The portentuous India-Pakistan escalation dynamic
On his first official trip to Pakistan as secretary-general the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres at press stakeout in Islamabad, said, “I have repeatedly stressed the importance of exercising maximum restraint and taking steps to de-escalate, both militarily and verbally,while reiterating my offer to exercise my good offices, should both sides ask.Diplomacy and dialogue remain the only tools that guarantee peace and stability... (Guterres 2020)” In response, India’s foreign ministry swiftly reiterated India's position that, “There is no role or scope for third party mediation (Ministry of External Affairs).”
Such exchanges evoke a sense of déjà vu, India having similarly rebutted similar offers from the United States’ (US) President Donald Trump twice earlier. Nevertheless, the international community does have a stake in the regional security situation since fallout of it going awry potentially has global consequences. Two recent studies highlight nuclear dangers. While one talks of climate effects on the global ecosystem accounting for 125 million dead (Toon et al. 2019), the second is on implications on the marine domain (Lovenduski et al. 2020).
The secretary-general’s foregrounding the delicate state of regional security in exercise of his early warning and conflict prevention function are borne out in the pre-conference report of the Munich Security Conference 2020. It expresses the predicament thus: “In this strained situation, any attack committed by the Kashmiri insurgency bears the risk of escalation, including into military confrontation between the two nuclear-armed powers. Increasing ethno-religious nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment in India heighten this risk, as they might induce Indian authorities to respond with particular force (Munich Security Report 2020: 50).” The international community cannot but take the rhetorical exchanges between India and Pakistan seriously.
Take the latest warning by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who speaking at the annual the National Cadet Corps’(NCC) Republic Day rally, said, “We know that our neighboring country has lost three wars. It does not take more than ten days a week for our forces to defeat it. In such a situation, it has been fighting proxy-war against India for decades (Modi 2020).”
Aware of the ruling party’s propensity on display over the past five years to parlay its decision-making on national security issues for electioneering purposes, Indian analysts are not be amiss to discount the remarks as political rhetoric, citing the then-forthcoming Delhi elections as a possible rationale (Joshi 2020).
Even so, the prime minister’s reference to proxy war amounts to India’s messaging Pakistan that its continuance could lead up to war, albeit a limited one. Thus the prime minister’s statement can be taken as signaling with a deterrence rationale. Conveying a readiness to up-the-ante from surgical strikes to limited war helps deter Pakistan, firstly, from any terror provocation that can bring on a crisis, and, significantly, from any subsequent reaction by it to India’s surgical strikes that could confound a crisis into a war.
The policy of ending Pakistani impunity through surgical strikes was reiterated by the new army chief, General MM Naravane, at his first press conference on taking over (Pandit 2020). Pakistan has demonstrated its intent and capability to respond in kind, hoping to deter Indian surgical strikes. Against this backdrop, Narendra Modi’s warning of a limited war appears to be directed at influencing Pakistani against a robust response to future surgical strikes with an to open up the space for such strikes continuing.
As part of its deterrence communication and interest in catalyzing external intervention, Pakistan has taken care to keep fears of escalation alive. Within days after the Indian prime minister’s statement, it deployed its former long-serving head of the Strategic Plans Division and currently Adviser in the National Command Authority, retired Lt Gen Khalid Kidwai, to stoke the fire (Kidwai 2020). In his keynote address at a joint conference in London of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a Pakistani think tank, Kidwai underlined that, “Pakistan has ensured seamless integration between nuclear strategy and conventional military strategy (Kidwai 2020: 5).”
To him, this reminder is, “especially relevant today post-Pulwama and Balakot, because there are people in important places in India’s strategic circles who have drawn dangerously wrong conclusions about what they are referring to as Pakistan’s nuclear bluff (Kidwai 2020: 5).” He seems to be trying to close the door on India’s advertised intent of limited war by pointing to a “seamless” transition between conventional and nuclear doctrine in Pakistan.
What does this peacetime doctrinal tussle between the two sides spell for the next crisis?
In the last crisis, escalation was sensibly avoided by both sides. This is in keeping with what appears to be a new turn in military escalation dynamics encompassed by the phrase: ‘escalate to de-escalate’. Its inception was in the alleged Russian intention to resort to nuclear weapons in case of a western attack since its conventional preparedness was relatively low (Krepon 2018). Conceptually, this amounts to a step-up the proverbial escalation ladder by a side not so much in order to prevail as much as to trigger uncertainty associated with escalation so as to mutually de-escalate a conflict.
The example is the recent US-Iran face-off. A preceding spiral witnessed a US drone strike on an active-duty Iranian general, the popular Qasem Soleimani. The Iranians, left with little option than perforce to shoot themselves out of the corner boxed into by the unexpected US strike, responded with missile strikes on two US bases. They apparently took care to tacitly warn the Americans targeted. Though Trump later claimed that there were no casualties, some 150 US soldiers suffered brain concussion. Even as the escalatory step was taken, the intent to limit the exchange was broadcast to evoke reciprocity in the other side.
Both India and Pakistan through their rhetoric are signaling intent to ‘escalate to de-escalate’: India with its surgical strikes and Pakistan with its determination to counter India tooth-for-tooth. Credibility of deterrence rests on capability and its communication to the other side. Rhetoric is communication of sorts. Both sides seek to leverage the delicacy of deterrence - in that it can break down - with an aim to reinforce it – so the other side does not test it.
In case of India, on the very day the prime minister alluded to India’s ten-day war preparedness, General MM Naravane revealed that earlier shortages of ammunition for a ten-day war at intensive rates of ammunition expenditure had been redressed (India Today 2020). In the aftermath of the surgical strikes by land in retaliation to the Uri terror attack of late 2016 had been replenished by thirty contracts amounting to Rs. 30000 crore. This explains the prime minister’s timeline of seven to ten days to bring Pakistan to its knees.
For its part, Pakistan, through Kidwai’s speech warns that, “Pakistan’s nuclear capability operationalised under the well-articulated policy of Full Spectrum Deterrence (FSD) comprises of a large variety of strategic, operational and tactical nuclear weapons, on land, air and sea, which are designed to comprehensively deter large-scale aggression against mainland Pakistan (Kidwai 2020: 5-6) (italics added).” The use of the term “large-scale” implies that short of a “large-scale” attack Pakistan may not resort to nuclear first use even under conditions of “relative conventional asymmetry (Kidwai 2020: 5)”.
Its confidence of taking on India conventionally appears emboldened by Indian defence budget figures. In wake of the prime minister’s threat of a short, sharp war, Shekhar Gupta pointed out that, “India had to have a decisive, deterrent conventional edge over Pakistan. If that is built in the years to come, it might even be possible to defeat Pakistan in less than a week (Gupta 2020).” Other analysts have referred to the defence budget, criticized over successive years as the lowest since the 1962 War in terms of a proportion of the gross national product, as insufficient to cover the modernization necessary to defeat Pakistan (Panag 2019).
From their deterrence pitch, it appears both sides believe that each has called the other side’s bluff: India thinking it has called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff (Unnithan 2020) and Pakistan believing that it has told India off. This posture of nonchalance in face of the other’s deterrence messaging is liable to be further complicated by the danger in India taking Khalid Kidwai literally: that an attack short of a “large-scale” attack would not trigger Pakistan’s Full Scale Deterrence (FSD). FSD is Pakistan’s drawing of a nuclear awning over its conventional forces to compensate for their comparative weakness.
Such an interpretation of Kidwai’s remarks is incentivized by his second reference to “large-scale” in his downplaying India’s conventional doctrinal make-over with its turn to proactive strategy or Cold Start. He claimed “Pakistan took corresponding operational, doctrinal and force developmental measures both in the conventional as well as nuclear fields, including the establishment of a Full Spectrum Deterrence regime…. As a consequence, the Cold Start Doctrine stayed neutralised, nuclear deterrence holds, and informed strategists consider large-scale wars (italics added) on the international borders as a thing of the past (Kidwai 2020: 7).”
What Kidwai misses is that Cold Start does not envisage a “large scale” conventional show-down. Limited war therefore remains possible even in Kidwai’s logic. India’s Cold Start doctrine, that guides the employment of IBGs for punishing Pakistani military for terror provocations, is predicated on not crossing Pakistani nuclear thresholds. India has readied two integrated battle groups (IBG) on the western front after test-bed exercises last year.
Kidwai’s useful visualization of an India-Pakistan escalation ladder is as follows:, “while it may be easy to climb thefirst rung on the escalatory ladder (surgical strikes), the second rung would always belong to Pakistan (its response), and that India’s choice to move to the third rung would invariablybe dangerously problematic in anticipation of the fourth rung response by Pakistan (Kidwai 2020: 7) (parenthesis added).” The rub is in Kidwai’s revelation of Pakistani policy of going “quid pro quo plus” (Kidwai 2020: 8) at the second rung. Both sides appear to be relying on escalation control to compensate for respective ‘escalate to de-escalate’ choices at diverse rungs of a proverbial escalation ladder: India at the first and third rungs and Pakistan at the second rung.
On the threat of escalation, the prime minister’s NCC rally speech has a clue. He claims that, “Today there is young thinking, the country is moving forward with a young mind, so it performs surgical strikes, air strikes and teaches the lesson to the terrorists in their home (Modi 2020).” This implies political responsiveness to pressures from the street, pressures that such speeh-making only serves to engender.
A crisis can turn into conflict if India ventures on to the third rung. Its limited war strategy has the disadvantage of being checked by Pakistan’s conventional counter since, by definition of limited war, India would not be throwing its full weight behind it. In order to prevail owing to pressures in domestic politics may force India to up the ante, forcing Pakistan to bring FSD into play.
Kidwai takes fear mongering further, saying, “that the escalatory rung climbing could not be so neatly choreographed, but could quickly get out of hand and morph into a major war which perhaps nobody wanted but whose outcomes would be disastrous for the region and the globe (Kidwai 2020: 7-8).” Candidness lets Kidwai’s real intent out of the bag as he goes on to state: “(it is) the Full Spectrum Deterrence capability of Pakistan (that) brings the international community rushing into South Asia to prevent a wider conflagration (Kidwai 2020: 6).” Even as Pakistan seeks to draw the international community in – such as urging intercession by President Trump - India persists in fobbing it off - as the UN secretary-general’s offer of his good-offices. This can be taken as part of messaging to Pakistan that India will not countenance a third party scrambling to save Pakistan from defeat.
Under a circumstance, the two sides are unwarrantedly sanguine. India thinks that there would be no further terror provocation to prompt its stepping on the first rung; that its limited war preparedness will deter a Pakistani “quid pro quo plus” counter at the second rung; and that its operationalisation of Cold Start will limit the war to the third rung. For its part, Pakistan appears to believe that its promise of “quid pro quo plus” at the second rung will prevent Indian surgical strikes at the first rung; and its FSD at the fourth rung will prevent India’s operations at the third rung from going “large-scale” onto the fourth rung.
Both want to escalate to de-escalate, knowing how to do the former better than the latter. Both can do with being bailed out by the international community stepping up when the conflict transitions between third and fourth rungs. However, staying apart till the crunch would be to leave it to the next crisis to test deterrence. Instead, the international community must follow through with its good offices’ initiative, under the logic that if the two sides do not negotiate, it behooves on the international community – that stands to suffer the consequences - to attempt conciliate the two (Bondevik 2020).
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