8 October 2016

*****Creating space for a limited conventional response

By Pranay Kotasthane 

What do the ongoing incidents along the LOC tell us about the India—Pakistan conflict? 

The events over the last twenty days on the sensitive India—Pakistan Line of Control (LOC) have meant that this protracted conflict has once again become an object of attention in the Indian subcontinent.

India’s overt military operation to eliminate terrorist bases across the LOC has been described variously— ‘breaking out of the box’, a ‘calibrated strategic escalation’ or even ‘a new normal’ are just some of the new phrases in use. On the other hand, Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes that these strikes are at best “tinkering with strategic restraint”, not abandoning it.

Perhaps, an analytical framework to visualise the India—Pakistan conflict can be instructive for three reasons. One, to explain the nuances involved during times of hostility between the two countries, providing policy makers with the right starting point for designing a de-escalation policy. Two, to investigate if there is an asymmetry in the thresholds of nuclear and conventional thresholds between the two countries. And three, identify if a mismatch in thresholds creates conflict levels that might be preferred by one state but not by the other. Such a framework could then be a good starting point for contextualising the current state of events on the LOC.

The framework

A framework constructed on the basis of the perceived levels of nuclear and conventional thresholds for both states is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: The India—Pakistan conflict escalation

The left vertical axes is the conflict escalation ladder for India while the vertical axis on the right represents the escalation ladder for Pakistan. As one goes up the escalation ladder, each state’s belligerence increases.

Based on this framework, the following observations can be made: 
there is an asymmetry in nuclear & conventional thresholds between the two countries 
this asymmetry creates a total of five conflict levels 
the strategies of the two nation-states to alter their respective nuclear and conventional threshold levels are in diametrically opposing directions 

The five conflict levels

Level A describes the scenario what many analysts have called “jihad under the nuclear umbrella”. This level is below the conventional war threshold of both countries. In this conflict level, Pakistan operates through its proxies like Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) and others in orchestrating insurgency and terrorism on India’s soil. India, on the other hand tries to use intelligence gathering to prevent such attacks. On the border, this conflict level is characterised by heightened defences. Ceasefire violations and occasional exchange of fire are also common at this conflict level.

Level B is a scenario where the Pakistani state openly acts in collaboration with its VNSAs while India resists from launching a full-scale war. An example of such a conflict was the Kargil conflict (May—July 1999). In that particular case, Pakistani soldiers and militants infiltrated on the Indian side of the territory. The Indian Army retaliated, and recaptured the positions occupied by the infiltrators. At the same time, India refrained from launching a full-scale conventional war against Pakistan on other fronts, as was seen in the 1965 Indo—Pakistan war.

Level C is a scenario of a full-scale conventional war between the two states. An example of this conflict were the wars of 1965 and 1971 when there was direct military confrontation between the two armies on multiple fronts. While the 1965 war ended in a stalemate, the 1971 war ended with the surrender of Pakistani forces and the liberation of Bangladesh. This bitter experience of full-scale wars makes this level an extremely undesirable one in Pakistan’s strategic thought. Thus, it has been Pakistan’s endeavour to narrow this level.

Level D is a scenario where Pakistan deploys its low-intensity nuclear weapons, assessing that India will not use its own nuclear weapons and escalate the conflict further. Examples of this scenario are battlefield nuclear attacks on Indian formations that have entered Pakistani soil, or sub-kilotons attack on Indian troops on Indian soil. According to the Indian nuclear doctrine, this level does not exist as India maintains that any nuclear attack would be met with mutually assured destruction.

Level E describes the Mutually Unacceptable Destruction(MUD)_ scenario. This level is not the same as the Cold War era construct of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). At the low levels of availability and operability of nuclear warheads in both countries, not even a total nuclear exchange will completely destroy India or Pakistan. However, such a scenario will no doubt cause widespread destruction and unprecedented misery and hence even these levels of destruction are unacceptable to India, and in all likelihood should be unacceptable to Pakistan too. The Indian side particularly wants the nuclear threshold to be as high as possible so that it does not have to use nuclear weapons ever, knowing that it will halt its economic growth.

Applying this framework to the recent events

The levels mentioned in the framework are not static. Both states want to alter the levels to reach an optimal conflict scenario. The arrows in the escalation framework describe the desired direction of thresholds from the perspective of both the states.

For instance, what would the optimal conflict scenario for Pakistan look like? Pakistan wants to lower its nuclear threshold through the threat of battlefield nuclear weapons. This would effectively eliminate level C which is Pakistan’s least desirable conflict scenario. Full-scale conventional war as a strategy hasn’t worked in favour of Pakistan.

To make the nuclear threat credible, Pakistan will project that it is not impossible for its low-intensity nukes to land up with terrorists, notwithstanding the impact of such an act on its own population. As long as there is no internal opposition to this bogey of tactical nukes, it will continue to remain a threat to be factored in for any conflict analysis.

On the other hand, Pakistan wants to push its own conventional threshold higher because employing terrorists in level A has yielded it maximum benefits at least costs. Taking these desired movements into account, the optimal conflict scenario for Pakistan would look as follows:

Figure 2: Pakistan’s optimal conflict escalation scenario

What will the optimal scenario for India? By maintaining the posture that ‘the Indian deterrent will remain credible against all categories of weapons of mass destruction’, India seeks to eliminate Level D altogether. This can be achieved in two ways: first, by enhancing the credibility of the threat that India will not flinch in using nuclear weapons when attacked with any form or type of a Pakistani nuclear weapon. Two, by destroying Pakistan’s battlefield nuclear weapons.

Secondly, the Indian side wants to lower its conventional threshold so that it can be lower than Pakistan’s conventional threshold. India would like to carve out a new scenario B’, in which it can carry out options such as precise air-borne attacks to eliminate strategic targets in Pakistan.

Figure 3: India’s optimal conflict escalation scenario

This is exactly what India did in response to the attacks in Uri. By conducting an overt military operation, the Indian government signalled that it has narrowed down the level A which hurt it most. By bringing its conventional threshold low enough, India managed to carve out a new scenario B’, in which it can carry out options such as surgical land or air strikes to eliminate strategic targets in Pakistan.

As both Walter Ladwig_ and Christopher Clary_ identify separately, this option has a potential for inadvertent escalation to a full-scale war. Given that an escalation resulting from a limited air-strike might escalate the conflict to Level C, where India enjoys relative superiority_, the final decision would rest on the confidence that even a full-scale conventional war would not result in a nuclear response from Pakistan.

(This is first part of a two part series on the recent conflicts around the LoC between India and Pakistan)

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