No Peace and No War in South Asia?

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George Perkovich and Toby Dalton have assessed the possibilities of conflict between India and Pakistan in a timely book, Not War, Not Peace? Motivating Pakistan to Prevent Cross-Border Terrorism (Oxford, 2016). Their bottom line is reflected in the title: India’s confrontation with Pakistan “is neither war nor peace, but rather a chronic contest of wills occasionally punctuated by bursts of violence.” Will the violence remain contained? Yes, if rational actors act on the basis of rational analysis. But there would have been no wars in 1965, 1971, and 1999, and no crises in 2001 and 2008, if rational actors and rational analysis had prevailed.

George and Toby’s book was not well received in Pakistan, where there is great sensitivity about being typecast as the instigator of tensions and conflict, without due regard for Indian misdeeds. Another complaint is that the authors have laid before India a menu of retaliatory choices against Pakistan – as if these options would not have occurred to New Delhi. This book was also not warmly welcomed in India, where advice from U.S. analysts can be viewed as condescending. Such are the hazards of Washington-based NGOs focusing on nuclear dangers on the subcontinent. George and Toby deal with this situation by not making final recommendations, but their inferences can be easily drawn.

India shares blame with Pakistan for the mess created since Partition. New Delhi has not been generous in its dealings with Pakistan, especially over the disputed and divided territory of Kashmir. Pakistan’s military and intelligence services will not let this issue rest. Since the late 1980s, payback usually has taken the form of strikes against Indian targets by extremist groups that have taken up residency in Pakistan. Consequently, war scares on the subcontinent begin with actions emanating from Pakistan; wars depend on how New Delhi reacts.

While George and Toby’s book has been caricatured as being anti-Pakistan, it is actually addressed to Indian decision makers. At the book’s core is a deeply cautionary assessment about the dangers of Indian military retaliation. In the event of another significant attack, this book’s message may well be drowned out by vitriolic social and television media. Strident voices in India carried out a practice run after the September attack on a military outpost at Uri by the usual suspects, to which Prime Minister Narendra Modi responded – to much national jubilation – with publicized commando raids across the Kashmir divide.

One of the book’s conclusions is that “the two states’ possession of survivable nuclear arsenals makes conventional war mutually suicidal.” Short of victory, what would constitute an advantageous outcome for India? One that, in George and Toby’s estimation, would “leave Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders and institutions with the motivation and sufficient capabilities necessary to control anti-Indian terror organizations.” (Italics in the original.)

Successful retaliation, would, in the authors’ view, accomplish the following objectives:

  • Satisfy a “domestic political-psychological need for punishment”;
  • Motivate Pakistani authorities to act against extremist anti-India groups;
  • Deter Pakistani authorities from escalating conflict in reaction to India’s punitive moves; and
  • Bring the conflict to a close in ways that do not leave India worse off than before it began.

For purposes of analysis, George and Toby posit five “ideal-type” options that Indian leaders might contemplate to achieve these objectives. (In reality, they understand that hybrid choices are available.) Option one is army-centric “Cold Start” operations. Option two is limited air strikes. Option three is a symmetrical response utilizing sub-conventional warfare and covert operations to foment insurgency in Pakistan. Option four is enhancing India’s nuclear capabilities and revising its nuclear doctrine to complement conventional options, thereby dissuading Pakistan from escalating across the nuclear threshold. The fifth option is a combination of Indian strategic restraint, as was the case after the 2001 Parliament attack and the 2008 Mumbai attack, combined with a strategy of “non-violent compellence” via diplomatic means to “isolate and punish Pakistan economically, politically, and morally.”

George and Toby pour cold water on Cold Start, a doctrine to which the new Indian Army Chief has expressed fealty. In their view, army-centric warfare is a poor way to engineer the objective of giving civilian leaders in Pakistan a leg up in policy making over the Pakistan Army. (This objective would require a decisive win on the battlefield, which would, in turn, invite mushroom clouds.) Another limited conventional war – this time initiated by India – could well end in stalemate, which would be deemed a victory by Pakistan. It would also strengthen links between Pakistan’s military and intelligence services and extremist groups. Moreover, this option is conducive to escalation, leaving India worse off than before resorting to a clash of arms.

The authors are also skeptical about the net effects of the air-power option. Air power alone rarely accomplishes strategic gains, let alone the more modest tactical objectives against which success might be measured on the subcontinent. The air-power option also invites escalation. The authors’ bottom line is that, “the surface attraction of limited, precise airborne strikes is offset significantly, if not equally, by risks and [Indian Air Force] inadequacies.”

As for covert operations directed against Pakistan, the authors reason that they are “the most proportionate and least escalatory policy for India to pursue.” Employing this option would, however, forfeit India’s high ground as being the victim and not the perpetrator of terrorist acts – once plausible deniability has been lost. Moreover, Pakistan may have stronger cards to play than India in this domain. As with other options, applying significant pain would invite significant responses. And this option, like those before it, would bind Pakistani authorities even closer to extremist groups.

The authors also have their doubts about the utility of beefing up India’s capability for nuclear war-fighting options to complement conventional military operations, dissuade Pakistan from crossing the nuclear threshold, and to control escalation in the event this threshold is crossed. This option would require nothing less than a significant change in Indian strategic culture, followed by a far more effective and coherent strategy of military planning, procurement, and operational follow through than India has demonstrated to date. And if all of this could be overcome, the dilemma of escalation control would remain.

The fifth option, “non-violent compellence,” built upon UN Security Council Resolution 1373, also faces difficulties. UNSC 1373 was a Chapter VII initiative after 9/11, obligating all states to prevent their territory from being used by extremist groups to recruit, organize, train, fundraise, and carry out attacks. Pakistan is clearly in violation of this Resolution, but retains the protection of China to deflect penalties. Pakistani authorities are quite sensitive about being isolated, and creative ways are available to apply pressure, as noted in this book. To succeed, however, a campaign of non-violent compellence requires Washington’s support and New Delhi’s willingness to negotiate on Kashmir. The authors assess that the risks of non-violent compellence are low compared to other options, but their probable benefits are comparatively limited, as well. Nonetheless, there is untapped potential for New Delhi in this space.

One value of this important book lies in its interviews with experienced sources in both countries. Another is the high quality of the authors’ analysis. They note that, “Pakistan finds itself falling further behind India in all measures of well-being, security, and reputation.” But Pakistan’s military and intelligence services have measured national security in different ways, and pride themselves in being ahead of India in nuclear and sub-conventional warfare capabilities. Consequently, it will be hard to alter the prospects for an intensified nuclear arms competition and an unstable equilibrium on the subcontinent.

The authors anticipate that Modi would adopt a “Chinese menu” approach to the next significant provocation emanating from Pakistan, drawing from options two, three and five. That Modi retaliated to the Uri attack in a lesser fashion with commando raids suggests that he is mindful of escalatory pressures. But escalation will be hard to avoid, depending on the extent of future injuries incurred. The way out of the current mess therefore begins with demonstrable steps by Rawalpindi to prevent sparks that can lead to escalation and war. These steps will not be sustainable unless New Delhi responds with sustained and meaningful diplomatic engagement.

Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on January 29, 2017.

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