Tuesday, 1 October 2019
Nuclear winter before this winter?
Back triumphantly from New York, the prime minister’s adhoc speech making at the airport reception by his bhakts led to massive traffic snarls across western Delhi. The road show was justified by Narendra Modi getting the better of Imran Khan ‘Niazi’. Khan’s full name was eked out by a young Indian diplomat preparing her rejoinder to Khan’s ‘rant’ on Kashmir at his turn at the podium at the General Assembly.
While in the United States (US), Modi had instead expended his ammunition at the Rs. 1.4 lakh crore Howdy Modi show. (Disclosure: this author could not work out the number of zeros in that figure. Evidently, Rahul Gandhi, who dug up the dirt, knows better.) The highlight was his overtly interfering in the elections of the host country by endorsing the bid for reelection of its sitting president, currently under impeachment proceedings. That bit of personal diplomacy was taken as getting the US alongside, though Trump carefully pointed out that talks were the way forward for both sides.
The easy-to-manufacture consensus in India is that India has won. However, India’s national security minders know better. National Security Adviser Ajit Doval was over in Srinagar yet again last week keeping up the vigil. He best knows – hopefully – that only the first round is over. He informed on the second round when he spotted several hundred jihadis across the Line of Control (LC). The army chief, obediently on cue, got himself photographed peering through a telescope across the LC. The bell for the second round tolled with kinetic operations in the hinterland taking a toll of six militants.
Round One extracted a reputational price internationally - which the Indian media’s ostrich act has kept from the public. So it was not a walkover. As for Round Two, there are two dimensions. The first is the eruption in Kashmir. The continuing lock down is a dead give-away. If Amit Shah is to be believed there is no such lock down any more. But then to Amit Shah till only recently Farooque Abdullah was a free man. The second is the manner Pakistan lobs the Kashmir ball back into India’s court.
Pakistan’s army appears to have instructed its puppet and purported civilian political master, Imran Khan, to create the conditions for their actions in Round Two. Khan led the diplomatic offensive with as much vigour as he had brought to the cricketing oval when his team won the world cup. India did well not to shoot itself in the foot by shooting up Kashmiris, preferring instead to take the hit over a lock down. Even so, Imran Khan has given the Pakistan military an alibi. He has warned the international community adequately and if it has not taken vigourous preventive action, then it would have to be goaded into action with development of a threat to international peace and security in Round Two.
There are three possibilities. One is resumption of proxy war with gusto, and, second, to up the ante with a conventional show of force. The third is Pakistan going Gandhian.
The first possibility is apparently already in the works. The second may be necessary as overlay since the Indian military is ready and waiting. The Pakistan army would reckon that military force is to be used to protect and further its national interest. Since Kashmir is equated with the national interest – the military reputedly controls Pakistan’s Kashmir, India, Afghanistan and nuclear policies – it cannot be that it would go Gandhian at the crunch. On returning from New York, Imran Khan more or less conceded defeat, acknowledging that the jihad doctrine required standing by Kashmiris, giving the green light for possibilities one and two.
Instead, India appears to have betted on a third possibility: Pakistan, overawed by surgical strikes, going Gandhian. Strategic good sense would indeed be to survey the preparedness and power equations and step back, using proxies to face the music – as has largely been the case thus far. It could do this and get away earlier since it could justify proxy war as pressure to get India to talk. By India closing the option of talks decisively – saying talks will be over terror and Pakistan occupied Kashmir and making Kashmir inaccessible through (un)constitutional ‘integration’ – proxy war loses its earlier rationale. India has forced Pakistan to do more, foregrounding the second possibility.
As for the third, for India to expect a cake walk in Round Two is not unreasonable. Pakistan should know that its economy cannot sustain the ten day war India’s military preparedness can – even if India’s economic down turn precludes India sustaining a war of any duration. Pakistan is also on the cusp of black listing on its terror financing record. Pakistan could also lose the war and its army its position on the top of Pakistan’s power heap.
By winter, Round Two would have either finished or fizzled. It would be apparent what risk India has had to run over implementing a manifesto promise of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Such promises are to be checked by instruments of state by providing a reality check. Those institutions on the front rank of national security have to temper, deter and push back on policy missteps. If the government was warned of the risk of war is not known. That no one has resigned indicates group think.
Since there are no inducements to Pakistan on offer as part of a deterrence-reassurance strategy, it is not self-evident how the first two possibilities will be avoided. The army chief in his interview yesterday is out justifying a policy which - even if disaster is avoided in the short term - is not going to see a let up in the situation for another generation. He suggests that the shift to surgical strikes will ensure the third possibility, and if it does not, India will be at it till it does. It is anyone guess how long will that be, at what risk and with what efficacy. This is evidence that just as with other national institutions the Indian military is also hollowed out – unable to stand up to the media-built strategic reputation of their political master, the unelected Ajit Doval.
To highlight this here is not to reprise Im-the-dim Khan. India’s actions speak of an agreement with Imran Khan that it is running an undue risk. The lock down – self-inflicted clampdown according to General Rawat - in Kashmir is set to continue through winter as rumours of the paramilitary inducted in additional numbers is now seeking winter accommodation indicate. India has put out several deterrent gambits, such as, its defence minister reminding Pakistan of its past losses in wars and its standing to lose Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. His reference to a shaky nuclear first use pledge is proof of India’s concurrence with Khan that there is a more than just a nuclear backdrop to war today.
In a book, India’s Habituation with the Bomb, released at a Pakistani security think tank last week, I make the case in my book chapter contribution, ‘India’s Nuclear Doctrine: Dynamism or Stasis’, that India’s is now a warfighting nuclear doctrine – how so ever much its declaratory nuclear doctrine dissimulates to the contrary. This makes India more war prone than during its years of strategic restraint. It permits the shift to strategic proactivism of late. Ability and intent to match Pakistani nuclear use in war with its own at an early and low threshold mode makes India venturesome. Others have it that India may even preempt Pakistani nuclear use. This explains the military’s confidence in backing of the constitutional jugglery over Kashmir and belief that it can face down Pakistan. With a more usable Indian nuclear arsenal on call, Pakistan would be better deterred from going nuclear. Without the nuclear assurance behind it, the Pakistani army would be less liable to be adventurous over the Kashmir fait accompli. Any Pakistani poser over Kashmir can then be check mated by Indian conventional resort. Any Pakistan nuclear proclivity can be met with proportionate nuclear riposte. In short, a fightable nuclear war keeps Pakistan in better check.
In the present situation, the Indian assessment is that the worst case – of nuclear exchange(s) - can be ridden out. It’s a risk worth running for the national interest of a quiescent Kashmir. Since there can be no more fraught a situation than the current on over Kashmir, the hope is General Rawat is proven right. He has it that Pakistan cannot rely on its nuclear deterrent since doing so would be against the tenets of strategic weapons use. Hope General Rawat does not believe his deterrence propaganda. In case he is proven wrong, the only silver lining is that accountability shall catch up with the trio – Modi-Shah-Doval - that pushed South Asia into such a situation in first place.