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.