Confines of confrontational statements and conventional deterrence

By Maimuna Ashraf 

The two subcontinent nuclear powers, Pakistan and India, have been very recently involved in a war of words and words of war which has reopened the debate on South Asian’s nuclear and strategic stability. Predominantly, three official statements from India in scorching ‘June’ have further inflamed the traditional tensions between two nuclear neighbors. Pragmatically, beyond the strained relations, statements also advocate few confines of military threats, limited war and conventional deterrence posture in South Asian region.

While back in the preliminary week of June, Indian defense minister Manohar Parrikar, shared his strayed thought to “neutralize terrorists through terrorists only” as a retort to another attack on India by Pakistan-based non-state actors. Notwithstanding the well-known verbal diarrhea of Parrikar for making controversial statements, it proved a shocking development. His remarks were later followed by the Indian PM Narendra Modi’s acknowledging statement in Dhaka about India’s intervention in the breakup of East Pakistan in 1971. He applauded Indian military involvement in events of 1971 and admired India’s triumph in conception of Bangladesh.

These blatant official statements from India establish two distinct and cogent understandings. First and widely discussed, it affirms Pakistan’s accusation that India is infiltrating terrorism on its land and intensifying its fight to counter terrorism. Evidently, it was not the first time that someone from India explicitly advocated use of terrorism in neighboring state on the alleged reason of averting terrorism from that state. Before Parrikar and Modi, in the mid of April, former Indian Army Chief VK Singh and former Delhi Police commissioner Neeraj Kumar shared few ‘considerations’ while discussing the 26/11 at a book release event. Kumar said that at one time a ‘plan was conceived to get a certain gentleman in Pakistan, which also included the use of non-state actors for the mission and all preparation were done for it but plan was not avenged because of political leadership ’. Singh supported the Kumar statement by adding “given a task it (India) will execute it in a much better manner than the Americans did (referring to US operations to kill Osama Bin Laden)”. Such blunt disclosures from India settled a stern impression that India does not want stability in Pakistan and the deteriorated law and order situation, especially in Balochistan and Karachi, is reflection of Indian mindset.

Second and subtle understanding is that most likely India has diverted to exercise the sub-conventional techniques because she inadvertently recognizes the inefficacy of its conventional deterrence posture to frighten Pakistan. Although in last year referring to Kashmir scuffle, Indian defense minister warned Pakistan “our conventional strength is far more than theirs and therefore if they persist with this, the cost to them would be unaffordable”, yet the effectiveness of India’s conventional deterrence is questionable. Viewing back in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Indian Parliament in 2001, India unveiled Sundarji doctrine. Operation Parakram was launched with offensive and defensive formations of the Army being mobilized along the Pakistan-India border, with endeavors to coerce Islamabad to start operation against jihadi outfits and react aggressively against any emergency on border. Howeverthe Sundarji doctrine faltered due to dawdling Indian mobilization that permitted Pakistan to mount its reaction and beat Indian strategic designs. After the failure of operation Parakram, India announced a new limited war ‘Cold Start’ doctrine in 2004. The new Cold Start doctrine was resultantly aimed to mobilize quickly the eight division-sized armed battle groups towards Pakistan and to exterminate Pakistani armed forces before they could accumulate a response. Conversely, with Pakistan’s retort to use tactical weapons against such advancements and wide critique on cold start in India as critically escalatory, put question marks on the cold start capability to deter Pakistan.

In second week of June, following the surgical attacks inside Myanmar conducted by Indian forces as a reaction to militant attack on an Indian military convoy, India termed it “a message for all countries, including Pakistan.” Indian Minister for Information and Broadcasting Rajyavardhan Singh asserted to “carry out surgical strikes at the place and time of our own choosing”. Pakistan’s Interior Minister retorted, “India should not mistake Pakistan for Myanmar, our armed forces are fully capable of responding to any foreign aggression”. Apparently, Modi’s establishment boasts the aggressive posture towards Pakistan and seeking a strategic space to start a limited war with Pakistan, yet realistically, Indian military capacity to conduct a major attack against Pakistan is debatable. Any raid by Indian forces inside Pakistan would risk the nuclear war in South Asia as Pakistan nuclear policies are crafted exclusively to counter any aggression from one neighboring state, unlike India who has to balance its conventional and nuclear capabilities for two nuclear neighbors. Over the past, in the aftermath of Mumbai Attack, India inclination to launch a quick strike against Pakistan was called off viewing the “poor state of armory, both ammunition and artillery”.  Yet again in 2012, Indian Army Chief painted a “grim and indeed alarming” picture of their operational capabilities in his letter to PM. The critical shortfall in ammunition reserves repetitively revealed in 2014 that India does not have enough ammunition to launch a full-blown war for even 20 days. Lately, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India reported that country continues to face the severe ammunition shortage which is adversely impacting the operational readiness.

In the wake of all these realities, India’s belligerent statements serve more the purpose of verbal strokes than validate schema. The stern response by Pakistani establishment to each statement substantiates the vainness of Indian conventional and nuclear threats to deter Pakistan. Nonetheless, by avoiding such futile confrontational statements in future, India should recognize the danger of nuclear escalation in a limited conflict between two nuclear armed states, which will take life of more than 20 million people and make the South Asian land barren for years to come.

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Maimuna Ashraf

Maimuna Ashraf works as a Senior Research Associate for an Islamabad-based think tank Strategic Vision Institute. She works on issues related to nuclear non-proliferation, arms control and South Asian nuclear equation. She writes for South Asian Voices, international blogs and national dailies.

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