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The High-Grade Option On A Low-Grade War

The High-Grade Option On A Low-Grade War

Author: Brigadier Arun Sahgal
Publication: Tehelka
Date: August 12, 2006
URL: http://www.tehelka.com/story_main18.asp?filename=Ne081206essayp18.asp

Introduction: India needs to call Pakistan's bluff on the nuclear card if it is to stop being seen as taking the soft option against cross-border terror

Although India's decision-making apparatus will not admit this, it is quite evident that New Delhi's threshold of tolerance for the proxy war waged by Pakistan remains a bottomless pit. The July 11 multiple bombings in Mumbai were the latest in a series of terrorist attacks aimed at provoking communal riots and demoralising the Indian State and its overall security apparatus.

Last year, bomb attacks were carried out on Diwali crowds in a South Delhi market for maximum impact and were, in turn, a sequel to bomb blasts in Varanasi and Nagpur. All these terrorist attacks have been linked directly or indirectly to Pakistan- sponsored terrorist groups. They have occurred despite General Pervez Musharraf's January 2004 promise that Pakistani territory would not be used for terrorist training or for perpetrating such acts. These empty promises are part of many similar assurances made previously - during Operation Parakram in January 2002, again in June 2002 and once more in April 2003.

Traditionally, India is wont to exercise only soft options. With regard to the Mumbai blasts, New Delhi has merely 'condemned' the incident. To show its annoyance, it has feebly and half-heartedly stalled the peace process, but has vowed in the same breath to continue with it shortly. The foreign secretaries of the two countries are to talk on the sidelines of the saarc Council of Ministers meeting in Dhaka in early August, and fresh dates for a formal secretary-level meeting to assess the peace process are expected to emerge from this interaction.

Pakistan's continuous harping on the provision of evidence, while not likely to cut much ice with India, is in reality aimed at the United States and the shaping of international perceptions. Musharraf is increasingly emboldened to pursue his deeply entrenched, destabilising and aggressive policies against India by the US need for Pakistani support in the global war against Al Qaeda, the Taliban and overall Islamic fundamentalism.

Even though it is well recognised that Musharraf is playing a double game with the US in its operations against the Taliban, Washington continues to praise the Pakistani president officially and provide him financial and military aid. It is indeed hilarious to see American interlocutors involved in long explanations elaborating Pakistan's importance. Conferring the exalted status of a major non-nato ally on Islamabad is part of this unqualified and seemingly unquestioning support. This, in turn, further enables Pakistan to be intransigent in the ongoing Indo-Pak composite dialogue, and also encourages it to pursue its low-intensity conflict policy to gain negotiating leverages.

Musharraf is in a hurry to show results at home because disproportionate resources have been invested in Pakistan's military machine for too long with little visible result, either in the shape of a favourable solution of the Kashmir issue or in an improvement in the lot of the Pakistani people. Furthermore, elections in Pakistan are due within the next year and General Musharraf is using all and any means to remain in power and in uniform - both as president and as army chief.


It needs to be underscored that whether or not a civilian government comes to power in Pakistan, the country's military establishment will continue to dominate its political process. It is in this context that proxy war will remain the cornerstone of Pakistani military strategy. A weak and fractious India suits the Pakistani elite's long-term objectives of preventing India's emergence as a regional hegemon.

Last October, India had come close to making concessions to Pakistan over the Siachen dispute, but mercifully held back under pressure from the Army and, in part, from the strategic community. Such unilateral concessions would have reinforced the Pakistani belief that pressure tactics, in the form of state-sponsored terrorism, pay. It needs to be recalled that India is still paying for its capitulation over the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC-814, which led to the release of Maulana Masood Azhar - the ideologue who went on to form the Jaish-e-Mohammed, one of the two insurgent groups responsible for the attack on Parliament in December 2001.

It should be clear from the above that giving concessions to Pakistan - conceding, for instance, to its proposals on Kashmir for self-governance, demilitarisation and joint administration, without a comprehensive overall settlement - would be self-defeating. While these proposals appear attractive at a cursory glance, they lack the substantive historical, political and diplomatic insight necessary to resolve the Kashmir problem. These proposals are aimed at winning the turbulent media war and showcasing the Pakistani establishment as being reasonable and flexible.

Given this background, the question arises: does India have any credible options to deter Pakistan from its policy of cross-border terrorism?

There is a growing realisation in India's politico-military circles that Pakistan's proclivity to operate at the extreme ends of the conflict spectrum-i.e. to use both sub-conventional warfare as well as the threat of nuclear war - has enabled it to escape a well-deserved punishment for its proxy war and destabilising activities.

There is little doubt that the Indian State will have to deal with the situation decisively, sooner or later. And the sooner the better as it would save the innocent lives that are likely to be extinguished in the near future due to Pakistan's committed policy of offensive, low-intensity conflict.

Pakistan's military establishment has come to believe that its nuclear deterrent offers it a shield from behind which it can continue its proxy war with impunity and escape any retaliatory or punitive response from India's superior conventional forces. In Islamabad's perception, India has backed down ever since Operation Brass Tacks in 1987 because of Pakistan's nuclear deterrent capability. This was demonstrated during the Kargil war when, despite pressing military imperatives, India chose not to cross either the international border or the 747 km-long Line of Control (LoC). The same situation obtained during Operation Parakram, the year-long Indo-Pak stand-off of 2002.

As a consequence, Pakistan has escalated the proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir ever since the 1990s, secure in the knowledge that India is unlikely to respond militarily. From the time that the peace process began in November 2003, along with the cessation of hostilities along the LoC, Pakistan has been calculatedly calibrating jehadi terrorism against India, depending upon its own imperatives. Pakistan does, however, anticipate incremental politico-military coercion and a graduated application of military power by India in future conflict scenarios. The initiation of hostilities is perceived to be Kashmir-centric, graduating to deeper operations in the northern areas, the declaration of exclusion zones by the Indian Navy, together with Indian Air Force strikes in an escalation that will lead to synchronised, conventional war.

Pakistan's strategic concepts are aimed at denying India military dominance by avoiding war through credible conventional deterrence and, if war is imposed, through terminating it at a position of relative advantage. Its strategy is based on the triad of deterrence, dissuasion and offensive low intensity conflict (LIC).

Within this context, the dominant strategy for Pakistan's military operations is likely to be that of offensive-defence, i.e. tactically offensive and strategically defensive.

Pakistan's strike capability is built around its strategic reserves (army reserves North and South). With these alongside, offensive lic is looked upon as a vital strand of its overall military strategy, aimed at exploiting both the so-called 'freedom movement in Kashmir', as well as ethnic dissensions and fissiparous tendencies across the rest of India. That it is already exploiting these faultlines is evident with investigations into the Mumbai blasts revealing that disaffected locals were utilised as couriers and providers of safe houses in the preparation for the attack.

The overall Pakistani military strategy against India can be summed up as follows:

o Wage offensive lic or 'proxy war' in J&K, together with support to insurgencies in other parts of the country to destabilise India. An additional aim is to negate India's conventional edge by tying down its forces in counter-insurgency tasks. This appears to be having a debilitating effect on the Indian Army, with increased incidences of psychological problems as well as chronic ailments like hypertension and blood pressure.

o Prevent escalation through a strategy of deterrence by denial by attempting to confine hostilities to J&K, while adopting a strategic balanced posture in other sectors. However, based on its strategic reserves, which stand greatly enhanced through incremental modernisation, Pakistan retains the option of either a limited offensive in Kashmir or a strategic offensive across the international border in a theatre of its choice. This option, however, has been to some extent neutralised, owing to Pakistan's need to deploy nearly 80,000 troops in counter-insurgency operations in Baluchistan and NWFP.

o The "nuclear card" is seen as a conflict avoidance or war termination strategy by Pakistan's military elite. Significantly, Pakistan has not doctrinally ruled out nuclear war as a response to its conventional-force asymmetry with India or in situations of Indian conventional response leading to saturation levels. Threshold ambiguity remains an important precept of Pakistan's nuclear doctrine.

o The Pakistani Air Force strategy is also essentially defensive in nature. Its predominant task is air defence. However, it can be expected to attempt achieving favourable air superiority over the tactical battle area through defensive and limited offensive operations. Limited counter-operations relative to its possible offensive options can also be expected. Its attempts to seek modern hi-tech fighters, like the F-16s from the US, are aimed at enhancing its offensive capability.

o Pakistan's navy is following a programme of modernisation and self-reliance to enhance its monitoring and interdiction capabilities. The development of the Gwadar port with Chinese assistance provides it with important naval facilities at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. In a conflict scenario, the Pakistani Navy is unlikely to seek engagement on a force-on-force basis. Its primary focus will be to keep the sea-lanes of communication open and to defend important maritime assets, including vital oil installations in Karachi harbour. Striking the Indian aircraft carrier, however, will remain one of its major objectives.

o Pakistan's nuclear policy is centred on maintaining credible first-strike capability as a deterrence, backed by assured second-strike capability. As per its doctrinal position, the use of nuclear weapons is contemplated in scenarios which threaten its existence, sovereignty and/or national integrity. Hence 'cultivated irrationality', to convince an adversary of irrational and/or unpredictable behaviour, forms an integral part of its nuclear doctrinal thinking - in other words, a deadly form of nuclear poker.

o Lastly, Pakistan's collusive relationship with China is factored as an important adjunct of its overall military strategy.

Considering this backdrop, have we to accept that there are no credible means to deter Pakistan from its support to terrorism? Are we willy-nilly being forced to accede to the Pakistani gameplan of obtaining concessions on Kashmir which it has not been able to obtain through four wars? Is there a compulsive need to demonstrate progress on the peace process as part of India's image internationally as a rising power?


Unless India can raise the cost for Musharraf and can disabuse Pakistan of the perception that its nuclear deterrence paralyses Indian conventional forces, terrorism will continue. We must recognise that there is a strategic space below the nuclear threshold which India can exploit through its superior conventional power. There is little need to remain defensive about Pakistan's low nuclear threshold. Simulation exercises indicate that, despite Pakistani rhetoric, cold pragmatism will prevail in all strategic calculations.

Nuclear deterrence dialectics is a mind game and all players involved are expected to be rational because of the unacceptable level of destruction likely to be caused. The gameplan of players like Pakistan is to use the irrationality card to gain maximum leverage for their limited nuclear deterrent by resorting to nuclear blackmail at the slightest provocation. In any conflagration that involves nuclear weapons, it is a widely accepted axiom that Pakistan stands to lose much more than India.

Notwithstanding this, we need to recognise that the mindset of the Pakistani elite is likely to remain unaltered unless some shock treatment is meted out on post-9/11 lines, when Islamabad was forced to modify its policies towards Afghanistan and the Taliban.

If India's strategic objective is to deter Pakistan from supporting cross-border terrorism and to counter its coercive tactics, then India will have to gain meaningful punitive strike capability in terms of effect-based strikes and the exercise of escalation control. This can be supplemented by extending moral, diplomatic, political and even covert support to fissiparous ethnic and other sectarian movements raging in Pakistan, mirroring its hostile activities in India.

What would be Pakistan's response to India's punitive strikes against its terror infrastructure? In all probability, it would be a major shock because such action is not expected from pacifist New Delhi. In all probability, stung by such an action, Pakistan would respond through air strikes and ground attacks. It is here that superior Indian integrated military capability will act as a restraint, as long as India can exercise escalation control.

If Pakistan undertakes any major military adventure, even if it were to defy conventional logic and go all out with its air and ground forces, it will meet its nemesis. Its possible riposte could be to indulge in nuclear posturing and brinkmanship. A media blitzkrieg will be used to paint the situation as a nuclear flashpoint in which the international community must intervene and intercede. But is there a likelihood of the situation crossing the nuclear threshold? Not really.

Somehow, Pakistani strategists live in the mistaken belief that the possession of nuclear weapons denies India escalation control; and that this paradigm has been able to deter conventional conflict with India. However, Pakistan's 'first use' and India's 'no first use' nuclear policies need not be taken at face value. The decision to use nuclear weapons is not an easy one to make, however irrational one might posture as being. This is particularly so in the face of an assured, retaliatory response, which would be immediate, debilitating and disastrous. No political dispensation would justify risking such destruction.

Brigadier Sahgal heads the Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulation at the USI in Delhi


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