Military consequence management in Jammu and Kashmir
On 5-6 August, the Union government did away with the special status enjoyed by Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) under Articles 35A and 370 bifurcating the state into two union territories. The changes were fraught with military consequences in terms of, in the short term, an internal rebellion and an external crisis with Pakistan, and, over the long term, proxy war punctuated with periodic crises with Pakistan and an insurgency in Kashmir. It can be reasonably surmised that the government’s choosing to run the risk owed in part to the military’s confidence in consequence management over both the short and long terms. Speculating on the military’s input to the decision, based on military doctrinal developments, this article argues that the military may have dangerously over-reached.
Setting the stage militarily
In retrospect it is easier to see that the government’s move in J&K was long in the making. At the subconventional level, the military conditions were created by the killing of over 700 militants over the past four years in a concerted campaign. At the subconventional-conventional level interface, India resorted to surgical strikes – by land in September 2016 following the Uri terror attack and by air at Balakot in the aftermath of the Pulwama car bombing. Other modes of quick retaliation are available, such as missile strikes - reportedly readied the day following Pakistan’s quick rejoinder to India’s Balakot aerial strikes over southern J&K at Rajauri-Naushera. The common sense now is that administering these in case of Pakistani provocation rekindles India’s conventional deterrence of subconventional threats.
India’s test-bed exercises this summer of integrated battle groups (IBGs) of Western Command were part of operationalising its ‘cold start’ doctrine. That these are now better configured, cohesive and primed for launch makes for a closer coupling between the subconventional and conventional levels. For its part, the air force received its first Rafale aircraft on Air Force Day. Its crisis-time air chief, Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa, had rued their absence in the air scuffle over southern J&K when the Pakistani air force breached Indian air space to assert their deterrence credentials.
Even so, escalation remains a possibility. This explains the army chief’s deterrence messaging to Pakistan that he had forces on hand for following up the air strikes at Balakot. After the crisis abated, the navy let on that it had deployed its nuclear submarines, hinting at inclusion of its nuclear armed submarine that had only last year completed its first operational patrol. Another information war line has been the repetitive references to Pakistan occupied Kashmir by all and sundry.
At the nuclear level, India has been attempting to influence Pakistan’s nuclear first use decision making by projecting ambiguity regarding its own no first use pledge. The latest has been in the defence minister’s remarks that the pledge was contingent on circumstances in future. The idea appears to be to deter Pakistan from reaching for tactical nuclear weapons by implicitly holding out the threat that it’s doing so would release India from its pledge.
For his part, the army chief has taken care to remind Pakistan that their notion of nuclear first use goes against the theory of strategic weapons employment. Since IBGs are designed to operate below the assumed nuclear threshold of Pakistan, he seems to be indicating to Pakistan that pulling down their nuclear umbrella to cover a low conventional level militates against the notion of nuclear weapons as weapons of last resort. He hopes to thereby widen the window for IBG employment. While a decoupling of the conventional and nuclear levels is sought by India, Pakistan – on the contrary - constantly reminds India and the international community of their intermeshing of the two levels.
Consequence management prospects
The immediate term has been tidied over by the extensive paramilitary deployment in early August under the ruse of heightened proxy war by Pakistan. Reports of considerable human rights violations, such as detentions of juveniles, suggest that once the scale of the lockdown is apparent, a deepening of the suppression-alienation cycle shall set the stage for the long haul. It is learnt that the Kashmir Police has been largely disemboweled and the central reserve police rules the roost. As to what this implies for the gender factor in conflict situations will only be known when Kashmiris are free to speak sometime down line. With a largely north Indian male force under an indifferent leadership it can be reasonably be hazarded that the invasion of privacy and social spaces is a double whammy on Kashmiri women.
India has in retrospect apparently rightly discerned a window in which Pakistan has been forced to stay its hand. There was the financial action task force appraisal of Pakistan continuing on the grey list or otherwise in its consideration in October, which, in the event, has maintained a status quo. The requirement to keep its nose clean in the interim has removed any incentive for Pakistan to go down the proxy war route immediately. Since it is up for review in February, it would likely continue to be more circumspect for longer. Pakistan would not be averse to this untypical behavior since the Kashmiris in the interim have launched a satyagraha of sorts. Not wanting to upset the apple cart, Pakistan has a ready excuse to lay-off.
Pakistan’s dire economic straits have in any case precluded its generation of a crisis or resort to conventional war. In 1965, it had taken to war though the provocation was minimal. This time it has hidden behind a lot of smoke, without a fire. This exposes its determination to fight till the last Kashmiri. It has as another excuse India’s immediate term handling of internal security in Kashmir in which there has been a perceptible fall in lives lost; thereby releasing Pakistan from any need for military predominant action. India’s adoption of a diplomatic stance that its action is an internal matter not impacting the LC (and implicitly the disputed status of Kashmir) has enabled the Pakistan military to play along saying that it never recognized Article 370 in any case. Therefore its removal does not ostensibly warrant any action on its part.
It begs the question as to why Pakistan maintains an army if it cannot respond to what has so far been taken as a premier national interest. The answer is equally obvious in the well known fact that its parochial interests far outweigh national interest. India’s national security minders have evidently read its neighbouring military rather well. This is easy to explain in light of India’s Pakistan obsession and the two sides being birds of the same feather in a manner of speaking.
Perhaps Pakistan’s hopes are over the long term - summer and beyond. It is clear that not only is the constitutional initiative unpopular within Kashmir, but the manner of its implementation has likely extended the life of the insurgency. The changes cannot be taken as a ‘political solution’, creating the conditions for extension of development to the region as projected by the government. Consequently, insurgency is liable to beset India into the reckonable future. With Imran Khan indicating that support to Kashmiris is an obligation under the doctrine of jihad (struggle), its proxy war – even if largely indigenised – is set to persist. For the record, Imran Khan paddled back on this tall talk fairly quickly.
Perturbations from the heightened contest over the long term could see India delivering on its promise a robust response. Reassured by recent acquisition of ammunition stocks at ten days intense-war rate, inclusion of the Rafale into its inventory, conversion of mechanized formations into IBGs and restructuring of its apex military under a new chief of defence staff system, India may seek a way out through a limited war from the cul-de-sac of its political decision backfiring. At a time of an economic downturn, a diversionary war may have internal political utility, even if it does not quick start the economy.
Since it takes two to keep a war limited, it remains to be seen if Pakistan’s ‘new concept of war fighting’ doctrine - dating to General Kiani’s tenure early this decade - gives it confidence to draw back its nuclear awning that compensates for its conventional disadvantage. India operationalising cold start and intent to simultaneously flex air and naval muscles appears instead to leave Pakistan with little recourse than putting a premium on its nuclear capability.
In short, the assurance of the military on consequence management that presumably emboldened the government in its Kashmir initiative upped the possibility of war. The extent of danger run is evident from a timely study that has it that some 125 million people could perish in a subcontinental nuclear war. The military needs answering how it’s proactive and robust handling a heightened proxy war and insurgency over the foreseeable future can be kept non-nuclear.
While for now the need for success of the Kartarpur corridor outreach by Pakistan to Sikhs and the FATF scrutiny appear to have kept the peace, it remains to be seen if the Pakistani military can sustain its reticence in interfering in Kashmir. At some point, the cultural pendulum will swing in which it will be asked by those currently besieging Islamabad to shed its uniform for the burkha. Therefore even if it is conceded that the Indian national security establishment has got the Pakistan army right, the long haul may yet test this judgment. Even so, both militaries have - thankfully – been let off the hook by the outbreak of the Kashmiri satyagraha.