Waking Up To WikiLeaks: The US Perspective On Cold Start


By Ali Ahmed

The Guardian, recipient of the second tranche of documents from WikiLeaks, ran the US Ambassador’s take on Cold Start as recorded in cables to the US: “US embassy cables: India ‘unlikely’ to deploy Cold Start against Pakistan” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/us-embassy-cables-documents/248971). In the cable, Timothy Roemer describes India’s Cold Start doctrine as a mix of ‘myth and reality’ that would meet with ‘mixed success’ if launched.

That the doctrine figures on Roemer’s radar screen is to its credit. The smoke screen that has been built around it since its publication has been to serve ambiguity, which is useful for deterrence. India’s strategic doctrine is one of deterrence and this has been served by keeping Pakistan guessing India’s intent and capability on the conventional front. Thus, even as the formal doctrine was released in October 2004, a ‘source’ had briefed on its classified Part II. To that briefing dates the term ‘Cold Start’.

The Army has since been at pains to state that it is not a ‘doctrine’, but merely one among many strategic options it would furnish the government as a military alternative in the face of Pakistani terror provocations. The impunity that Pakistan enjoyed was to be reduced by India’s resort to its conventional advantage. In military exercises held over the past half decade, the operational capability was publicly worked upon. The idea was to convey to Pakistan that India did not lack options.

However, as Roemer points out, 26/11 was a test. The military option was apparently discussed, but the preparedness of the Army in particular was reportedly below par. Political choice in favour of restraint was exercised. Political and moral capital built thereby and with military sinews being invested in, the next time around the decision could well be different.

The absence of terror attacks since 26/11 can be partially attributed to the invigorated threat of Cold Start. That it has caused consternation in Pakistan is evident from their Exercise Azm e Nau, held in the midst of counterinsurgency operations at the risk of exhausting troops. They have used the excuse of the possibility of their eastern border heating up in quick time to refrain from action against the Taliban. Their apprehensions, conveyed to their US interlocutors, have no doubt led up to Roemer’s cable to Foggy Bottom.

This explains Roemer’s reassuring brief that the doctrine is neither practicable nor intended for operationalizing. The US would like to have Pakistan reengage the Taliban after its Rah e Nijat and Rah e Haq. Therefore, having ascertained Indian views, the Roemer cable is to allay Pakistani fears.

India has been responsive to the US-led international community’s effort in AfPak. The PM has stated that Pakistan need have no fears of war. India’s Army Chief has played down Cold Start, stating, “There is nothing called ‘Cold Start’. As part of our overall strategy we have a number of contingencies and options, depending on what the aggressor does. In recent years, we have been improving our systems with respect to mobilization, but our basic military posture is defensive.”

However, of interest is his description of how the doctrine is perceived in the apex policy and decision-making rung of the government: “Finally, several very high-level GOI officials have firmly stated, when asked directly about their support for Cold Start, that they have never endorsed, supported, or advocated for this doctrine. One of these officials is former National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan, who has recently been replaced.”

He attempts to make the case that the military has a distinct point of view, which the government does not necessarily approve. Given that the military is under democratic political control, its perspective is not government policy. The military has done its duty in having furnished the government options ranging from Cold Start to those less expansive. Roemer writes of the domestic political utility of the existence of this option for the government.

But, as Roemer rightly observes, higher policymaking in India is rendered nebulous by interpenetration of the political and official classes. Bureaucratic politics, as a characteristic of democracies including the US, is alive and well in India. Under political pressures, media-hype and nationalist churning, the decision for Cold Start cannot be ruled out as long as it exists. Pakistan knows this and this serves India’s deterrent purposes, as perceptive Roemer, aided doubtless by his able Defence Attaché, notes.

Roemer wants to view the Cold Start as a non-starter, thus self-servingly seeing what he wishes to see. Keeping Roemer complacent alongside also serves India’s purpose of helping out a ‘strategic partner’. Such seeming responsiveness helps with US reciprocation in terms of pressure on Pakistan to act against anti-India terrorists, lest their AfPak efforts are compromised.

Given past record, can this be taken as a fitting example of Tsun Tsu’s test of strategy of ‘Winning without a fight’? And that too on multiple fronts – military, domestic politics, Pakistan and the US!

Ali Ahmed, Research Fellow, IDSA, may be reached at [email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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