Tuesday, 26 September 2017

The Usual September Indo-Pak Slugfest


Not one to pass up an opportunity for grandstanding, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to skip the annual UN General Assembly session for two years in a row makes some sense in that it deprives Pakistan of an opportunity, when it is its turn at the podium, to take potshots at India’s take in the Assembly. Since India sent its foreign minister instead, its slot has come after the heads of government have had their say. This gives India an opportunity to take potshots at Pakistan.

The India-Pakistan slug fest that develops in the august chambers of the General Assembly, indubitably hyphenates India with Pakistan, even if India gets the better of Pakistan with its choice of phrases.

This time round the speech of foreign minister Sushma Swaraj was overshadowed by India’s rebuttal made by its very able first secretary, Eenam Gambhir, to the speech by Pakistan’s stop-gap prime minister, charactering Pakistan as ‘terroristan’. Gambhir had shot to fame last year with her phrase characterizing Pakistan as the ‘ivy leagues of terrorism’ in her exercising the right of reply to Nawaz Sharif’s speech at the Assembly chamber.

That speech was useful cover for India to launch its ‘surgical strikes’, multiple raids across a wide front on terror camps across the Line of Control (LC). Pakistan for its part had struck a military installation in Uri just prior to the General Assembly meeting, so as to draw attention of the gathering to the instability in Kashmir, setting the stage for Pakistan’s India bashing.

Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif was doubly required to indulge in this then, since only earlier in the month last year, a media report had exposed a rift in Pakistan ruling elite, between its civilian government and the army, on its India policy. That the media report was close to the truth was soon made clear by the hounding of a leading columnist for Dawn, Cyril Almeida, who did the expose. In the event, Sharif hued closely to the script, authored by the army, making most of the unrest in Kashmir last year that has followed the killing of Burhan Wani.

This time round, while mostly-ailing, Swaraj’s performance bears her usual work (wo)manlike stamp, the saving grace has been in Pakistan’s permanent representative to the UN Maleeha Lodhi tripping up in her invective, flashing the wrong picture to embellish her case against use of pellet guns in the Valley. The cacophony in the usual circles in India over this gaffe does nothing to obscure the tragedy brought about by the use of such weaponry in the Valley. So, Lodhi’s is not quite the hitwicket it is made out to be amongst the converts.

However, the Pakistani side had something notable to show for its US visit, liable to be lost in the orchestrated chorus over Maleeha Lodhi’s going ballistic in the Assembly chambers.

Of significance was Pakistan’s prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, statement at an engagement at the think tank, Council on Foreign Relations. He said, “As far as tactical nuclear weapons (are concerned), we do not have any fielded tactical nuclear weapons. We have developed short-range nuclear weapons as a counter to the 'Cold Start' doctrine that India has developed. Again, those are in the same command-and-control authority that controls the other strategic weapons."

The importance of noting this is that it sets at rest the debate surrounding what Pakistan intends to do with its short range ballistic missile system, the Nasr, unveiled in 2011. Nasr’s warhead was taken to be a tactical nuclear weapon (TNW) and its utility for Pakistan, as admitted to by Abbasi, was to stymie India’s cold start offensives. The debate in India – carried further into the august pages of the leading international relations journal International Security – was that since the TNW numbers required to stop Indian mechanized offensives would be numerous, Pakistan would be self-deterred from using it in a low-threshold early-use mode. It also did not have the Nasr system in sufficient numbers to be able to stop such offensives.

As it turns out from Abbasi’s statement, this is a misreading of Pakistani intent. Even when Nasr made its debut, the Inter-Service Public Relations press note had it that it was part of the strategic deterrence capability of Pakistan, with the short range missile complementing the longer range missiles in its inventory. This was glossed over in Indian strategists rush to prove the offensive and aggressive intent of Pakistani nuclear first use. Also, self-servingly they had it that since Pakistan could not dare use it in the numbers required as it would lay waste to Pakistan itself over which Indian offensive columns would be advancing, India could afford to go down the cold start option of proactive operations.

Indian strategists needs revising this expectation. Reading the Indian debate and hoping no doubt to bolster its ‘full spectrum’ deterrence, that includes pulling the deterrence cover down over the conventional level also, the Pakistanis appear now to have clarified that the Nasr is a strategic weapon, even if of small yield. This is in keeping with theory in that the aim behind a weapon’s use would determine the type of weapon it is. For instance, in case a small yield nuclear bomb is dropped on an urban area, it is a strategic use of the weapon. Thus, all small yield weapons are not TNW.

Pakistan thus has clarified a strategic utility to the Nasr. It is not so much intended to stop India’s integrated battle groups or strike corps in their tracks, as much as to raise the ante to a level as to ensure culmination of international pressure in favour of escalation control and conflict termination. Its use would be akin to a ‘shot across the bow’.

This has two implications. One is that the recently advertised readiness of India for cold start offensives needs to be tamped down. The army chief acknowledged cold start doctrine in his first meeting with the press on the eve of the Army Day early this year. He has recently twice voiced the army’s readiness for a two front war, with this doctrine informing the strategy on the western front to quickly knock off Pakistan. In this context, Abbasi’s statement should be taken as a timely warning that the expectation of a high enough nuclear threshold to permit cold start offensives might be unwarranted.

Second, are implications for India’s nuclear doctrine. Abbasi’s statement suggests a lower order nuclear first use. India’s professed nuclear doctrine has it that it would take out Pakistan in case of any manner of nuclear first use on its part. This doctrine would be ‘unimplementable’, to borrow the phrase made famous by Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat in a different context.

India needs revising its nuclear doctrine accordingly to enable multiple options of retaliation, including quid pro quo, in such a case. Thoughts of first strike – entertained by former national security adviser Shivshankar Menon – need to be abandoned forthwith, since there is no call to invite a second strike – of which Pakistan is quite capable – just to get a Nasr or two readying for discharge. India must admit to the state of Mutual Assured Destruction prevailing in the subcontinent.

The India-Pakistan September exchange has acquired the status of a yearly fixture on the strategic calendar. The last year it was ‘surgical strikes’. This year it is about the nuclear prospects that such strikes can well set off, as would surely, their elder brother, cold start offensives. However, it is best that exchanges – howsoever charged up - are in fora such as the General Assembly rather than on the battlefield.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Pakistan: Not down for the count, yet

There is some exultation in India that Pakistan has thrown in the towel. Its army chief has finally reckoned that the political track is the route to go down in tackling the bone of contention between the two, Pakistan's jugular vein, Kashmir. The inference is that the Modi-Dovel doctrine of a tough line on Pakistan is working. With Trump having turned the screw, right in wake of Modi's visit to Washington, D.C., the understanding in such circles is that Pakistan will finally have its comeuppance. All India needs doing is to hold on to its hardline and watch Pakistan wallow, under the twin pressures from the US and India. 

Pakistan for its part has turned up its chin on the Trump demands, indicating that it has seen it all before and can stare down the US. It believes it still has a few cards up its sleeve, putting its geography to play once again. Since it would not want to have two powers breathing down on it, it is seeking to defuse both with placatory language. It is reminding the US that it is an indispensable ally in the war against terror and to India it is messaging peace. This would allay pressures for now, allowing it to fight another day. 

Pakistan's trump card is that it can get Taliban to the table or, indeed, keep it away. It had locked up one leader, Mullah Baradar, who was getting close to the Americans. Taliban has sanctuary in Pakistan and this keeps it dependent to a degree on Pakistan. Pakistan knows that the US exit from Afghanistan is dependent on Taliban playing along. The Taliban for its part will only talk if US exit is also on the agenda. 

For a superpower, talking to the Taliban would be humiliating, especially two decades into a war against it. The last time it was readying for talks, its leader, Mullah Mansour, was knocked out in a drone attack. The US instead would like a negotiated solution between the Taliban and its protégé regime in Kabul. This would keep the US alone at the high table as the two Afghan sides jaw it out on the side table. The Taliban has denied US the satisfaction so far. US desperation is beginning to show. 

US generals who got to be generals by their showing in Afghanistan believe they need to now fight the war they could not fight when they were earning their spurs. So perhaps for the third time they hope to up the ante. The last two times were in the operations to take out the Taliban by supporting the Northern Alliance and the second was Obama's surge strategy, replicating under Petraeus what he had tried out in Iraq earlier. It is not certain what additional ingredient their current strategy has from the earlier iterations that can induce the Taliban to roll over. 

The last time the surge lacked a peace surge. It is also uncertain if a military surge works at all. The example from Iraq is no lesson since there were multiple reasons for the ending of the Sunni insurgency in the Sunni triangle in Iraq, including Sunni tribes aghast at the tactics of the Al Qaeda in Iraq. Pushing into Pakistan after the Taliban has been tried through drones. This time the Trump rhetoric - 'Attack we will' - suggests that they would carry the war into Pakistan, perhaps restricting their incursion if any to the sanctuaries in the tribal areas. 

At best the drone strikes can be beefed up by air and missile strikes. Putting American boots on ground would be to take a chance. To begin with, the Pakistanis would put up a grand show of taking out the Taliban, going after the 'bad' Taliban in the bargain. The Pakistanis having outlasted two two-term presidents expect to see off Trump, who can at best be a one-term wonder, if not impeached earlier for the links of his election campaign team with Russia. 

This longish prelude via Trump's 'attack we will' strategy to get back to the start point on Indian jubilation over the expectation that Pakistan is cornered, collared or clobbered is to show that for the bhakts in the strategic community to fire off the success signal is trifle premature. The Pakistan army chief's wish for a political solution is not because he is intimidated by the Indian army chief's reference to Indian readiness for a two-front war twice-over in as many months. 

Responding to a question at the American think tank, Council of Foreign Relations, while on his visit to the US for addressing the General Assembly, the Pakistani prime minister showed the Pakistanis have some cards up their sleeve. While disclaiming possession of tactical nuclear weapons he said they had short range nuclear weapons, under the same command and control arrangements as their strategic nuclear weapons. This brings out the strategic purpose of their nuclear weapons: not to stop India's cold start offensive in their tracks but to stop the war itself by going nuclear. This in theory is deescalatory escalation, escalation to deescalate. 

India's army chief, dilating on a two-front war at a seminar organized in wake of the two sides - India and China - standing down at Doklam, had in relation to Pakistan, said "Because of this proxy war, there is always scope of conflict with our western neighbor." Since surgical strikes have been tried out, and, in the event of proxy war continuing and another attack that Rawat apprehends occurring, that leaves India with its as yet untried answer, cold start. 

Cold start is a proactive response at the conventional level to subconventional provocation in the form of limited objective attacks designed to stay below the nuclear threshold. Whereas its army chief has been uncharacteristically placatory, it is with good reason. Pakistan has deployed its prime minister to remind India of the nuclear ace up its sleeve to counter cold start. This papers over the crack that had opened up in its civil-military relations with the departure of Nawaz Sharif, in a military-judicial quasi-coup. 

Pakistan has thus not only replied to India's army chief, but has also tried to show repair to the possible blow India had administered it in Mr. Modi's overly effusive jhuppi of Nawaz Sharif. The cracks had begun to show in the Cyril Almeida case in which he reported of a rift between the army and the civilian government over the ISI-army's support for 'good terrorists'. The army promptly ordered the attack on the Uri garrison in India to put paid to any thought that it would obey the civilians. Finally, it eased off Sharif, perhaps seeing him as the unwary victim of India's rather up-front and in-your-face intelligence operation of creating a schism in Pakistan's national security elite. 

Pakistan remains in the ring, riding out twin punches from General Rawat and President Trump. India would be naïve to take President Trump too seriously. The backdrop of his sudden announcement of the Afghanistan strategy was the Charlottesville episode. The president was in the dog house over his seeming siding with white supremacists in equating them with the liberals they had violently confronted at the University of Virginia campus. This seeming endorsement of the far right by the president had even his military worried. The US military has disproportionate numbers of coloured people in its ranks, who are from America's poor seeking employment and upward mobility. The four joint chiefs of staff had all tweeted their condemnation of racism, distancing from their president's remarks. Trump has apparently tried to win them over by allowing them a loose rope in Afghanistan. That the Afghanistan strategy lacks sufficient elaboration suggests it is a product of American domestic politics. It would be naïve for India to take it too seriously. 

Given Doval's adeptness at pirouetting - evident from the several about-turns in India's Pakistan and Kashmir strategies in the Modi period - perhaps India can do yet another twirl and surprise Qamar Javed Bajwa by accepting his plank of talks as the means to a solution to Kashmir.