After the overt nuclearisation of South Asia in 1998, many in the policymaking and academic circles hoped that stability would ensue in the region. However, it has remained elusive. In the two decades after South Asian nuclearization, strategic stability has remained fragile at best. The reason being India’s pursual of a security and foreign policy that is driven by its quest for a great power status.
What is strategic stability? Anything that makes the conflict more likely is destabilizing for the region.
India has pursued extensive conventional military build-up, a triad of nuclear forces at land, air and sea, missile defense systems, as well as aggressive limited war-fighting doctrines like the Cold Start that are detrimental for conventional as well as nuclear deterrence. It is developing a two-tiered missile defence system aimed at protecting short and medium range ballistic missiles. It is also acquiring missile defence systems like the S-400 from Russia which provides it some protection against incoming missiles. While the system may not be foolproof, the real danger is that it does provide a sense of false security to the Indian decision-makers, making them act with aggression in a crisis. Pakistan has tried to diversify its delivery systems, increased its warheads, developed multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) missiles to counter the instability to its nuclear deterrent. This only serves to fuel a nuclear arms race in South Asia.
Strategic stability in South Asia has been held hostage to India’s ambitions of grandeur. This combined with an unwillingness for any meaningful dialogue with Pakistan and resolving issues between the two countries, especially festering issues like Kashmir, means that South Asia would remain a volatile and conflict prone region for the foreseeable future. With the re-election of Narendra Modi to power in India, who promotes Hindutva extremist tendencies, India is likely to adopt a more aggressive posture towards Pakistan. The Indian effort to create a new norm of surgical strikes within Pakistani territory is even more destabilising and could prove catastrophic. India's growing strategic partnership with the U.S. and the latter's efforts to build India up as a counterweight to China in the region is also destabilising.
India's development of nuclear-armed submarines is also destabilizing. India has plans to induct six nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN) in the next 15 years which gives it a second strike capability. India has in its arsenal a range of nuclear capable missiles including the ‘K series’ that can be launched from submarines and the short range Dhanush ballistic missile. So far, India and Pakistan have maintained land-based missiles in de-mated condition. However, at sea nuclear weapons have to be mated which leads due to the issues of command and control and increases the chances of accidental, as well as unauthorized launch. It also increases arms race tendencies since Pakistan is also developing its submarine fleet and has already tested submarine launched cruise missile (SLCM) Babur-3. Overall, nuclearization of the Indian Ocean is destabilizing for deterrence and strategic stability.
The strategic competition is now being carried to the fourth medium of warfare – the space. India conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) test on March 27, 2019 which essentially weaponizes space and is likely to carry the India-Pakistan rivalry to a higher level. Moreover, India has developed a dedicated military space programme that gives it superior surveillance, reconnaissance, intelligence and communication capability. This can give India considerable edge in terms of location and movement of Pakistani forces and serves to undermine its nuclear deterrence. This tips the balance of power further in India's favour. These developments directly threaten Pakistan’s security and strategic stability in South Asia.
India's Cold Start doctrine is also destabilizing since it seeks to find space for a limited war under Pakistan's nuclear threshold. Pakistan has responded to this threat by developing tactical nuclear weapons. It thus perpetuates the arms race tendency in South Asia and is therefore a dangerous and irresponsible behaviour as any conflict – conventional or otherwise – has the potential to escalate into a full-fledged nuclear war.
This doctrine has, in fact, led to the post-Pulwama style surgical strike by India. This seems to be a new Indian strategy, every time there is a terrorist attack in India, it is linked to Pakistan without any credible evidence. Prime Minister Imran Khan clearly offered Pakistan's cooperation on actionable intelligence and to take action if India provides proof that Pakistan is involved. However, India failed to provide any evidence. Even in 2016 India claimed to have carried out a surgical strike after the Uri incident but failed to provide evidence of Pakistan’s involvement. Then again in February 2019 after Pulwama incident India claimed to have targeted a so-called terrorist camp inside Pakistani territory. In fact, India seems to be trying to create a new norm – that it can strike inside Pakistani territory in response to any alleged Pakistan-linked terrorist attacks. On the international front, India made attempts to isolate Pakistan diplomatically so that international players would not intervene in case of a military strike. However, Pakistan's measured military response to Indian aggression across the Line of Control (LOC) was very rational and effective. It struck military targets on the Indian side without Pakistani jets crossing the LOC. This sent a clear signal to India that any military incursions within Pakistan would be met with appropriate military response. Pakistan, thus, created an effective deterrent against any "new norm" of surgical strikes against Pakistan. Prime Minister Imran Khan showed immense statesmanship in handling a crisis that could have quickly escalated.
All through the Pulwama incident, Indian media pursued an aggressive hate campaign against Pakistan, with unfounded accusations of it supporting terrorist elements. This fuelled a war hysteria within India. Every time a terrorist incident happens within India it is blamed on Pakistan without any credible evidence. A trend which has continued and intensified over the last two decades.
India is trying to establish military strikes within Pakistan as a "new normal." However, Pakistan's measured and rational response to Indian incursion effectively deterred India on a conventional level. Our nuclear deterrence also held India’s options under check. Despite that many have questioned whether Pakistan's nuclear deterrence has failed, resulting in Indian surgical strike. However, nuclear deterrence is not supposed to deter conventional threats. Pakistan's conventional capability is supposed to deter any conventional surgical strikes. It did so post-Pulwama. Nuclear deterrence comes in when conflict reaches the nuclear threshold. Therefore, Pakistan's conventional and nuclear deterrence both held their efficacy.
Pakistan's rational approach to the post-Pulwama Indian aggression averted an escalation. However, the Indian thinking of making it a norm to conduct surgical strikes within Pakistani territory is very dangerous and has the potential to escalate to a nuclear exchange. Any thought of direct conflict – conventional or otherwise – is highly risky in a nuclear environment and counterproductive to peace and stability in the region. Even at the height of Cold War, the two superpowers refrained from engaging in any direct conflict because it risked triggering a nuclear war. The Cuban Missile Crisis was an exception but both sides acted with rationality and restraint to manage and avert the crisis. India needs to learn a lesson from the two Cold War foes and not tread on this dangerous path.
This is extremely destabilizing for a nuclear armed region like South Asia. The South Asian nuclear theatre differs from the one in the Cold War between the two superpowers. India and Pakistan share a border and are comparatively small. Therefore, in any crisis missile flight time is under 10 minutes at best. They also have territorial disputes and disputes like Kashmir have the potential to escalate very quickly. South Asia is thereby comparatively more unstable and has the potential to escalate into a nuclear exchange if both countries do not exercise extreme caution. Indulging in adventurism like the post-Pulwama strike by India is highly risky between, two nuclear armed adversaries. It has the potential to escalate into a nuclear exchange. It is certainly not the action of a responsible nuclear power. Surgical strikes like this one, thus, must not be allowed to become the ‘new normal’ in South Asia.
Strategic stability in South Asia has been held hostage to India’s ambitions of grandeur. This combined with an unwillingness for any meaningful dialogue with Pakistan and resolving issues between the two countries, especially festering issues like Kashmir, means that South Asia would remain a volatile and conflict prone region for the foreseeable future. With the re-election of Narendra Modi to power in India, who promotes Hindutva extremist tendencies, India is likely to adopt a more aggressive posture towards Pakistan. The Indian effort to create a new norm of surgical strikes within Pakistani territory is even more destabilising and could prove catastrophic. India's growing strategic partnership with the U.S. and the latter's efforts to build India up as a counterweight to China in the region is also destabilising. India and U.S. cooperation extends to military, civil nuclear, and strategic domains. This also tips the balance of power in favour of India and emboldens it.
At the same time there is the need for a realisation that military escalation and coercion is counterproductive among nuclear-armed neighbours like India and Pakistan. The dialogue process between the two countries has been suspended for over a decade now. Ultimately, India and Pakistan, as nuclear-armed neighbours would have to revert to a process of dialogue between them to sort the difficulties out. The festering issue of Kashmir is the biggest hurdle to amelioration of ties between India and Pakistan. As rational, responsible nuclear states, they would have to pursue conflict resolution, which is the only rational way forward. Pakistan has shown its willingness, the ball is now in India’s court.
The writer is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad and focuses on nuclear and arms control & disarmament issues.
E-mail: [email protected]
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