By Rajesh Rajagopalan
The deterrence game between India and Pakistan has changed dramatically with India’s decision to conduct a military strike across the Line of Control (LoC). The Indian action was a clear escalation that demonstrated that India has the upper hand to control escalation and thus possibly deter Pakistan more effectively. This upends the escalation dynamic between India and Pakistan because it was Pakistan that controlled escalation until now.
This change will not go unchallenged by Pakistan. Rawalpindi can be expected to probe and attempt to undermine India’s new assertion of escalation dominance. New Delhi, therefore, needs to be ready to cement this assertion by being prepared to play its much stronger hand, especially in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK).
Why New Delhi allowed a militarily weaker Pakistan to control the escalation dynamic for so long is a mystery. The general consensus on deterrence and escalation in the region that was focused much more on the constraints facing India than that facing Pakistan surely is one reason. This was the consequence of Pakistan’s effective use of the threat of nuclear escalation and the fear, particularly among Indian decision-makers, that Pakistan was an irrational actor whose nuclear threats needed to be taken seriously. This was reinforced by India’s efforts to position itself as the more responsible player in the region, aimed at a global audience, which might also have limited the willingness of Indian leaders to consider use-of-force options.
But while the logic of Pakistan’s nuclear threats is understandable, there is no logic to Pakistan actually carrying out the threat of nuclear escalation unless Pakistan’s very survival is threatened. The constraint Pakistan has in actually carrying out its nuclear threat — which goes to the credibility of the threat — has never been recognised, either by analysts working on this issue or by the Indian government. This constraint is rooted in the very illogic of Pakistan carrying out its nuclear threat.
It is difficult to imagine that any Pakistani military leader will order the use of nuclear weapons, which will mean certain nuclear retaliation of some kind from India, simply because they lose some amount of territory (or some other form of punishment, such as destruction of a part of the Pakistan army). The difference between how much territory India has to take in order to punish Pakistan and how much it has to take to threaten Pakistan’s survival is rather large. This means that India can inflict significant punishment on Pakistan well short of challenging Pakistan’s survival without Pakistan actually seeking nuclear escalation. Pakistan’s escalation threats were even more incredible if India had focused on PoK because the likelihood of Pakistan being able to use nuclear weapons to hold on to disputed territory, and against people it claims to represent, is so much lesser. What this means, in turn, is that Pakistan’s nuclear escalation threat is a bluff that has been sustained only because of Pakistan’s bluster and Indian leadership’s willingness to buy into this bluster.
India’s actions in publicising its cross-LoC strike, as well as declarations that it is open to further escalation and its efforts to question Pakistan’s control over PoK demonstrates that India may no longer buy this bluff and allow Pakistan to dominate the escalation ladder. Of course, India had previously stepped on the escalation ladder: in Kargil, it was India that escalated by using air power. Pakistan then learned that it too had constraints because it was not only not able to escalate further but could not even match India’s escalation, watching helplessly as India decimated Pakistan army infiltrators from the air. But this type of escalation was a one-off because Pakistan subsequently offered India no such opportunities. And India’s reluctance to cross the LoC during the Kargil war simply reinforced Pakistan’s control over escalation after Kargil.
India has also reportedly conducted a number of military raids across the LoC previously, but these were done covertly and it is not clear if these were ordered by New Delhi for deterrence purposes or undertaken by local military commanders on their own as retaliation for particularly brutal actions by Pakistan, such as the beheading of Indian soldiers. India’s most recent strike was fundamentally different because it was publicised to send an explicitly deterrence signal that India was no longer afraid of escalation.
Pakistan has a choice of escalating further and maybe it still will. Indeed, the conventional wisdom is that any Indian escalation will lead to a Pakistani escalation. But so far, Pakistan’s response has not been to escalate but actually to de-escalate by denying that any Indian attack took place at all. It is possible that this is simply a ploy while it prepares its retaliation: only time will tell. But so far, the conventional wisdom about escalation leading inexorably to further escalation has not materialised.
And here’s the kicker: considering that India clearly escalated, the Pakistan army leaders can longer be confident that India will not escalate yet again if Pakistan retaliates to the Indian strike. Indeed, statements by Indian political and military leaders about India’s willingness to escalate further will reinforce the changed deterrence equation between the two sides. Moreover, unlike in the past, when the Indian government did not raise questions about PoK in the hope of converting the LoC into a de jure international border, the Modi government has repeatedly asserted its claim to PoK, putting Pakistan on notice that its control over PoK should not to be taken for granted.
Again, this does not mean that Pakistan will not escalate now. India’s long history of folding when challenged might convince Pakistan that this out-of-character Indian escalation was simply an aberration and that a further escalation by Pakistan might allow them to wrest back the advantage they have had for so long. Unfortunately, some mixed signaling even in this Indian action might reinforce such views. India took great efforts to signal it did not want further escalation by not directly attacking Pakistani forces and by keeping the incursion limited in time and depth. Though this was understandable as this was the first time India was engaging in such an escalation, this caution heightens the risk of misperception by Pakistan’s leaders.
This means that New Delhi should be prepared to go further if Pakistan does decide to test India’s willingness to escalate. India can afford to escalate because India’s superior conventional military capabilities give it greater ability to do so if India overcomes the exaggerated fear of nuclear escalation, which is the main card that Pakistan has. Because the threat of nuclear escalation is even less credible in the PoK region than it is across the International Border (IB), New Delhi should prepare further escalation in PoK if Pakistan decides to test it again. This could take the form of deeper raids into PoK or possibly capturing territory, such as the vital Haji Pir pass. The real difficulty that India may face is not so much nuclear escalation as much as ensuring that its forces are well-armed and prepared, given the mess in India’s defence acquisition process over the last decade.
Pakistan can respond to India’s control of the escalation ladder by moving to lower the levels of violence it supports. India’s control of the escalation ladder would then become ineffective but India would also gain because the levels of sponsored violence would be lower. This will not solve the domestic problem in the Kashmir valley, but it will give the Indian government somewhat greater room to address it.
India’s cross-LoC strike has given it an advantage over Pakistan, albeit a temporary one. New Delhi should now seek to ensure that the advantage it wrested from Pakistan becomes more permanent by being prepared to escalate further, if tested.