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Notion Of False Equivalence: India And Pakistan At The Line Of Control – Analysis

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By Akshat Upadhyay

The Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan has been extremely active over the past few months. Recent operations conducted by the Indian Army in Keran and Handwara resulted in the killing of seven terrorists, but with nine Indian army brave hearts falling to the terrorists’ bullets in the months of April and May respectively. The period in-between was interspersed with intelligence based targeted attacks by Indian army formations on selected terrorist launch pads in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK). These actions reinvigorated a round of ceasefire violations (CFVs) by the Pakistan army and retaliation by India bringing the issues of deterrence and escalation domination into the forefront once again.

Thomas Schelling in his seminal work “Arms and Influence” in 1967 spoke of nuclear deterrence between the United States (US) and the erstwhile Soviet Union (USSR) in the backdrop of the Cold War. His theory of the threat of unspeakable violence stopping an adversary from carrying out his inimical actions was based on a few unstated assumptions. These included equivalence of military power (USSR dominated in conventional terms), comfort of distance, tripwires in the form of troop deployments in Europe, dispersed nuclear assets with both allied countries and military commanders on the ground and sophisticated command and control systems, among others.

The states or actors were supposed to be rational in their aims and unitary in there decision making process. This process of deterrence, in the form of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) of both countries was said to have been the reason for the Cold War not turning Hot. Both countries though continued to invest in a number of alliances across the globe, enticing some with nuclear umbrellas or extended deterrence and some with arms and funds in exchange for stationing of troops and espionage equipment, including aircraft. The presence of MAD also did not preclude the countries either from conceptualising nuclear war fighting strategies such as counterforce and counter-value strikes or striking each other in Afghanistan, Angola, Vietnam and Korea among others. A major part of nuclear war fighting has been conceptualised as forming part of a 44-step escalation ladder, given out by Hermann Kahn initially, where the top rung of the ladder equals targeting the civilian population with nuclear weapons. While this is not a blueprint for any political-military decision-making, the concept of an escalatory ladder that can be climbed in turns by adversaries for retaining the initiative to take the next step has caught on.

The ongoing trading of blows across the LoC has become quite a common feature of the dynamics between India and Pakistan, and if the data for CFVs by Pakistan of the last three years is used as a reference, the frequency of occurrence of these incidents has increased manifold. As an example, CFV figures for entire 2018 and 2019 were 627 and 685 respectively while they have already crossed 1,144 in the first three months of 2020, with the highest number of violations (411) being recorded in March 2020. This data set alone does not reveal the type of weapons used, duration of the firing, casualties to civilians and security forces, structures etc., however, corroborating and collating data from newspaper reports and official social media handles of the Indian and Pakistani armies highlights a few issues that are generally shrouded in misplaced claims of deterrence and strategic stability within the sub-continent.

India and Pakistan both became de-facto nuclear powers in 1998, conducting underground tests within days of each other. The Kargil war followed almost immediately. Though there were no credible reports of either side readying or deploying nuclear weapons during the conflict, they were alluded to by the US to pressurise Pakistan to concede a war it was already losing. Limited use of airpower by India and non-use of airpower by Pakistan was given evidence of reluctance of both the countries to widen the conflict, and by linkage a retrospective nuclear deterrence was established between the two. Over a period of time, a number of attacks by Pakistan inside India, such as the Parliament attacks of 2001, Mumbai train attacks, 26/11 attacks and lack of a appropriate punitive response by India led to the perception that New Delhi was unwilling to undertake even limited military operations due to Pakistan’s possession and threat of use of nuclear weapons. However, deterrence was still being understood in terms of a Cold War perspective and as a result, unintentionally a false equivalence with India was accorded to Pakistan, similar to what existed between the US and the Soviet Union.

This false equivalence in terms of status as nuclear powers has led to hypothetical scenarios of India and Pakistan engaging in nuclear warfare and all effort and discussion has focused on prevention strategies. The Cold War lens has neglected the proxy war conducted by Pakistan inside Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and rest of India using infiltration through the LoC and radicalisation inside the valley. Both have been subsumed under the nuclear rubric and form reasons for an assumed conflict between the two countries to go nuclear. How has this affected the current scenario that pertains to the LoC?

Understanding Indo-Pakistan relations through the Cold War framework of nuclear deterrence and escalation dominance is incomplete due to a very crucial reason. There are no terror camps inside India nor are any individuals waiting to cross over into PoK or Pakistani territory to carry out terrorist attacks. India’s use of artillery and other weapons against terror camps and launch pads inside PoK and Pakistan is to prevent these individuals from crossing over into Indian territory. The same is not true of Pakistan, which initiates CFVs to specifically target civilians. There is a moral inequality that gets papered over when looking at these actions from purely a deterrence point of view. However if the gaze is shifted just a little away from the Cold War lens, one can see that this is an attempt by India to deny launch pads to terrorists inside what Pakistan claims to be its territory and punish Pakistan Army formations supporting the infiltration.

When it comes to escalation dominance or climbing the escalation ladder, the type of weapons used matter. Use of heavy weapons striking terrorist infrastructure and launch pads inside PoK is a sure shot message of conveying the severity of the message. It is true that Pakistan also has the option of responding in the same currency, but India initiates strikes only on terror launch pads and training camps. The retaliation by Pakistan is always on civilian ones. Though militarily, it may seem to be a tit-for-tat action, morally it’s a repugnant one. When India undertook non-military pre-emptive strikes on the terror camp in Balakot, it was doing so to protect its territory from future terror strikes and in doing so, was supported by the global community. Pakistan, on the other hand, attempted to carry out daylight strikes against Indian military targets along the LoC to assert equivalence but failed after none of the intended targets were hit. Whether during the artillery duels on the LoC or during the strikes in Balakot, India retained the initiative to use heavier caliber weapons including air breathing platforms and Pakistan, in trying to maintain that false equivalence, had to react.

India and Pakistan are not equals; in terms of economy, military might, diplomatic reach or political systems. However, an incomplete theory of Cold War era deterrence that looks at relations between India and Pakistan, in some cases converting them into a dyad, misses the main motivations of the actors in undertaking actions specifically at the LoC, attributing equivalence where none exists. The Indian army needs to keep up the pressure along the LoC.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).


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ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

One thought on “Notion Of False Equivalence: India And Pakistan At The Line Of Control – Analysis

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    May 18, 2020 at 8:59 am
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    Indian forces breached ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC) on more than 3,000 occasions in 2019. India’s ceasefire violations along the Line of Control have become a routine with over 150 violations since the start of this year. The violations have seen an increase after the Narendra Modi-led government came into power in India. Hundreds of Kashmiri men, women and children confronting the might of Indian army, paramilitaries, and police have been killed in recent months. Pakistan should also highlight the issue of civilian killing along the border at the forum of UN. He said India’s aggressive designs are a major threat to peace in South Asia.

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