For the last few years’ occasional violent incidents in India, coinciding with key events have become rather predictable. Pulwama therefore was no surprise. With elections looming and Modi under pressure, something was bound to happen. Accordingly, Pakistan had taken precautions putting all necessary deterrence demonstrating actions in place. The Pulwama affair has unfolded predictively. Within minutes the Indian government blamed Pakistan, the media picked up the frenzy and whipped up sentiment.
A conflict between two contiguous nuclear neighbours is a dangerous option. The envisaged political gains can be frittered away if attrition or escalation comes into play. In the Indo-Pak scenario, it is foolish to undertake any military action without a thorough understanding of the interactive phenomenon of escalation and escalation dynamics. As a fact, the theoretical escalation models can only be partially applied in the subcontinent. Besides being nuclear states, the bordering areas of the two countries have undergone phenomenal demographic changes making a surgical strike or limiting collateral damage in population centres, a grave escalatory step. This is compounded by a hyperactive media on both sides, capable of raising the political temperature almost instantaneously.
Considering a ‘diversionary theory’ stage-managed set-up and strike, it can also be assumed that the Indians are ready for escalation presuming escalation dominance. However, as the aggressor, it would be naive to assume escalation dominance only on the pretext of force asymmetry. The asymmetry in conventional and nuclear aspects is more applicable in an all-out war and less in sectoral conflicts, where even a smaller force can create effects due to geographical limitations. Accordingly, it is also almost impossible for one side to predict the escalation ladder without overwhelming escalation dominance on one side and the lack of response on the other. Interestingly, except for a Directors General Military Operation hotline, the two countries have no mutual escalation control mechanisms nor any formal dialogue forum, making an action-reaction cycle spiralling out of control, a real possibility.
Will a military strike be the end of story? The answer is ‘No’. For Pakistan, such a scenario holds no surprise. Maintaining the strategic balance and requisite deterrence has been the cornerstone of Pakistan’s defence policy. The development of tactical nuclear weapons and maturation of the ‘full spectrum deterrence’ concept are important steps in the same direction. Moreover, with decades of experience in handling Indian shenanigans, the political as well as the armed forces establishment is well prepared. Regional compulsions have trained Pakistan’s security establishment to remain a step ahead of the Indians. Accordingly, strategic surprise has little significance this time, as the armed forces in anticipation are already deployed. Thus the ante can be raised in no time. All possible contingencies have been ready, updated and rehearsed for years. From a one-off strike, hot pursuit, proactive to the ‘cold or luke-warm start’ strategy, whatever the modality, the response is on the table. Pakistan will not blink.
As a stated policy now, Pakistan’s armed forces will respond; minimum in quid pro quo plus (QPQP) mode. A limited or soft stance and response would be detrimental for Pakistan’s security, as it emboldens the Indians and sets a precedence for similar adventurism in the future, seriously eroding Pakistan’s deterrence. Therefore, rationally, the QPQP response would escalate the situation. Escalation will not favour the BJP hardliners and will not be internationally acceptable. It would also not be in the long-term interest of India due to economic repercussions. The first casualty of a conflict with Pakistan would be the ‘responsible emerging power and fast-growing economy’ tag for India. A fortnight of conflict would cost around INR2,50,000 crores and raise India’s fiscal deficit phenomenally. The economic hit severity would cause uncertainty for FDI and foreign institutional investors, accounting for a serious hit on the bourse and depreciating the value of the Indian rupee. In case of a prolonged conflict, the impact would be felt for years. The replenishment of war reserves and catering for almost 68% obsolescence of the Indian army’s hardware would account for a rise in the defence budget for almost a decade. This would also put an end to any downsizing and reorganising plan of the Indian army. With this unfolding scenario, the Indians would be denied a notion of victory and the whole exercise rendered futile, with no political mileage gained.
How will it all end? Pakistan India hostility scenarios test the conventional military and nuclear theories to the limit and are always challenging to play out. The ensuing environment becomes even more dangerous in the absence of any dependable and jointly-agreed mechanism for crisis management. However, for the current environment a few probable answers can be put forward as guiding principles. Will the diversionary theory of a hawkish Modi leadership risk further escalation? In all probability, No! An escalation would be unacceptable from the strategic, as well as Indian economic perspective and will be a serious blow to India’s global ambitions. Do the Indians have the ability to dominate and control the unfolding events or is it too unpredictable? Will an Indian conflict-termination strategy work? No! The Indians do not have the ability to dominate and control, as Pakistan has the ability to create significant effects. Moreover, as Pakistan’s prime minister highlighted, a unilateral termination strategy will not work. Under the given circumstance with no international backing, one can only hope that common sense prevails in India. Consequently, it is the Indians this time who have to tread a very fine line. The issue is India-occupied Kashmir and its resolution lies within India. There’s no escape from this reality!
Published in The Express Tribune, February 27th, 2019.