by Varun Vira
India-Pakistan border as seen from space (NASA)
Within the next decade, there is a high probability of a high-profile terrorist attack against India traced back to Pakistan. The attack is likely to rapidly escalate tensions between the two countries to the brink of war.
- India and Pakistan maintain the world’s most militarized border and are the only two countries to have ever fought a hot war while fielding nuclear weapons against each other
A fifth Indo-Pakistani War would take place in almost entirely unfamiliar settings
- Frustration in India at the seeming impunity with which Pakistani-backed terrorists are able to strike has led to a watershed in Indian strategic thinking and growing favor for retaliatory cross-border strikes, despite the risk of nuclear escalation.
- Pakistani instability is at an all-time high and its relationship with the US at an all-time low. This instability is likely to render Pakistan even more unpredictable in crisis situations than normal, while limiting the US leverage to help de-escalate the situation.
The US has core interests in preventing war on the subcontinent, and will be central to de-escalation efforts in this period of crisis
- US interests in South Asia are at an all-time high. Short-term imperatives include keeping Pakistan focused on confronting al-Qaeda and Taliban militants and allowing the US to disengage from Afghanistan, while US grand strategy is trending towards a wide-ranging strategic partnership with India, to expand trade and to hedge China
- Since nuclearization in each crisis India and Pakistan have depended on outsiders – and only really the US has the leverage – to provide communication channels and a restraining influence to keep tensions from escalating out of control.
Three scenarios detailed here indicate the possible outcomes
- Scenario One: India chooses to exercise restraint and does not respond militarily. Tensions rise, but after a period of time intensive diplomatic pressure prevails and eventually the two countries stand down their forces.
- Scenario Two: Indian forces mount a “limited” retaliation, most likely surgical air strikes against militant training camps inside Pakistan. The conflict escalates, but does not exceed a local border war and does not approach the nuclear threshold
- Scenario Three: Indian retaliation or escalation threatens Pakistan’s territorial integrity and utilizes its large offensive formations. Nuclear weapons would go on ready alert and the potential for escalation to nuclear war would become a real possibility.
The conflict between India and Pakistan centered on the disputed region of Kashmir is arguably the most dangerous in the world. The two countries maintain the most militarized border in the world, and in their 60 years of independence, have fought three conventional wars in 1947, in 1965 and in 1971. India has advantage in size, wealth and power, but since Pakistan’s nuclear test in 1998, both now have formidable arsenals of nuclear weapons that can pose an existential threat to the other. Yet, neither is shy of conflict; only a year after Pakistan’s nuclearization, it took advantage of the changed strategic equation to launch an undeclared “mini-war” in Indian-held Kashmir (IHK), the world’s first hot war fought under the threat of escalation to nuclear war. Beyond these conventional large-scale conflicts, Pakistan has long sought it to offset its conventional disadvantage by employing a host of militant and terrorist groups to wage war against India by proxy. The result has been two decades of insurgency in IHK for tens of thousands of deaths and regular high-profile terrorist attacks against Indian civilian and strategic centers, many of which India traces back to Pakistani military intelligence.
In 2012, the strategic relationship between India and Pakistan is in uncharted waters. Pakistan is sliding towards extreme instability, and is distracted by the spillover of violence from the Afghan War on its western border, and the resultant expanding Taliban and Baloch insurgencies. Meanwhile, Indian grand strategy no longer prioritizes competition with Pakistan, and is instead focused on economic growth and global competition against China and other major powers. These changed fundamentals have helped facilitate a decade of unprecedented calm since 2003, when the conflict’s largest and most comprehensive peace talks began. A durable ceasefire has held; border clashes and artillery fire have almost entirely stopped, infiltrations across the LoC slowed and violence in Indian-held Kashmir dramatically dropped off by a magnitude of almost ten; 488 incidents were recorded in 2010 with 348 combatant and civilian casualties down from 4522 attacks in 2001 with 3,540 casualties. Moreover, since 2008 as Pakistan’s internal situation has worsened, as much as 35 percent of the Pakistani Army has been redeployed away from the LoC along the Afghan border, while the declining violence has led India to discuss scaling back its force deployment in Kashmir by as much as 25 percent. As a result, the current military balance may be the lowest in history, and set to decline even further.
Tempting, as it is to see these changes as permanent, the potential for very rapid escalation, perhaps into outright war remains high. Fundamentally, Pakistan remains obsessed with the Indian threat; the dogma of religious opposition to Hindu India is deeply ingrained in Pakistani society, but the more cynical also see hostility as a calculated means by which the Pakistani Army justifies its preeminent position in Pakistani society. The Army has ruled Pakistan directly for over half its history, and hostility with India is a tool by which it can maintain total control over Pakistan’s defense and security policy, allocate itself over a quarter of Pakistan’s entire budget annually, and quickly mobilize public opinion to deflect criticism. Despite Indian attempts, all US pressure and its own rising instability, Pakistani Army COAS Ashfaq Kayani has reiterated that his military remains “India-centric,” and judges only Indian capacity, and not its intent. As a result, Pakistan continues to prioritize the Indian threat above all others, including Taliban and al-Qaeda militants, and allocates its resources accordingly – for example, the world’s most rapidly expanding nuclear arsenal. Neither, however, is India blameless. As much as India has sought to diversify towards China in recent years, the bulk of its military – three out of its six operational commands – remain devoted to Pakistan, notably including the bulk of its offensive power through the powerful II Corps, and the X, IX and XI Corps, a matter which raises justifiable concern in Rawalpindi.
Historically over the past two decades, terrorism and militancy have been the primary sources of escalation. The 1999 Kargil War began when thousands of militants and Pakistani soldiers out of uniform infiltrated across the LoC and occupied several strategic mountain peaks. In 2001, after Pakistani terrorists attacked the Indian Parliament building in New Delhi the two countries mobilized and almost went to war, while after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, it is believed US diplomatic intervention was the primary restraining influence preventing Indian retaliation and broader war. These three attacks are only some in a much-longer list that in past years averaged at least one major terrorist attack a year. While this has slowed, India remains a ‘soft target’ and the probability of future attacks is near inevitable. The size of India’s population and the sheer chaos of its urban centers makes adequate policing and counter-terrorism coverage difficult in perfect circumstances, and virtually impossible when factoring in the systemic dysfunction in India’s police and internal security forces. Moreover, despite all the changes in the regional strategic architecture, Pakistani militant groups remain highly motivated and able to strike Indian targets, both as agents of the Pakistani military and as independent agents seeking to disrupt peace efforts, distract from internal crackdowns or advance their fundamentalist objectives.
Any expansion of conflict heightens regional instability and promotes discord between two countries individually important to the US strategic interest. US interests in South Asia include forging a strategic and economic partnership with India for the 21st century, and on the nearer-term task of keeping Pakistan focused on the task of confronting Taliban and al-Qaeda forces, especially as the US seeks to disengage from Afghanistan. The US is sympathetic to Indian counter-terrorism efforts as many ex-Kashmiri jihadis are now inseparable from those targeting Americans in the global jihad or ISAF forces in the Afghan jihad, yet many militant groups still see Kashmir as the “holiest jihad,” a dangerous post-Afghan risk factor. In net terms, the US is deeply involved in the Indo-Pakistani conflict, and looked on to play a restraining influence during crises. In some scenarios, US diplomacy is likely to be the thin line between war and peace, but the space for and success of US diplomacy will likely depend on the modalities of a terrorist attack – the choice of target, the death toll, and the linkages of the terrorists with the Pakistani state – all will determine whether India observes the status quo, or escalates hostilities to larger-scale conflict.
SCENARIO 1: STRATEGIC RESTRAINT
Indian forces choose to exercise “strategic restraint,” but this does not preclude all hostilities. Tensions rise substantially. Heightened alert statuses are initiated, forces began to mobilize, troops may move to their staging areas. Small-scale localized border clashes may begin but after a period of time intensive diplomatic pressure prevails and eventually the two countries stand down their forces.
This scenario is most likely. India and Pakistan have decades of hostility, but also decades of conflict management experience and both maintain significant deterrence capacity relative to the other. India is militarily superior with a sizeable qualitative military edge over Pakistan, but India’s freedom of action is constrained by Pakistan’s aura of irrationality, its ambiguous retaliatory and nuclear doctrines, and its low and confused red lines. Notwithstanding the Indian worry of starting a costlier conflict than it desires, there are many good reasons why in today’s context India would seek to avoid war even in the face of provocation. For one, it would pose a severe distraction from Indian grand strategy in expanding the economy and focusing competition towards China. Second India’s strategic culture has generally been one of restraint; Indian policymakers are slow and cautious, and civilian control over the military is absolute, generally incentivizing a slow process that favors de-escalation. Third, in many quarters of New Delhi, retaliation is seen as ultimately futile, even if temporarily satisfying. Short of all-out war, retaliation can at best achieve some tactical successes – killing terrorists or destroying infrastructure – but it cannot provide strategic success in permanently reversing or destroying anti-Indian terrorism or militancy. On the contrary, any Indian attack will unite the Pakistani public in anger. Neither militants nor the military could ask for a better recruiting sergeant, while in the immediate aftermath of an Indian strike, Pakistani military and civilian leaders must respond or risk an embarrassing loss of face and likely legitimacy and power. Finally, today militant dynamics have changed; most ex-Kashmiri jihadis have now fully broken from their state handlers and operate on their own accord. Punishing Pakistan for their actions may in reality today do little more than play into their strategy to foment religious war on the subcontinent.
While most likely, this scenario is declining in popularity as a status quo option that has not worked to India’s advantage, as after the 2001 and 2008 crises. After its parliament was attacked in 2001, India threatened war and initiated a huge mobilization of 500-700,000 troops hoping to intimidate Pakistan into compliance. The resulting Operation Parakram is widely regarded as ill-conceived and a failure. Pakistan far from being deterred, instead mobilized 300,000 of its own troops and prepared for war, and the mobilization soon stagnated with huge financial costs. After more than a year of stalemate, India would suffer as many as 1,000 killed in accidents and border clashes, all for virtually zero strategic gain. In 2008, India undertook the other extreme of its restraint options, resisting severe public pressure and reacting only diplomatically, without any mobilization or military reaction. Doing so at the behest of the US, which was anxious to keep Pakistan focused on Afghanistan, India presumably believed it would more forcefully impact Pakistan’s cost-calculus by outsourcing diplomatic pressure to the US. Years later, it does not appear that the result has been to India’s satisfaction; Pakistani action against the planners of the 2008 Mumbai attacks has been limited and major anti-Indian terrorist outfits continue to openly operate, recruit and train.
This scenario where India exercises restraint as per its own long-term interest would be least damaging to US interests, and would be facilitated by prompt US action. The US has leverage on both sides of the border, and is expected to intervene to serve as a mediator, intermediary and voice of reason to keep tensions from escalating. The speed and scope of US diplomatic intervention can have effects in this regard, but US diplomacy will be tricky; publicly siding with India will raise Pakistani paranoia and could cause even more provocative action, whereas after Mumbai, India has little faith in the US ability to tangibly punish Pakistan to its satisfaction, and so will not easily back away. Ultimately US leverage may be limited to the extent that the two countries are actually willing to broker peace. Especially today, the US cannot force either into compliance.
SCENARIO 2: LIMITED WAR
Indian forces choose a “limited” retaliation, most likely surgical air strikes against militant training camps but potentially also stepped-up artillery fire, the capture of border posts, maybe temporary seizure few kilometers of territory, all with the hope to create an outcome where Pakistan suffers more. Escalation is likely, but the conflict does not exceed a local border war and does not approach the nuclear threshold
This scenario is increasingly likely. The 1999 Kargil War confirmed to strategic planners in both India and Pakistan that strategic space for conventional military action below the nuclear threshold exists. Nuclear weapons have not been able to stop all conflict. On the contrary Pakistan has used them as a shield and felt emboldened to wage proxy war at the lower end of the conflict spectrum while deterring existential Indian retaliation. It has not, however, been able to deter all Indian retaliation. In 1999 for example, despite Pakistani nuclear brinksmanship, India retaliated in force, and the label of “mini-war” belies Kargil’s severity; it was instead 20 weeks of medium-intensity conflict resulting in anywhere between 1,000 and 5,000 fatalities on both sides. India publicly vowed not to cross the LoC or threaten Pakistan’s territorial integrity, but then used its full force against infiltrators on its territory, including airpower and artillery all right along the LoC. Yet in hindsight, the conflict progressed quite well in avoiding the nuclear threshold.
Today, the appeal of India executing Israel-style punitive strikes has risen dramatically driven by India’s military modernization, its increasingly assertive public, and its sensationalist media. Being tough on Pakistani-backed terrorism is politically consequential, while Indian strategic planners are eager to dispel the perception that Pakistan can attack with impunity. Indians are generally confident they can manage offensive action without escalating out of control; the Indian Defense Minister declared in 2000; “[Pakistan] has not absorbed the real meaning of nuclearization; that it can deter only the use of nuclear weapons, but not all and any war,” a tone his successors have all reiterated. Their confidence is borne out by what is seen as Pakistan’s unofficial nuclear doctrine; an essay Securing Nuclear Peace written in October 1999 by three high-ranking Pakistani officials. In it, the authors distinguish between local and national contingencies and assessed that as long as India did not threaten the existence of Pakistan, by inflicting a major defeat on the military or occupy or threaten to occupy key strategic areas, such as population or urban centers, the conflict would not escalate to the nuclear level.
India’s military modernization allows its several strike options, but the most likely are surgical air strikes against Pakistani targets. Even today at its current all-time low of 29 squadrons in 2011, well below the sanctioned 39.5, the Indian Air Force (IAF) maintains a numerical advantage of about 1.5:1 when compared to Pakistan (discounting Chinese-focused deployments). India possesses advanced craft capable of performing deep strike missions inside Pakistan; its older Jaguar Squadrons are able, as are its newer SU-30MKIs, which can fly over most of Pakistan without refueling. IAF pilots have performed well in past conflicts and shown proficiency alongside leading Western air powers at military exercises such as Cope India 2005 and Red Flag 2008, and their force is rapidly modernizing. The SU-30MKI fleet will expand from 122 to 280 aircraft by 2015, and in 2012 India made the conspicuous choice to pick the fifth-plus generation French Dassault Rafale, a competent ground-attack aircraft, over the primarily air-superiority EADS Eurofighter Typhoon. An Indian strike still has many difficulties; Pakistan maintains an extensive SAM network and has a capable air force of its own. In net terms, however, India’s superiority renders Pakistan unwilling to risk its air force in open combat, and it is unlikely that Pakistan could respond in kind with airstrikes of its own.
Pakistan is, however, far from toothless and in real fact India’s real security environment is less analogous to Israel than South Korea contemplating action against the North. Any Indian attack that infringes on Pakistani sovereignty is a drastic change from the status quo since nuclearization. The second-order effects cannot easily be predicted but matters will almost certainly escalate; Pakistan’s generals cannot easily afford to stand down and risk the wrath of their population, not after preaching hostility and promising retaliation. The scope and nature of Pakistani retaliation will depend on India’s targeting mix, the length and scale of its campaign, and other such details, but India’s most likely targets are terrorist training camps in Pakistani-held Azad Kashmir. Such attacks would nor materially impact Pakistan nor decapitate militancy, but would change the strategic equation and could manipulate Pakistan’s cost-calculus when contemplating support future terrorist activities. India could choose to be more aggressive substituting militant for military targets, such as those collocated near training camps or near infiltration routes, or it could attack beyond Pakistan’s periphery provinces into the Punjabi heartland, where the most sophisticated of Pakistan’s militant infrastructure is located – for example the LeT’s sprawling headquarters in the city of Muridke. Such attacks would be exponentially more complicated and risky, and even if successful, would make it extremely difficult for Pakistan to stand down and lose public face.
If Pakistan retaliates in some roughly proportional way to an Indian strike, then by definition, the deterrence equation returns to square one, unless India is again willing to escalate, and then it becomes a question on whose terms the conflict ends. If India strikes and stops, the onus of escalation then falls upon Pakistan, whose most likely response will be to step up artillery and cross-border firing. For Pakistan not to respond is difficult and the military has threatened to retaliate with ‘strikes’ of its own. In net terms escalating the conflict is not to Pakistan’s advantage; India has greater capabilities and can sustain a local border war for longer, and any push to aggress on Indian territory comes at the risk of military defeat. Artillery and other stand-off fire from across the border is a relatively safe way for Pakistan to escalate but keep the conflict limited as they were near daily occurrences between the peace talks and can be managed within existing crisis management mechanisms without reaching the nuclear threshold. More extreme Pakistani retaliation can escalate the conflict further, perhaps to a medium intensity border conflict, but provided Indian forces do not retaliate by crossing the LoC in force, escalation to the nuclear threshold remains unlikely.
This scenario would have mixed results for the United States depending on India’s chosen targeting mix and the nature of second-order consequences. Should India focus solely on terrorist training camps as is likely, the US benefits from its mutual interests in seeing these forces eradicated. Ultimately, however, the short-term tactical benefit of killing terrorists may be outweighed by the strategic costs, and the net result will likely be negative. Indian action will severely distract Pakistan from combating Taliban, Haqqani and al-Qaeda militants, and may instead reiterate the benefits of pandering to them as strategic proxies. Moreover, even “limited” surgical strikes could escalate into tit-for-tat brinksmanship as sketched out above, and conflict could even widen. China has fought a border war with India in 1962 and is a close ally of Pakistan, which it sees as a low-cost means to contain India to the subcontinent. Indian attempts to ‘punish’ Pakistan have by extension adverse impacts on Chinese grand strategy, and could result in some form of Chinese intervention; the most likely response to Indian surgical strikes is robust diplomatic action to implement a ceasefire, but the broader the Indian campaign, the more likely a Chinese military intervention becomes.
SCENARIO 3: TOTAL WAR
Hostilities escalate into full-scale conventional war. Large military formations are fielded and Indian maneuvers actively aggress on Pakistan’s sovereignty, whether invasion to seize territory, create a buffer zone, or blockade territory. Nuclear weapons would certainly be placed on ready alert and the potential for escalation to nuclear war becomes a real possibility.
This scenario is unlikely but war has an escalation potential of its own, and in the charged atmosphere of Indo-Pak hostility, one side could quite easily choose the next step up the escalation ladder instead of accept defeat. If at any stage of the conflict, India chooses (or is perceived) to aggress on Pakistan’s territorial integrity, the conflict is likely to escalate to a new level. Pakistan’s depends on being able to deter an Indian invasion; its asymmetric escalation posture forward deploys its nuclear forces and credibly threatens first use on Indian troop formations, or even Indian strategic or civilian centers. Irrationality in this sense is rational; the more Pakistan can convey that it is a ‘mad-dog adversary’ whose reactions cannot be predicted, the more it is able to constrain Indian reaction. India on the other hand appears to be tired of being constrained. Its desire for cross-border strikes has been detailed above, but India has also unveiled aspirational doctrines it believes will break the status quo. The most notable example is “Cold Start,” a complete inversion of strategic restraint that envisions the capability to rapidly mobilize “division-sized… integrated battle groups” from a ‘cold start’ to “advance into Pakistan and hold territory to use as leverage.” As yet, India lacks the capability for such action; in India’s three strike corps took over three months to assemble and travel to the border from their staging locations in Central India, but even just the philosophy is a watershed in Indian strategic thinking.
In wartime, nuclear weapons will play a key role at all phases of conflict, to threaten and in the worst case to use. If Indian forces cross the border in force, they do so without precedent, and there is no guarantee on how Pakistan will react. If Pakistan reacts as it has sometimes stated, it could launch preemptive nuclear strikes on Indian troops, but even if does not immediately act, miscalculations can easily lead to inadvertent uncontrolled escalation. Clausewitz is worth quoting; “The commander of an immense whole finds himself in a maelstrom of false and true information, of mistakes made through fear, negligence, pre-occupation, contravention of his authority, from either mistakes or correct motives, from ill-will, true or false sense of duty, indolence or exhaustion, of accident which no Man could have forseen.” Put more plainly, in the “fog of war” reactions cannot easily be predicted, and the Indian assumption that a war can be fought and won without crossing the nuclear threshold cannot be taken for granted. Neither can it guarantee that China will not mount an intervention of its own – there is a reason why Cold Start is a component of India’s ‘two-front war’ strategy.
In real fact, there is no clear understanding of what the nuclear threshold actually is. Pakistan has deliberately ambiguous red lines, and Indian war aims are similarly nebulous. To successfully manage the conflict, there needs to be some mutual understanding on the acceptable bounds of conflict; whether in the weapons used, the geographic limits of the warzone, a time limit or an upper bound on the level of damage allowed before nuclear escalation. The last may be especially important as Pakistani generals place their institutional interests ahead of those of the country, and damage to the Army may be conflated in importance. Poor transparency and command and control arrangements compound the risks of miscalculation, and neither side appears to have a good understanding of the others’ red lines. During the 2002 mobilization, several Indian generals were questioned on whether they knew exactly what would trigger a Pakistani nuclear response; “All but one expressed confidence that they did. But they all laid out different red lines.” Current crisis management mechanisms are also insufficient. One well-known US-Soviet policy of “hot-lines” between senior military commanders is in place but in 2002 those same hotlines went unanswered in times of crisis, and in 2008, such tools failed to prevent the Mumbai attack from derailing the peace process.
Pakistan’s need to react to Cold Start has already increased the risks of miscalculation or mistake. A good example is the newly unveiled Hatf XI 60-km short-range “battlefield nuke,” which Pakistan has stated it will use against Indian formations crossing the LoC. Such a system, by logic of its deployment close to the border, and its need to empower battlefield commanders raises “hair-rising issues of command and control.” This is particularly worrying when factoring in the wild-card of terrorists who have now mounted several attacks close to nuclear centers and have in some high-profile attacks displayed very capable operational art. Such dangerous brinksmanship is only likely to improve as Pakistan sees its nuclear advantage eroding, and in open conflict, Pakistan will likely desperately maneuver to avoid setting a precedent that could permanently embolden India.
This is by far the worst option for US interests. If hostilities advance to this stage, both sides are almost totally reliant on outside forces to prevent uncontrolled escalation. Historically the two sides have used the US as a balancer and a face-saving channel rather than communicate bilaterally, but with declining US leverage, its ability to manage tensions at this level is in question. Its relationship with Pakistan is at its worst point ever, and its warming ties with India have eroded its impartial image and raised Indian expectations that the US will take a pro-India stance on the terrorism issue. This severely complicates diplomacy from the start, and could have very dangerous implications. One hopes by the time this conflict materializes, bilateral Indo-Pakistani communication and conflict management mechanisms have improved dramatically, for the level of external intervention they expect quite simply may not exist.