Is Kashmir a nuclear flashpoint? Escalation control in an India-Pakistan conflict is difficult but possible

March 18, 2019 4:41 PM

For three decades since 1989-90, Pakistan has been waging a proxy war to "bleed India through a thousand cuts".

INDIA PAKISTANIndia and Pakistan

By Gurmeet Kanwal

Twelve days after the terrorist strike on a CRPF convoy by a suicide bomber of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), a Pakistan-based, ISI-sponsored terrorist organisation, Mirage-2000 fighters of the Indian Air Force (IAF) struck the terrorist training centre at Balakot in Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa (KPK) province across the international boundary. There is now sufficient evidence to confirm that large-scale damage was caused.

As war clouds begun to gather once again, US President Donald Trump said the India-Pakistan situation is “very bad”. In the 1990s, former US President Bill Clinton had called Kashmir a “nuclear flashpoint”. Around the same time, Ashley Tellis, now a senior scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, had said the strategic environment in South Asia is marked by “ugly stability”.

When the war bugles begin to sound in South Asia, the world fears that it will once again witness the spectre of mushroom fireballs lighting up the sky and radiation clouds polluting large swathes of land. Are these fears well founded, or can escalation of conflict to the level of nuclear exchanges be controlled? Pakistan, of course, plays up these fears as they limit India’s options when India is provoked by gave terrorist attacks on its soil.

For three decades since 1989-90, Pakistan has been waging a proxy war to “bleed India through a thousand cuts”. Pakistan’s “deep state” (the army and the ISI) employs the military-jihadi complex comprising state-sponsored mujahideen of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and JeM to launch terrorist strikes against sensitive targets in Kashmir and urban centres, most often through suicide bombers.

The stated aim of the deep state is to wrest Kashmir from India and finish what Pakistan calls the “unfinished agenda of the Partition”. In order to avoid large-scale conflict to enable its economy an unfeterred opportunity to grow, India has shown strategic restraint and opted to confine its counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism fightback to its own territory.

In the past Pakistan has played its game of brinkmanship during the attack on the Indian Parliament by JeM operatives in December 2001, multiple strikes by the LeT’s sea-borne terrorists in Mumbai in November 2008 and on armed forces bases at Pathankot and Uri, among others.

After the attack at Pulwama, public opinion in India had been inflamed and Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said that full freedom has been given to the armed forces to retaliate appropriately. The Indian retaliation against terrorist training centres through air-to-ground strikes with precision-guided munitions (PGMs) has been proportionate as it has been directed against purely non-military targets. Pakistan has been in denial like it was after the post-Uri surgical strikes. However, the attack on a target at Balakot in KPK on Pakistani territory inflamed passions and forced Prime Minister Imran Khan and General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the COAS, to respond with limited air strikes on the Indian side of the LoC that were designed to placate public opinion.

Could the volatility have escalated into a larger conflict? Escalation is a product of the political guidance given to the armed forces, intelligence assessments, the options open and the means available to the adversary and his senior commander’s personality. In the India-Pakistan context, the nature of escalation will invariably depend on the response of the Pakistan army and the PAF to India’s counter strikes after acts of terrorism.

During the Kargil conflict, India had opted to limit its operations to throw out the Pakistani intruders to its own side of the LoC, as directed by Prime Minister Vajpayee. The Pakistan army had continued to support its soldiers who had intruded across the LoC in the garb of mujahideen, but avoided escalating the conflict. The PAF had stayed out of the fighting altogether as, in any case, it had few viable options to retaliate in Kashmir.

If the PAF had responded to the IAF strikes across the LoC and the international boundary by choosing to hit targets in Punjab, Rajasthan or Gujarat, or, if the Pakistan army had crossed the international boundary anywhere into Indian territory, similar Indian retaliation would have been guaranteed.

If India does launch ground forces operations in future, these are more likely to be limited to the areas across the LoC. Such operations will result in the bombardment of Pakistani army posts, battalion, brigade and division HQ, communications centres, ammunition and FOL dumps, key bridges, terrorist infrastructure and forward helipads by the Indian artillery. These operations will be supplemented by Special Forces raids and trans-LoC forays by infantry border action team (BAT).

India may also launch offensive operations to capture sensitive objectives across the LoC, for example to eliminate terrorist launch pads and deny the use of the most dangerous routes of infiltration. These are likely to be limited to brigade-level attacks, which are unlikely to escalate to war across the international boundary.

Should Pakistan choose to escalate, retaliatory military operations by India across the international boundary are likely to comprise deep offensive strikes at the level of Strike Corps operations or operations conforming to the Cold Start doctrine – several shallow strikes by division-sized integrated battle groups (IGB) into West Punjab and Sind.

Offensive operations by the Indian army will be supported by IAF and attack helicopter strikes on the Pakistan army’s strategic reserves, PAF airfields, missile launchers, HQ, communications centres, logistics infrastructure and terrorist training centres.

Naval operations may also be launched against the Pakistan navy. Depending on Pakistan’s response, naval operations may include the blockade of Karachi harbour and an embargo on the transportation of warlike stores from other international ports to Pakistan. The aim of Indian military operations across the international boundary will to inflict maximum possible damage on Pakistan’s military machine through the employment of massive firepower (artillery, missile, air-to-ground, naval).

Large-scale conventional conflict undoubtedly carries the risk of escalation to nuclear exchanges if Pakistan’s territorial redlines are crossed by Indian ground forces. However, Pakistan will not lightly opt for nuclear first use as India is likely to retaliate in accordance with its declared nuclear doctrine, which is massive retaliation. Such retaliation will finish Pakistan as a functional nation state and the Pakistani Generals, who control the country’s nuclear arsenal, are smart enough to understand this certainty. A bolt-out-of-the-blue counter-force nuclear first strike is most unlikely.

India will need to carefully calibrate its retaliation operations so as not to up the ante to large-scale conventional war-fighting, which may run the risk of escalation to nuclear exchanges. Pakistan would depend on the hope that the UNSC and the international community will intervene well before nuclear thresholds are reached.

(The writer is former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi. Views expressed are personal)

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