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.