By Ali Ahmed
In his book, The Future of Land Warfare, Brookings’ expert, Michael O’Hanlon uses an illustrative scenario to argue for maintaining a US land warfare capability. To O’Hanlon, one utility for land forces would be in ‘handling the aftermath of a major and complex humanitarian disaster superimposed on a security crisis—perhaps in South Asia.’
In O’Hanlon’s scenario India and Pakistan come to the threshold of all-out nuclear war. He considers this ‘all too plausible’ and a ‘real possibility today’. O’Hanlon is right that a nuclear confrontation would be devastating to South Asia, for the global economy and environment and for letting loose ‘loose nukes’. While its probability is an open question, O’Hanlon’s scare-mongering is for his own purposes: for getting the US to maintain a large standing army.
Of consequence for South Asia is O’Hanlon’s belief that a nuclear exchange would result in a changed political scenario in which international intervention, with US participation, will be eminently justifiable and therefore is well nigh plausible. A nuclear conflict can trigger external intervention in the form of a UN mandated international force to help stabilize the situation and deployed in Kashmir. To O’Hanlon, India may be amenable to this if it ‘seemed the only way to reverse the momentum toward all-out nuclear war in South Asia.’
What this suggests is that a war would bring Kashmir center-stage as nothing else would. This brings into question: Why India is leveraging hard power – intelligence and military – in its Pakistan strategy?
India is widely taken as the status quo power since it has the prize, Kashmir. Pakistan is considered revisionist, since it wishes to overturn the status quo on Kashmir. As the status quoist power, keeping Kashmir off the radar screen is in India’s interest. For Pakistan, keeping Kashmir in the news for the wrong reasons is enough. A war would concentrate international attention like nothing else.
It is well proven that even a regional nuclear conflict with even a few weapons would open up the possibility of environmental catastrophe potentially causing over a billion casualties world-wide. Therefore, if Kashmir is at the root of the conflict that threatens such a prohibitive cost, there should be justifiable calls for forceful international intervention.
It can be argued that a war such as Kargil did not catalyse international attention as Pakistan expected. Instead it rebounded on Pakistan, enabling India to over time dehyphenate from Pakistan.
However, at that time the nuclear arsenal was in its infancy. Today the numbers are not only in triple digits for both sides, but there are elaborate doctrines and structures in place. Nuclear weapons have to be usable to deter. Readiness to use nuclear weapons is useful in so far as deterrence goes, but it is also the Achilles heel of the whole deterrence enterprise.
Pakistan, for its part, has proclaimed that it would be quick at the draw. India’s response promises to be quick and overwhelming. The two doctrines are like unstable substance interacting with each other.
India has lately shortened its fuse. By calling off the talks between the two National Security Advisers last month, India has chosen to remove talks as a buffer. As a result, India can no longer call off talks to show it is ‘doing something’, instead, it will have to ‘do something’, use its hard power, in face of any Pakistani provocation.
This can serve to deter the rational element in the Pakistani establishment. However, it is well known that there are contending power centers in Pakistan. There is the ‘deep state’; the ‘rogue elements’ and ‘good terrorists’. These stand to expand their power base under the shadow of crisis and chaos of war.
That India does not rule out a future provocation is evident from the extraordinary lengths it is going to deter such provocation over the past year. The threat of war is just one such example. Its Army chief at the joint services seminar commemorating the 1965 War said that the Army is prepared for a short, sharp war to be launched in quick time. As O’Hanlon reckons, this will drag Kashmir center stage.
There is another ‘pull factor’ in play.
In case of a war, India can at best re-take at Pakistan. It cannot, however, get Pakistan by itself to roll back elements that, in striking India, have endangered Pakistan and rule by the Army. Such a roll back cannot occur in the face of visible Indian military coercion and would not be without something offered in exchange via back channels. In effect, India will have to throw in a ‘solution’ to Kashmir, unlike in Simla when from a position of strength it could freeze the status quo. This is the price for having gone nuclear.
Unlike during the Kargil War aftermath, war will not leave India’s hold over Kashmir unscathed. Kashmir would be back on the agenda, something Pakistan could not manage after either the war fifty years ago or the more recent Kargil War.
Pakistan’s ruling out talks without considering Kashmir leaves India with only one choice – the route of coercion by hard power. Whereas India would justify this as essential for deterrence, a breakdown will bring Kashmir back with a bang. If this is not to be a nuclear one, India had better get those ‘first ever’ NSA level talks going.
*Ali Ahmed, author of India’s Doctrine Puzzle: Limiting War in South Asia, On War in South Asia and On Peace in South Asia, blogs at www.ali-writings.blogspot.in. Views here are personal.