Thursday, 31 May 2012


India-Pakistan Conflict Outcome Probability

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The Prime Minister in his address to the Combined Commanders conference of the armed forces exhorted the Services to remain alert, due to the unfolding situation in Pakistan. The armed forces would be monitoring the situation closely, because preparedness is a professional obligation and a matter of pride. Thus, if another 26/11 were to occur India’s military options would need to be considered. This commentary reinforces arguments against war as an ‘option’ by looking at the probability of breakdown in deterrence in the event of an India-Pakistan conflict. Since Pakistan’s breaching of the nuclear taboo is not impossible, getting into a war may not serve the national interest. However, this does not rule out the employment of surgical military strikes, short of full-scale conflict.
Thinking about nuclear conflict is considered an academic exercise, because deterrence is expected to hold. This is reinforced by the understanding that conflict itself is a remote possibility in today’s world of decreasing conventional military trysts between states. The economic and military costs are prohibitive and thus there is little sense in taking recourse to armed conflict for strategic ends. Instead, strategic competition is subsumed in other means such as diplomatic offensives, containment, information war, proxy wars, etc. Thus, preparation for conflict is true to Vegetius’ dictum: ‘If you want peace, prepare for war.’ Consequently, if war itself is remote, nuclear war is even more unthinkable.
In a future conflict, India reckons to be on the initiative that moves it from a reactive and defensive position, to a proactive and offensive position.1 India’s military doctrine dubbed ‘Cold Start’ reflects this shift.2 The doctrine envisages penetrating the entire India-Pakistan frontier. The strike corps is expected to strike deeper if Pakistan is recalcitrant.3 The effect of air power and missile strikes on the Pakistani military and civilian infrastructure would be punitive; in addition to leaving a devastated Pakistani population. Projecting naval power against Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, would have a grave impact on the economy. Even if India launches coordinated operations, there are several limitations inherent in its operational strategy. The nuclear dimension warrants that such “military strikes would either need to be restricted in depth into enemy territory and spread in geographical expanse, or limited in scope to carry out deeper, narrow thrusts into adversary territory in order to remain well away from expressed red lines of the nuclear threshold.”4 The contours of India’s Limited War doctrine are perhaps deliberately vague for security reasons. It is also logical that India would be cognizant of one of the principal lessons from the GWOT – avoiding a likely asymmetric war counter.5 India would, prefer a ‘short, sharp war’6, and, as in the Israeli case in Lebanon and Gaza, pull out as early as it can. These two measures would enable India not only to avoid any nuclear tripwire, but also avert an irregular war by Pakistan in occupied territory.
In a situation involving limited Indian war aims, Pakistan would respond with its defensive formations and use its strategic reserves in an offensive mode wherever possible.7 A Pakistani offensive, though in keeping with Pakistan’s doctrine of ‘offensive defence’8, may not eventuate in the event of an early war. Following the imposition of costs through air action, India expects to see hostilities terminated through international pressure. Air operations and pivot corps operations by India would reduce the windows available for launching Pakistani offensives inside Indian territory, which may prove very costly for Pakistan. Besides, there would be little scope for launching forces into Indian territory in the face of India’s broad front attacks. As demonstrated at Kargil, India would wrap up any gains it may make eventually. Pakistan may employ only a small proportion of its forces in defensive operations, seeking instead to preserve most of its forces for post-conflict internal political purposes, allowing its Army to stay at the apex of Pakistan’s political pyramid.9 In any post-conflict scenario military losses would compromise the Pakistan Army’s grip on power. Termination of India’s limited offensives would enable Pakistan to declare victory of sorts by claiming that it held up India’s conventional might with only a partial use of its forces. In such a circumstance, both states would be satisfied in having met respective conflict aims. India would have inflicted punishment on Pakistan and Pakistan would claim to have withstood it. Such a juncture of positive perceptions would be useful to begin strategic engagement for peace making and long term conflict resolution.10
The foregoing indicates that Pakistan’s conflict strategy is likely to comprise the following elements: war avoidance; conventional defence; counter offensive with strategic reserves;11 a resort to asymmetric war; and preservation of military assets. For Pakistan the nuclear dimension of the conflict would include a high nuclear threshold;12 nuclear signaling for deterrence; catalyzing external pressures; and, preservation of nuclear assets from attrition. Pakistan has mooted the ‘Samson Option’ only as a last resort.13
That deterrence would hold is the understandable refrain.14 Pakistan has always tried to maintain adequate conventional capability to fight India.15 It is aware it risks national suicide if it uses nuclear weapons first.16 The Pakistan Army is aware that Pakistan would be held accountable by the international community for breaching the ‘nuclear taboo’.17 Since the least provocative nuclear use option is use on its own territory, an accounting post-conflict would restrain the finger on the proverbial nuclear button.18 In military terms there are no realistic operational and tactical gains for Pakistan in resorting to nuclear first use that India cannot counter through retaliation.
However, even if deterrence holds, ignoring the possibility of its breakdown would not be prudent. Analysing the Pakistani case study on militarized decision making, Julian Schofield writes: “In a military-dominated government, the absence of strong representation from other key departments, particularly the foreign and domestic ministries, gives the central decision-makers the illusion that they are operating without political limits…its resulting war-proneness is due to an absence of any institutional counterbalance…military governments are more likely to favour war at times when it is tactically opportune.”19 The outbreak of war matters as much as its conduct. The Pakistan Army, in control of nuclear weapons, has been known to be short on strategic acumen, the Kargil intrusion being a famous example.20 Its involvement in internal politics has further eroded professionalism at the top.21 Given the army’s current commitments on the Western border it may rely more on its nuclear deterrent in a war in the East.22 It may be pressured to use nuclear weapons by right wing elements within the Army-Intelligence apparatus.23 Additionally, conflict needs to be tempered by Clausewitzian notions of ‘chance’, ‘friction’, ‘fog’ ‘passion’ and the influence of misperception.24 Even if India sets out to wage a limited war and Pakistan exercises nuclear restraint, the manner in which the war unfolds could surprise both. Lastly, two points should give pause. The first immediate concern is nuclear terrorism, and, the second is the possibility of Pakistan becoming Talibanized.
The foregoing analysis is necessary to temper any propensity to view armed conflict as a response option. Instead, military options short of armed conflict, such as surgical strikes, could be more gainfully pursued, reinforced by diplomacy to make the threat of escalation recede.
  1. 1.Rajesh M. Basrur, Minimum Deterrence and India’s Nuclear Security, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006, p. 80-101; Ali Ahmed, “The Interface of Strategic and War Fighting Doctrines in the India-Pakistan Context,” Strategic Analysis, 33 (5), Sep 09, pp. 701-715.
  2. 2.Gurmeet Kanwal, “Strike Fast and Hard: Indian Army Doctrine Undergoes Change in Nuclear Era,” Tribune, Chandigarh, 23 June 2006; idem, 'Cold Start' to new war doctrine’,Times of India, April 14, 2004.
  3. 3.Manpreet Sethi, Nuclear Strategy: India’s March Towards Credible Deterrence, New Delhi: Knowledge World, 2009, p. 309.
  4. 4.Manpreet Sethi, Nuclear Strategy: India’s March Towards Credible Deterrence, p. 308.
  5. 5.An Army Chief is quoted as saying, ‘If we do not modify our strategy to asymmetrical challenges, we will end up like other countries who recently suffered setbacks (Sultan Hali, “Indian War-games: Ashwamedha and Shatrunash,” Defence Journal, 10 (11), 2007, p. 45).
  6. 6.Ibid.
  7. 7.Saeed Ismat, “Strategy for Total Defence: A Conceptual Nuclear Doctrine,” Defence Journal, 8 (3), p. 17.
  8. 8.For an analysis of the offensive defence doctrine dating to the tenure of Pakistan Army Chief Mirza Aslam Beg, see G.D. Bakshi, The Paradox of Pakistan: Collapse or Caliphate, New Delhi: Manohar, 2009, pp. 79-81.
  9. 9.This was the case with Saddam’s use of the Republican Guards in the Kuwait conflict.
  10. 10.The analogy is from the 1973 Egypt-Israel war in which despite its defeat Egypt felt it had acquitted itself well enough militarily to engage Israel in talks that eventuated in the Camp David accords.
  11. 11.General Musharraf phrased the policy as being one of “strategic defence through tactical offense” in an interview with S. Paul Kapur, quoted in his “India and Pakistan: Unstable Peace: Why Nuclear South Asia is not like Cold War Europe,” International Security, 30 (2), Fall 2005, p. 139.
  12. 12.Manpreet Sethi, p. 61.
  13. 13.Rajesh Rajagopalan, Second Strike: Arguments of Nuclear War in South Asia, Penguin, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 57-60.
  14. 14.On this S. Paul Kapur quotes former Defence Minister George Fernandes’s opinion in an interview in his “India and Pakistan’s Unstable Peace: Why Nuclear South Asia is not like Cold War Europe,” International Security, 30 (2), Fall 2005, p. 147.
  15. 15.In an interview, General Musharraf has said, "Let me assure you that against India we maintain a deterrence level of force, conventional. And India will never attack us, as long as we have this force. They cannot. They know what we have, conventional and unconventional (“India a Military Threat,” Times of India, 18 May 2009)." BBC reports that he has claimed that the US military aid given to Pakistan during his tenure was used to strengthen defences against India, indicating the priorities of the Pakistan Army (“Musharraf admits US aid diverted,” BBC News, available at The recent case of diverting military funds from the US meant for counter insurgency for use against India is a case to point.
  16. 16.Saeed Ismat, “Strategy for Total Defence: A Conceptual Nuclear Doctrine,” Defence Journal, 8 (3), p. 18.
  17. 17.Ali Ahmed, “Nuclear Use Consequences for Pakistan,” CLAWS Article 1386, Aug 2009, available at
  18. 18.Bharat Karnad, 'Sialkot Grab' and Capturing the 'Corridor': Objectives and Tactics in a Nuclear Battlefield', War College Journal, 34 (2), Autumn 2005, p. 9.
  19. 19.Julian Schofield, “Militarised Decision-Making for War in Pakistan,” Armed Forces and Society, 27 (1), Fall 2000, pp. 131-32.
  20. 20.G.D. Bakshi, The Paradox of Pakistan: Collapse or Caliphate, New Delhi: Manas Publications, 2009, pp. 53-54.
  21. 21.Ayesha Siddiqua, “Limited capabilities: The future of the armed forces,” Dawn, 22 Feb 2009.
  22. 22.Committed in operations against the Taliban are offensive formations to include XI Corps.See, Harinder Singh, ‘Tackling or Trailing the Taliban : An Assessment’, IDSA Issue Brief, July 2009,
  23. 23.See for Islamisation of the Pakistan Army, Bidanda Chengappa, Pakistan: Islamisation, the Army and Foreign Policy, New Delhi: APH Publishing Corporation, 2004, pp. 26-27.
  24. 24.Chapters 4, 5, 6 and 7 in Book One of Peter Paret and Micheal Howard (ed.),Clausewitz: On War, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1984.