Asia — Limited War and Escalation in South Asia

The sta­tus of India and Pak­istan as declared nuclear pow­ers with grow­ing nuclear arse­nals has raised the risks of a nuclear exchange between them, if the two coun­tries engage in a large mil­i­tary con­flict. The polit­i­cal lead­er­ship in both coun­tries does not seem to have ful­ly grasped the impli­ca­tions of nuclear weapons in rela­tion to the ongo­ing con­flict in Jam­mu and Kash­mir. This con­flict could lead to a lim­it­ed war, as it has trig­gered three wars in the past.

This arti­cle is pub­lished with the kind per­mis­sion of “Defence and Secu­ri­ty Alert (DSA) Mag­a­zine” New Delhi-India

Defence and Security Alert (DSA

A high­ly per­cep­tive arti­cle by a for­mer DGMO and well known Mil­i­tary ana­lyst on the theme of Lim­it­ed wars in South Asia. This arti­cle exam­ines the pos­si­bil­i­ty of lim­it­ed war between India and Pak­istan and the poten­tial of such a con­flict trig­ger­ing a nuclear war. It exam­ines the con­sid­er­a­tions that could push each of the two coun­tries to fight a lim­it­ed war. It dis­cuss­es how such a war might be waged and the cir­cum­stances that would like­ly pre­cip­i­tate an esca­la­tion to a nuclear exchange. The doc­tri­nal beliefs and deci­sion mak­ing process­es of the two coun­tries are exam­ined to trace the like­ly esca­la­to­ry spi­ral towards a nuclear war. The arti­cle con­cludes that the prob­a­bil­i­ty of a nuclear war between India and Pak­istan is high in the event the two coun­tries engage in a direct mil­i­tary conflict.

The risks involved in fight­ing a lim­it­ed war over the Kash­mir issue and the poten­tial for such a war to esca­late into a nuclear exchange are at best inad­e­quate­ly under­stood and at worst brushed aside as an unlike­ly pos­si­bil­i­ty. Despite this offi­cial stance, how­ev­er, a close exam­i­na­tion of Indi­an and Pak­istani mil­i­tary and nuclear doc­trine reveals ele­ments that could con­tribute to the rapid esca­la­tion of a lim­it­ed war to include nuclear weapons. Strik­ing­ly, India and Pak­istan have not revealed war-fight­ing doc­trines for the post-1998 con­di­tion of nuclear weapons readi­ness. It is not clear, for exam­ple, what threats to its secu­ri­ty would com­pel India to declare a state of war with Pak­istan. There is also no indi­ca­tion of the cir­cum­stances that would induce Pak­istan to seek a larg­er war with India. The polit­i­cal objec­tives that a lim­it­ed war might seek to achieve have also not been artic­u­lat­ed in offi­cial and pub­lic dis­course in the two countries.

This arti­cle exam­ines the pos­si­bil­i­ty of lim­it­ed war between India and Pak­istan and the poten­tial of such a con­flict trig­ger­ing a nuclear war. It exam­ines the con­sid­er­a­tions that could push each of the two coun­tries to fight a lim­it­ed war. It dis­cuss­es how such a war might be waged and the cir­cum­stances that would like­ly pre­cip­i­tate an esca­la­tion to a nuclear exchange. The doc­tri­nal beliefs and deci­sion mak­ing process­es of the two coun­tries are exam­ined to trace the like­ly esca­la­to­ry spi­ral towards a nuclear war. The arti­cle con­cludes that the prob­a­bil­i­ty of a nuclear war between India and Pak­istan is high in the event the two coun­tries engage in a direct mil­i­tary conflict. 

Nuclear dimen­sions to old conflicts

India and Pak­istan con­duct­ed nuclear tests in 1998 and sur­prised every­one by the argu­ments they respec­tive­ly advanced to jus­ti­fy the action. There was nev­er any doubt that both coun­tries had the capa­bil­i­ty to make nuclear weapons at short notice. It was already wide­ly known that both coun­tries pos­sessed untest­ed nuclear weapons. To jus­ti­fy its tests, India points to Chi­na as a nuclear neigh­bour with whom India fought a war in 1962. It is wide­ly acknowl­edged that Chi­na has also assist­ed Pak­istan with mis­sile and nuclear weapons tech­nol­o­gy. The Indi­an government’s response to Pakistan’s nuclear tests, how­ev­er, was indica­tive of a deep­er belief. There was hope in New Del­hi that with a declared nuclear weapons capa­bil­i­ty, Pak­istan would no longer be con­cerned with the strate­gic asym­me­try that had long pre­vailed in India’s favour. This line of analy­sis indi­cat­ed that a nuclear Pak­istan would find it pos­si­ble to build a sta­ble rela­tion­ship with India. Nuclear weapons were expect­ed to enhance sta­bil­i­ty by remov­ing Pak­istani anx­i­eties about supe­ri­or Indi­an con­ven­tion­al mil­i­tary capability.

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The Lahore ini­tia­tive, launched dur­ing a Feb­ru­ary 1999 vis­it to Pak­istan by Indi­an Prime Min­is­ter Atal Behari Vaj­pay­ee, was large­ly dri­ven by the belief that the two nuclear states could devel­op a new rela­tion­ship based on new con­fi­dence lev­els. The Lahore Dec­la­ra­tion issued at the con­clu­sion of that meet­ing by Vaj­pay­ee and his Pak­istani coun­ter­part Nawaz Sharif affirmed that belief. It recog­nised, “that the nuclear dimen­sion of the secu­ri­ty of the two coun­tries adds to their respon­si­bil­i­ty for avoid­ance of con­flict between the two coun­tries.” It pledged bilat­er­al con­sul­ta­tion on secu­ri­ty con­cepts and nuclear doc­trines with a view to devel­op con­fi­dence build­ing mea­sures in nuclear and con­ven­tion­al fields aimed at avoid­ance of con­flict. The short but intense con­flict in Kargil effec­tive­ly destroyed the prospects of sta­bil­i­ty that the dec­la­ra­tion had offered. More than that, Indi­an con­fi­dence in Pakistan’s abil­i­ty to abide by mutu­al­ly agreed accords was bad­ly dent­ed. New Del­hi also realised that there was no con­sen­sus with­in Pak­istan on nor­mal­is­ing rela­tions with India, since the mil­i­tary and the prime min­is­ter had tak­en con­tra­dic­to­ry actions after the Lahore meeting.

The mil­i­tary con­flict in Kargil com­menced fol­low­ing Pak­istani intru­sions into Indi­an ter­ri­to­ry. Pak­istan Army and armed irreg­u­lar forces occu­pied areas across the Line of Con­trol (LC) in Jam­mu and Kash­mir stretch­ing over 100 km. This infil­tra­tion was car­ried out covert­ly dur­ing the win­ter of 1998–1999. Prepa­ra­tions in Pak­istan for these mil­i­tary intru­sions would there­fore have com­menced imme­di­ate­ly after the nuclear tests of May 1998.

The con­clu­sions drawn in New Del­hi from the Kargil expe­ri­ence are sig­nif­i­cant. Instead of seek­ing a sta­ble rela­tion­ship on the basis of nuclear weapons capa­bil­i­ties, Pak­istan used nuclear deter­rence to sup­port aggres­sion. Kargil indi­cat­ed that armed with nuclear weapons, Pak­istan had increased con­fi­dence that it could raise the con­flict thresh­olds with India. It demon­strat­ed a will­ing­ness to take greater risks in con­flict esca­la­tion. Instead of seek­ing nuclear sta­bil­i­ty, Indi­an ana­lysts con­clud­ed, Pak­istan demon­strat­ed a greater propen­si­ty to sus­tain insta­bil­i­ty, by seek­ing a mil­i­tary conflict 

The con­clu­sions drawn in New Del­hi from the Kargil expe­ri­ence are sig­nif­i­cant. Instead of seek­ing a sta­ble rela­tion­ship on the basis of nuclear weapons capa­bil­i­ties, Pak­istan used nuclear deter­rence to sup­port aggres­sion. Kargil indi­cat­ed that armed with nuclear weapons, Pak­istan had increased con­fi­dence that it could raise the con­flict thresh­olds with India. It demon­strat­ed a will­ing­ness to take greater risks in con­flict esca­la­tion. Instead of seek­ing nuclear sta­bil­i­ty, Indi­an ana­lysts con­clud­ed, Pak­istan demon­strat­ed a greater propen­si­ty to sus­tain insta­bil­i­ty, by seek­ing a mil­i­tary con­flict. In short, the neu­tral­i­sa­tion of mil­i­tary asym­me­try by nuclear weapons had made Pak­istan seek high­er lev­els of con­flict in Jam­mu and Kash­mir. The sta­bil­i­ty-insta­bil­i­ty para­dox gen­er­at­ed by nuclear weapons had come into play. The end of the mil­i­tary con­flict in Kargil caused polit­i­cal tur­moil in Pak­istan. Dis­sen­sion sur­faced in Pak­istan regard­ing who should be held respon­si­ble for the mil­i­tary embar­rass­ment of Kargil. The mil­i­tary lead­er­ship in Pak­istan felt that they were denied a vic­to­ry, as Prime Min­is­ter Sharif agreed to a with­draw­al of Pak­istani forces in his July 4, 1999, meet­ing with US Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton in Wash­ing­ton. This led to the mil­i­tary coup in Pakistan.

In response to Pak­istan rais­ing the lev­el of vio­lence and aban­don­ment by the Pak­istani mil­i­tary lead­er­ship of the Lahore Dec­la­ra­tion, the Indi­an gov­ern­ment declared in Jan­u­ary 2000 that it did not rule out a war with Pak­istan. In state­ments made almost simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, Indi­an Defence Min­is­ter George Fer­nan­des and Indi­an Chief of Army Staff Gen­er­al V P Malik declared that India would not hes­i­tate to fight a lim­it­ed war with Pak­istan, regard­less of its nuclear weapons capability

Gen­er­al Per­vez Mushar­raf — dur­ing the spring of 1999, just months after the Lahore Dec­la­ra­tion — who would lead the coup, said the Lahore Dec­la­ra­tion did not serve Pakistan’s inter­ests, as the Indi­an Prime Min­is­ter nev­er want­ed to dis­cuss Kash­mir. The instal­la­tion of the mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment in Pak­istan has been fol­lowed by a sub­stan­tial rise in vio­lence and killings in Jam­mu and Kash­mir by Pak­istan-based armed mil­i­tants. There was also Decem­ber 1999 hijack­ing of an Indi­an air­lin­er, in return for whose safe return India was forced to release indi­vid­u­als impris­oned for ter­ror­ist actions in Jam­mu and Kash­mir. After being released these indi­vid­u­als returned to Pak­istan and rejoined the armed con­flict. These devel­op­ments fur­ther rein­forced the con­clu­sion in New Del­hi that Pak­istan was delib­er­ate­ly rais­ing the lev­el of con­flict in Jam­mu and Kash­mir, assum­ing that nuclear weapons would effec­tive­ly deny India the option of a mil­i­tary response.

In response to Pak­istan rais­ing the lev­el of vio­lence and aban­don­ment by the Pak­istani mil­i­tary lead­er­ship of the Lahore Dec­la­ra­tion, the Indi­an gov­ern­ment declared in Jan­u­ary 2000 that it did not rule out a war with Pak­istan. In state­ments made almost simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, Indi­an Defence Min­is­ter George Fer­nan­des and Indi­an Chief of Army Staff Gen­er­al V P Malik declared that India would not hes­i­tate to fight a lim­it­ed war with Pak­istan, regard­less of its nuclear weapons capability.

Over­all, nuclear weapons have had an adverse impact on the con­tin­u­ing con­flict between India and Pak­istan. The thresh­old of con­flict has gone up in Jam­mu and Kash­mir. Pak­istan-based mil­i­tant groups have expand­ed their oper­a­tions into oth­er parts of India. Bomb blasts and killings have occurred as far as in Tamil Nadu, in south­ern India. Even New Del­hi has expe­ri­enced such blasts on occa­sion. Threats have also been made of armed action against the Indi­an polit­i­cal lead­er­ship. Kargil, increased vio­lence, attempts to derail the peace process and con­tin­ued Pak­istani sup­port for mil­i­tant groups in Jam­mu and Kash­mir had cre­at­ed an explo­sive sit­u­a­tion. These devel­op­ments prompt­ed calls in India for action against Pak­istan. Some cir­cles in India now argue that Pakistan’s prob­lems of gov­er­nance, its eco­nom­ic decline and internecine con­flicts in its soci­ety have made it vul­ner­a­ble. Those who take this view believe that hopes for a sta­ble, unit­ed Pak­istan that seeks a peace­ful rela­tion­ship with India are unlike­ly to be met in the near future. As one com­men­ta­tor declared in late 2000: It is now con­ceiv­able that India could take the con­flict into Pak­istani ter­ri­to­ry, first covert­ly and then overt­ly, with the explic­it goal of has­ten­ing the process of Pakistan’s disintegration.

The com­bi­na­tion of esca­lat­ing con­flict in Jam­mu and Kash­mir, the belief in Pak­istan that nuclear weapons have con­strained Indi­an response options and the belief in India that a lim­it­ed war against Pak­istan can be fought and won despite the pres­ence of nuclear weapons, is, to say the least, a poten­tial­ly dan­ger­ous condition.

Nuclear real­i­ty

The Indi­an belief in lim­it­ed war is coun­ter­bal­anced by Pak­istani belief that the low inten­si­ty war being con­duct­ed in Jam­mu and Kash­mir is cush­ioned against the risk of a larg­er mil­i­tary response by Pakistan’s nuclear deter­rent. The link­age between nuclear risk reduc­tion and the Kash­mir issue is a recur­ring theme in Pak­istani pol­i­cy state­ments. The sug­ges­tion that nuclear risks would be left unat­tend­ed until the Kash­mir issue is resolved is clear­ly an attempt at lever­ag­ing nuclear weapons to com­pel a settlement.

In response to inter­na­tion­al pres­sures, India and Pak­istan have both com­mit­ted them­selves to a series of actions aimed at main­tain­ing nuclear dis­ci­pline. They have declared a mora­to­ri­um on fur­ther nuclear tests; com­mit­ted them­selves to not deploy­ing nuclear weapons; pledged not to trans­fer nuclear tech­nol­o­gy to third coun­tries; expressed sup­port for nego­ti­at­ing a regime to restrict the pro­duc­tion of fis­sile mate­r­i­al for nuclear weapons; and stat­ed they plan on con­tin­u­ing a dia­logue to resolve bilat­er­al issues. Pak­istan has urged the estab­lish­ment of a strate­gic restraint regime with India. For its part, India has point­ed to its no first use com­mit­ment and its desire to lim­it its nuclear capa­bil­i­ty to a min­i­mum and cred­i­ble deter­rent. These com­mit­ments, how­ev­er, do not in any way hin­der either side from car­ry­ing the ongo­ing Kash­mir con­flict into the other’s ter­ri­to­ry. The dan­ger is also not reduced by Pak­istan blur­ring the dis­tinc­tion between con­ven­tion­al mil­i­tary con­flict and sub-con­ven­tion­al con­flicts through the use of irreg­u­lar forces. 

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It was report­ed last year that Pakistan’s nuclear arse­nal is vast­ly supe­ri­or to India’s in quan­ti­ta­tive and qual­i­ta­tive terms. This report pro­duced a response in India that Indi­an deter­rent capa­bil­i­ties need to be pro­ject­ed more effec­tive­ly. Anoth­er report, from the Jane’s defence analy­sis firm, con­firmed this point in more spe­cif­ic terms. It high­light­ed the main dif­fer­ence in the per­spec­tives placed on nuclear weapons in the two coun­tries. Accord­ing to this report, while India does not view nuclear weapons as pos­sess­ing mil­i­tary util­i­ty, Pakistan’s nuclear capa­bil­i­ties have been more ful­ly incor­po­rat­ed into its mil­i­tary strat­e­gy. Pak­istan believes its nuclear weapons give it the option of strong­ly sup­port­ing insur­gency in Kash­mir. Doubts and mis­trust com­bined with dis­in­for­ma­tion will force both coun­tries to seek a deter­rence advan­tage. The sta­bil­i­ty of deter­rence between the two coun­tries runs the risk of being affect­ed by the uncer­tain­ty pro­duced by clash­ing views about who is “ahead.”

Nuclear real­i­ty between India and Pak­istan is there­fore of an uncer­tain qual­i­ty. It is nei­ther based on deter­rence sta­bil­i­ty, nor on a desire to seek it. Pak­istan appears to seek con­tin­ued deter­rence insta­bil­i­ty as a means of pres­sure aimed at achiev­ing its desired polit­i­cal out­come in Kash­mir. This uncer­tain­ty sheds light on the debate between nuclear opti­mists and nuclear pes­simists. The opti­mists believe that the spread of nuclear weapons will reduce and may even elim­i­nate the risk of future war between India and Pak­istan. Nuclear pes­simists are con­vinced that nuclear weapons will lead to crises, acci­dents and even nuclear war between India and Pak­istan. Despite repeat­ed asser­tions by polit­i­cal lead­ers in the two coun­tries about the improb­a­bil­i­ty of war, the real­i­ty of nuclear weapons in India and Pak­istan is one of con­sid­er­able instability.

Team GlobDef

Team GlobDef

Seit 2001 ist GlobalDefence.net im Internet unterwegs, um mit eigenen Analysen, interessanten Kooperationen und umfassenden Informationen für einen spannenden Überblick der Weltlage zu sorgen. GlobalDefenc.net war dabei die erste deutschsprachige Internetseite, die mit dem Schwerpunkt Sicherheitspolitik außerhalb von Hochschulen oder Instituten aufgetreten ist.

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