While the world’s strategic community remains engaged with Iran, North Korea and Palestine, an extremely volatile nuclear flash-point in South Asia – the India-Pakistan border – merits earnest attention. Since a ceasefire agreement in 2003, there have been numerous instances of ceasefire violations. In the first two months of 2018 alone, India reported 633 violations and Pakistan reported 400.
Unfortunately, there seems to be a lack of intelligence-based analysis of the recurring ceasefire violations. Even basic attempts at reasoned analysis show that violations are less likely to be random incidents of misadventure than calculated strategic moves under the bigger umbrella of Pakistan’s irregular warfare. The recent violations in Jammu, for example, could have been aimed at terrorizing the local population, providing momentum to disruptive activities in Kashmir valley or diverting attention from a large-scale infiltration attempt.
Understanding Pakistan’s irregular warfare is a study in itself. In contrast, India’s capabilities remain highly confined.
Pakistan has mastered the craft of proxy war over the past three decades in Afghanistan and Kashmir. It has assets in the form of radicalized groups in Kashmir and the other parts of India, but unfortunately, India does not have that advantage in Pakistan.
India also lacks an “aggressive strategic culture” needed to plan and implement systematic and sustained efforts in the field of psy-wars, cyber-wars, information warfare, sabotage, civil unrest and political disruptions. Unlike in Pakistan, with every election, policy, personnel and ideology change in India. Further, Indian agencies lack enough authority, are highly bureaucratized, and suffer from inter- and intra-agency rivalry.
Hence the range of options to counter Pakistan is very narrow. India’s edge over Pakistan has always been in conventional war, which possibly propelled Pakistan to make strategic and tactical nuclear weapons. There is a belief in parts of India’s strategic community that Pakistan would retaliate with a full-scale atomic attack in the case of a strong response by India to its terror tactics. Its body politic has sustained far more than the “thousand cuts” that the late Pakistani president Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s had dreamed of inflicting on India ultimately to weaken its hold on Kashmir.
India’s fears of a retaliation seem baseless and unfounded in light of Pakistan’s low-profile response to India’s surgical strikes. Pakistan does not seem to have a response mechanism for a scenario wherein India retaliates to its proxy wars with aggressive military action, short of full-scale war.
Resorting to nuclear options would actually be a greater disaster for Pakistan, something that the Pakistan Army – a highly rational actor – understands. It realizes that the nuclear option could be the last resort in the event of a serious threat to its very survival. However, that occasion may not arise in the case of sub-conventional, short-range and swift military action by India that is insufficient to justify retaliation with nuclear weapons. Herein lies the chink in Pakistan’s armor.
That said, the increasing radicalization of lower-level cadres in the Pakistan Army presents an alarming threat. If a radicalized field commander decided to use a tactical nuclear weapon in response to India, the confrontation would escalate into a nuclear catastrophe, which could prove to be the worst-case scenario for South Asia.
Still, India could consider a sub-conventional military response. It could attempt regular bouts of aggressive, high-intensity counter-offensive moves over an extended period, interspersed with perfunctory peace initiatives and diplomatic activity. The objectives of such actions should be to destroy the terror infrastructure near the Line of Control. A strike on Lashkar-e-Toiba’s headquarters at Muridke in Pakistan’s Punjab province could generate robust political capital for any political party in India.
With increasing levels of frustration in the Indian Army and the worsening situation in the Kashmir Valley, a sub-conventional response by India becomes a likely scenario. It could enhance India’s strategic footprint and trigger the diplomatic isolation of Pakistan. The upcoming national elections could also push the existing government to act in such a manner.
As long as centralized actors control the making and implementation of policy in Pakistan, a sub-conventional response would, in all likelihood, generate dividends for India.