India and Pakistan were again on the verge of a military confrontation following revelation of Pakistan’s complicity in the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008. Pakistan reluctance to act against its perpetrators had forced India to plan punitive responses against terror camps, prompting Pakistan to project a capability to repulse an Indian attack. After weeks of underdone posturing, both realised the possibility of a stalemate and de-escalated the conflict. Such responses have been the template of the India-Pakistan dynamics, especially after the May 1998 nuclear tests. Of all characteristics, the most discernable element is what is perceived to be an asymmetric nuclear deterrence equation that seems skewed against India, restricting its pro-active responses. The paper reviewed a problematic element in the India-Pakistan strategic competition – the scope for low intensity conflict under nuclear conditions. It examined whether the execution of a protracted low-intensity conflict by Pakistan is a negation of the nuclear deterrence equation between the two countries, and the reasons why India has failed to suitably respond to this strategy.
The concept of Low Intensity Conflict has constantly evolved along with the transformations in the nature of warfare. When quantified by intensity and nature of conflict, all confrontations remaining below the level of high- or mid-level conventional war could be classified as low-intensity conflicts. Generally, LIC is a genre embracing many types of sub-conventional and asymmetric warfare including insurgency, counter-insurgency, and even terrorism and counter-terrorism
The chunk of debate on nuclear South Asia is centred on two issues: (a) has nuclear weapons caused instability, raising potential for escalation; (b) is it a stability-instability paradox, whereby Pakistan used the assumed stability at the nuclear level to create instability at the lower level. In this dialectical spectrum, both schools converge on the stability-instability paradox, which states that the stability created by nuclear weapons at the top would cause or facilitate instability at the sub or conventional levels.
Pakistan seeks to deter at all levels – nuclear, conventional, sub-conventional and does not want India to share the same equation. It fears Indian pre-emptive attack against nuke capability. In this regard it has two objectives (i) gain parity against India’s conventional superiority (b) existential deterrence against India’s nuclear capability. Pakistan fears the asymmetry with India in force levels and believes space for conventional war exists, which India would exploit. India could crush insurgency at limited conventional levels and threaten second strike if Pakistan contemplates nuclear response.
Linked with this thinking is the utility of nuclear weapons in achieving Pakistan’s strategic objectives in Kashmir. Pakistanis had always believed that its nuclear capability could neutralise the Indian conventional as well as nuclear forces while providing the umbrella to reopen the Kashmir issue. Through every opportunity of brinkmanship, Pakistan seeks to internationalise the Kashmir dispute, project it as a nuclear flashpoint and pressure India to initiate a dialogue. The Indo-Pakistan peace process could have in some ways validated this strategy. However, it had mixed results as India managed to repulse the insurgency through successful counter-insurgency, forcing Pakistan to push in foreign mercenaries to hype the theatre.
The paper concluded with the assertion that Pakistan is an irrational actor. It is a hub of terrorism and proliferation and a theological nuclear weapon state primarily controlled by military. It exploits global paranoia to its advantage. However it is equally apprehensive about being bombed back to Stone Age. It realizes that tactical first-strike is unfeasible and would invite massive Indian retaliation. As for India’s limited responses, despite repeated breaches, India never expanded theatre and instead used economic and military might. Also, it never allowed space to internationalise Kashmir. India has yielded political gains through responsible behaviour. The moot question is- Has this approach been fruitful - political timidity and reluctance to use military power? India believes in the scope for Limited War under Nuclear Conditions. Pakistan found space for LIC without hitting Indian threshold and Pakistan’s first-use posture restricted Indian response.
Finally, these options will materialise only if the Indian political leadership mandates the security establishment to execute such radical responses to the three-decade old proxy war, which has cost thousands of lives and destruction of national resources. There is need for political will and audacity to exploit the turbulence in Pakistan and signal to Pakistan the futility and failure of its LIC strategy. Pakistan should be reminded of the fact that its survival should not be at the cost of promoting subversion and instability in South Asia. This would also mean a change of mindsets in Indian security establishment and the willingness to transcend traditional security approaches to explore radical solutions to this perennial security challenge.
The important points raised during the discussion were
The session was chaired by Air Marshall (retd) Vinod Patney. The two external discussants were Brig Arun Sahgal and Maroof Raza.
Prepared by Priyanka Singh, Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.