It is the fear of escalation, which the Pakistan army has masked behind bombastic threats, that India needs to exploit.
By Rajesh Rajagopalan
As the Indian government considers how to respond to Pakistan army’s latest provocations, it should keep in mind that proportional retaliation will prove to be no more than a temporary slave. The key is to convince the Pakistan army that India will not hesitate to escalate, and that the Pakistan army will not win the escalation race. Though military escalation will be painful to both sides, and there are always uncertainties in any military venture, Pakistan army’s leadership has repeatedly demonstrated that its threats to escalate are not matched by its actual behaviour, which has been far more cautious. The Pakistan army leadership, rightly, fears escalation more than its rhetoric lets on, and this provides India a deterrence leverage that it needs to take advantage of.
Escalation is the only real option that India has to deter the Pakistan army. Diplomacy is useful to an extent, and it is important for India to make its case to the rest of the world. But diplomacy will not solve the terrorism problem. It is foolish for India to expect that one more bilateral statement with some visiting foreign leader will change the Pakistan army’s calculations. Even states that agree with India about the Pakistan problem will not do much because this is not their problem. In this, they are no different than India: it is not as if New Delhi is going to help any other country with their terrorism problem either.
The other aspect of diplomacy, bilateral diplomacy with Pakistan, also offers no solution. Most importantly, though India should always be open to negotiations, expecting that bilateral diplomacy with the civilian leadership in Pakistan will solve the Kashmir problem is foolish because Pakistan’s civilian leadership have little control over the Pakistan army, especially when it comes to India or Kashmir. This is well-known, and has been demonstrated clearly and often.
In addition, there are no magical solutions that some back-channels can come up with, that will solve either the Kashmir problem or the India-Pakistan problem. And of course, these problems are not the same. The India-Pakistan problem, rooted in the imbalance of power in the region, will persist even if the Kashmir problem is resolved, though that is not to suggest that no effort must be made to solve at least the Kashmir problem. It is also silly to cut off talks or sports or other interactions with Pakistan every time there is some transgression because all this does is illustrate Indian helplessness, not strength or confidence. India should always be open to talks and negotiations with Pakistan, even as it responds forcefully to every assault from the Pakistan army.
Because it is the Pakistan army that controls the levers of terrorism against India, India’s deterrence policy should focus on the Pakistan army. The aim should be to deter the Pakistan army from seeing terrorism as a no-cost option by threatening — and when needed, imposing — a very high cost on the Pakistan army for such behaviour.
So far, India’s military response has failed to put the Pakistan army, the only arbiter of its India policy, under adequate pressure. India’s exaggerated fear of escalation has been a serious constraint. Until the “surgical strikes” last year, New Delhi’s fear of escalation was so great that it did not acknowledge military retaliation even when it took them. So openly owning to such retaliatory strikes was a significant breakthrough. But it is also necessary to acknowledge that, outside of publicising it, these strikes were not very different from the other border actions that the Indian forces had carried out before. More importantly, the retaliatory attacks in September 2016 were carefully calibrated, and also appears to have been designed to signal that India did not want to escalate further, as I pointed out then. The India attack was shallow, targeted mostly terrorists rather than the Pakistan army and it did not attempt to seize territory, characteristics similar to previous Indian retaliatory strikes. The strikes were escalatory only in relation to previous Indian behaviour, not in relation to Pakistan’s actions itself. Considering that Pakistan had ordered a direct attack on an Indian army camp, resulting in the death of seventeen Indian soldiers, an escalatory response should have been much more severe. But the limited aim of the surgical strike was understandable because India was already making a significant change in policy and signaling resolve by publicising the strikes. But such a limited response will not suffice this time; escalation would need to be in relation to Pakistan’s behaviour rather than to standard expectations of Indian behaviour.
India’s reluctance to escalate so far is surprising for two reasons. One is that, logically, it is the stronger state that has the option to escalate. India’s conventional military superiority may not be as great as it should be given that India’s GDP is almost eight times as large as Pakistan’s and India’s military budget is about seven times larger but it is clearly the stronger side in the equation. And in a short offensive with specific territorial targets (such as the Haji Pir pass, for example), India’s current superiority should be sufficient, especially since India should be able to gain tactical surprise. The Pakistan army may know that India is gearing up for an attack along the LoC, but it will not know where that attack might come. In short, the stronger side has more options, and a bigger margin for error, and India needs to recognise it.
The second is that despite all the rhetoric about Pakistan’s propensity to escalate, Rawalpindi has repeatedly chosen not to escalate. In Kargil, when India employed its air force, Pakistan complained and warned of escalation dangers but chose not to escalate. And the Pakistan army simply abandoned its Northern Light Infantry (NLI) troops. Similarly, in 2016, India’s surgical strike did not lead to any escalation by the Pakistan army, despite almost two decades of constant threats to escalate. In between, there have been repeated artillery duels and cross-LoC raids, not one of which the Pakistan army escalated. If the Pakistan army was really so trigger-happy to escalate, it has had plenty of opportunity. That it has not so far escalated suggests that Pakistan army leadership knows that it will face significant and disproportionate cost if it escalated. Indian military superiority might not be great enough to give it an easy win over Pakistan, but it is difficult to imagine Pakistan winning either.
This is the key issue. To the extent that Pakistan cannot win, there is little incentive for the Pakistan army to escalate. Much of the argument about escalation between India and Pakistan is based on the assumption that the Pakistan army will climb all these steps on the ladder, doubling-down on a losing bet until escalation reaches the nuclear level. But each of these steps represent an expensive and irrational gamble, and the Pakistani army leadership is not irrational. They have made bad bets — Operation Grand Slam and Kargil definitely were — but they have shown no propensity to double down when their initial gamble failed. Rather, they have usually chosen to walk away and find another game to play.
Pakistan army’s behaviour is perfectly rational: as is well-recognised, its domestic legitimacy is built on its role as defender of the Islamic Republic against India. If it cannot perform this basic duty, its domestic legitimacy will suffer, as will its outsized role in national politics, economy and society. It is not without reason that Pakistan disowned the NLI troops in the Kargil war or refused to acknowledge that India had conducted a retaliatory strike last year. More than anything else, the Pakistan army fears defeat at Indian hands. Despite its rhetoric, it fears escalation because escalation carries with it the very real possibility of a just such serious defeat. Much like a Haka war dance, Pakistan’s threats are designed to intimidate but are not actual predictors of behaviour.
It is this fear of escalation, which the Pakistan army has masked behind bombastic threats, that India needs to exploit. It gives India a clear deterrence leverage. But it also requires India to look to the actual behaviour of the Pakistan army leadership rather than assume that Rawalpindi’s rhetoric is an indicator of how they will behave.