapons. If the TNWs are indeed used, India’s stated doctrine would call for a “massive" retaliation—most commonly interpreted in countervalue terms. Even if India responds by targeting Pakistani nuclear infrastructure, unless it eliminates all of Pakistani strategic nuclear weapons, it cannot guarantee its own safety. Of course, India lacks the capability to eliminate all of Pakistan’s long-range weapons in a counterforce strike.

The next major milestone was India’s surgical strikes conducted across the LoC in response to a terrorist attack on an Indian Army unit in Uri in September 2016. The surgical strikes were definitely below the Pakistan’s threshold of TNW use. While it was a low-cost response to terrorist attacks emanating from Pakistan, it succeeded in denting Rawalpindi’s bluster on “full-spectrum deterrence".

Over to the seas

India’s strategic doctrine pledges no first use of nuclear weapons. Therefore, its quest for survivable, sea-based nuclear weapons is understandable. In INS Arihant, India does possess a sea-based deterrent. But Pakistan’s recent induction of Babur-3, a nuclear-capable submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM), is a bit perplexing. Why would a country with a first-use posture opt for a second strike capability? Doesn’t the acquisition of the latter dilute the credibility of the former?

The first-use posture is much more important for Pakistan to prevent India from widening the conventional “window" for war. In a recent paper, Abhijnan Rej of the Observer Research Foundation resolves this dilemma by arguing that Pakistan is actually making its first use of TNWs more credible by inducting Babur-3. SLCM will, the logic goes, deter India from responding to first use of Pakistani TNWs by a comprehensive counterforce strike. In this way it may end up incentivizing Pakistan’s use of TNWs.

There can obviously be simpler reasons for Pakistan to pursue higher numbers and different types of nuclear weapons: a) quest for more resources for the military from the domestic budget, and b) an intention to take maximum advantage of the period during which it has blocked negotiations over the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty.

Making of a stalemate

Pakistan hasn’t been able to fulfil its grand strategy objectives with the help of its nuclear weapons. And India hasn’t found an adequate answer to Pakistan’s skilful use of sub-conventional assets. This has resulted in a stalemate which seems likely to last for the foreseeable future. But it is important to remember that 1998 tests did not create this stalemate. The more important year was perhaps 1971 when Pakistan suffered a humiliating defeat against India, following which Zulfikar Ali Bhutto rose to power and vowed to turn Pakistan into a nuclear weapons state.

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Published: 22 May 2018, 01:26 AM IST
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