By Rajesh Rajagopalan*
There is considerable pressure from opposition parties and others on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to suspend the forthcoming National Security Advisor (NSA) level talks between India and Pakistan. This once again raises the dilemma that has faced several Indian government about how to talk with Pakistan even as Pakistan sponsors terrorism against India. India can avoid this dilemma if it develops military options to respond to Pakistan’s transgressions, both to deter future attacks and also so that Indian decision-makers have options not limited to simply calling off talks each time Pakistan engages in such behaviour.
Though Pakistan’s cross-border firing, its continued sponsorship of terrorism in India and its insistence on talking to the Hurriyat (despite the Indian government making it a ‘red line’) have made life difficult for the Modi government, the government should resist the pressure to call off the talks. Calling off talks is a pointless and short-term measure which will have to be eventually revised. It is an indication of the bankruptcy of India’s policy planning process and an admission of helplessness. These talks are unlikely to lead to any fruitful results, especially in the short-term, but it should be Pakistan that calls off the talks, not India. Calling of talks is not sufficient to deter Pakistan’s support for terrorism. Instead, while always remaining open to talks with Pakistan at any time on any subject, India should develop options to respond with force to Pakistan’s own use of force.
As a first order of business, New Delhi needs to be clear and unequivocal about Pakistan’s use of force. Cross-border firing by Pakistan’s military forces at the border is obviously a direct use of force against India. This might be the consequence of the Pakistan army attempting to scuttle talks with India that Pakistan’s civilian government initiated, or for tactical reasons such as to give infiltrating terrorists covering fire. Pakistan’s rationale and timing of such border firing is irrelevant: there can be no excuse for cross-border firing and India should not tolerate it. India is not only fully justified in using force to respond to force, dealing with foreign threats is the state’s primary responsibility.
In addition, both terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir and by Pakistan-supported groups in other parts of India should be considered direct use of force by Pakistan against India to which India must respond with force. It is possible that there might be the odd terrorist attack by a Pakistan-supported terrorist group that is not sanctioned by Pakistan’s officials at some level, but considering the history of Pakistan-sponsored attacks, there is little reason for India to assume that such a terrorist attack is not officially sanctioned. That these attacks are being carried out by “non-state actors” is a ridiculous defence. Considering that these groups are trained, armed and tasked by Pakistan’s security establishment, they should be considered a direct use of force against India. India should not accept that there is any ‘plausible deniability’ simply because these attacks are not carried out by Pakistan’s uniformed personnel.
To respond to Pakistan’s use of force, New Delhi needs to develop a range of flexible options that it can resort to depending on the severity of particular attacks. In developing such options, India should emphasise escalation rather than proportionality. Unfortunately, India has placed far too much emphasis on proportionality in response, especially on cross-border firing. Proportionality might be a just response, assuming we can measure what is a proportional response (number of rounds fired? Number of people killed on the other side?). But proportionality might not necessarily be sufficient if the objective of the exercise is deterring similar future behaviour. For that an unjust, disproportionate response might be much more appropriate both because it forces Pakistan to bear much higher punishment for transgressions but more importantly because it demonstrates to Pakistan that India is not afraid of escalation.
Pakistan is confident that it controls the escalation ladder because it has nuclear weapons and it refuses to rule out using them to respond to any Indian conventional military attack. This, Rawalpindi seems to believe, ensures that India cannot escalate because of the fear of Pakistan reaching for the nuclear trigger. Every time India refuses to respond to a terrorist attack, while Indian leaders talk of our patience not being unlimited, it strengthens Pakistan’s conviction that they have found something akin to India’s strategic Achilles heel. Proportionality feeds into the same Pakistani belief of Indian decision-makers paralysed by fear of the possibility that anything India does can lead to unwanted and dangerous escalation. As long as India refuses to escalate, Pakistan holds the upper hand and India will have to continue suffering. It goes without saying that in planning for escalation, Indian leaders must consider that Pakistan could escalate too and be prepared to take additional escalatory steps if Pakistan escalates.
Pakistan’s nuclear escalation threat is a bluff that can be and needs to be called. It is easy enough to understand the rationale of Pakistan’s threat to escalate to the nuclear level. Rawalpindi thinks it is relatively weaker in conventional military strength and fears that India means it mortal harm. The threat of nuclear escalation prevents India from bringing its greater conventional capacity to bear on Pakistan. This makes Pakistan’s escalation bluff a rational and strategically sensible response to its circumstance but it is still a bluff.
If Pakistan’s nuclear bluff is understandable, India buying into it is not. Nuclear first use is not the same as early use: it is difficult to imagine Pakistan (or any other country for that matter) deliberately using nuclear weapons except in a last ditch attempt to stave off national annihilation. Despite the Pakistan Army’s paranoia, no Indian leadership has pursued annihilation (or assimilation, which might be the same thing) of Pakistan as a strategic goal or anything that comes even remotely close to this. India’s military objective should be to punish the Pakistan Army and this can be accomplished without coming anywhere close to these real Pakistani nuclear ‘red lines’.
Indeed, India has called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff before: in planning the Kargil adventure, Rawalpindi appears to have believed that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons would force India accept the incursion in Kargil as a fait accompli and prevent India from escalating. But the Vajpayee government did escalate, including using air power, even as it limited India’s use of force to the Indian side of the LoC. Even the extent of this limitation is unclear because senior Indian officials, including Prime Minister Vajpayee, have been quoted as saying that India would have considered crossing the LoC if the situation warranted. As it happened, India was able to neutralize the incursion without crossing the LoC and the diplomatic benefits India garnered became an additional incentive for Indian restraint. In short, whatever Pakistan might say about how quickly it will escalate to the nuclear level, logic and experience suggests that Pakistan will not consider nuclear escalation for the kind of limited wars that are likely between India and Pakistan.
This gives India plenty of conventional war options but Indian security planners can further reduce the risk of any nuclear escalation by Pakistan by limiting Indian military objectives to POK. Focusing on POK gives India multiple benefits. It is a territory that India claims and India would have some justification in trying to seize territory here. Moreover, Pakistan’s frequent claims to be speaking on behalf of the Kashmiris reduces the probability that Pakistan might consider the use of nuclear weapons in this theatre. A military defeat in POK would also represent a significant defeat for the Pakistan Army, which should be the primary strategic objective since it is the Pakistan Army that sponsors anti-Indian terror and thus the appropriate target of India’s deterrence efforts. POK also offers a variety of territorial targets that allows India to adjust the scale of response, from possibly seizing border posts that engage in cross-border firing to targets much deeper in POK such as the Karakoram highway or other targets.
There is little doubt that conducting a military offensive into POK would be difficult because of the nature of the terrain, but this is not an insurmountable problem. History is full of examples of military forces exploiting and surprising their adversaries by overcoming apparently insurmountable natural obstacles. In the Indian case, this requires coordination between and joint planning by India’s political and military leadership about how to respond to future attacks and transgressions by Pakistan. This appears to have been missing so far, with political and military leaders attempting to shape a response after a terrorist incident, with no apparent prior planning or preparation. The consequences of the lack of planning are clearly visible. Developing military responses to Pakistan’s transgressions is long overdue and India should not let unnecessary fear of nuclear escalation keep it vulnerable to Pakistan’s machinations.
*Dr. Rajesh Rajagopalan is a professor of international relations in the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi