Why India no longer cares about Pakistan’s nuclear threats
For over quarter of a century, Pakistan’s undeclared war on India has centred on two pillars. The first is export of terror. The second is nuclear sabre-rattling. The strategic calculus of the Pakistanis is simple.
The terrorists are pushed into India without any fear of a similar pushback from India. This is so because unlike Pakistan, India doesn’t use terrorists as an instrument of state policy. India’s capacity to hit back using its conventional superiority has been severely constrained by the second pillar of Pakistani policy — nuclear weapons.
As a result, India has been pushed into a defensive mode. Instead of striking at the terror facilities inside Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, India has been forced to beef up its defences to prevent infiltration of terrorists. Pakistan, on the other hand, has been able to make do with a much smaller number of troops along the LoC, secure in the belief that there will neither be any terrorists coming from the Indian side, nor will India dare to launch a major punitive expedition because of the nuclear threat hanging over its head. At worst, the Indian Army could launch a retaliatory tactical level shallow raid across the LoC, something that has been done on a few occasions in the past 25 years when the provocation by Pakistan crossed the limits of tolerance.
The Pakistani calculus, which worked well for them in the past, could now, however, be in danger of being upended by India. In recent months, two developments suggest that the twin pillars of Pakistani policy might be starting to come under a lot of pressure. The first development was the declared cross-LoC raid carried out by the Indian Army in retaliation for an ambush of an Indian patrol party. While such retaliatory raids had been carried out in the past, they were never declared. But ever since the “Surgical Strikes” in September 2016, India now openly declares these raids. This complicates matters for the Pakistan army which is confronted with a dilemma on how to respond to these declared raids.
As long as India kept quiet about these raids, the Pakistan army could pretend nothing happened. But once these are declared, the Pakistanis can either deny they happened, or else will have to respond. Both options entail risks. Denying means giving India a virtual licence to keep doing these raids; responding, however, means going up the escalation ladder, which is a dangerous proposition especially if India decides it will control escalation dominance. More than deciding whether to deny or respond, what would be rattling the Pakistanis is whether or not such raids are going to become the new normal for the Indian side.
At a time when the Pakistan army is already stretched because of its security commitments on the troubled western front where the Pakistani Taliban are down but not out, and also the involvement of troops in internal security duties against terrorist cells, the last thing the Pakistan army needs is a hot eastern front. India has been steadily ratcheting up the pressure by retaliating very strongly to ceasefire violations by the Pakistanis, something that has inflicted a lot of pain and raised the costs for the Pakistanis.
If now India also starts making cross-border raids a normal feature of its policy of punishing Pakistan, then the latter will have to plug the gaps in its deployments by pulling out troops from internal security duties and from the western front, which in turn will create gaps there and create space for the Pakistani Taliban to re-establish themselves in areas from which the Pakistani troops pull out.
Relations with Pakistan have been going south since the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai. Despite that, India let go of the opportunity offered by the wave of terrorist violence that hit Pakistan from 2007. By heating up Pakistan’s eastern front, India could have easily caught Islamabad in a pincer. But the spike in Pakistan-sponsored terrorist violence in J&K since 2016 has all but broken the wall of India’s patience.
The second development is that India is now no longer ready to be cowed down by Pakistan’s nuclear sabre-rattling. Army chief Gen Bipin Rawat has made it clear that if given a task by the government, India will call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff and cross the border (presumably he means something more than a mere foray across the LoC). This statement has rattled the Pakistanis who reacted somewhat hysterically. A senior military official is quoted as saying the Army chief’s statement was “unwarranted and irrational”.
That Pakistan has played the “irrational” game for so long by threatening a nuclear attack was something that clearly escaped this unnamed official. Since rationality is a subjective thing, irrationality is a game two can play. This became clear when even the Pakistani foreign minister, who along with other politicians has often bandied the nuclear threat at India, called Gen Rawat’s statement “very irresponsible”.
While the Pakistanis have dared India to try Pakistan’s resolve, they know that if what Gen Rawat said is now Indian policy, then it signals the end of deterrence as conceived by them. In the words of the Pakistan military spokesman, the only thing that had stopped India for so long was Pakistan’s “credible nuclear deterrence”. But if India no longer considers Pakistani nuclear threats credible, then what happens to Pakistan’s deterrence doctrine?
The fact that India has already injected some ambiguity in its “no first use” posture with senior officials claiming in interviews and in their books that India would not allow Pakistan to strike first with nuclear weapons (which effectively means pre-empting Pakistan’s use of nuclear weapons), certainly complicates Pakistan’s strategic calculus which has been built on bleeding India through proxy warfare from behind the safety of its nuclear shield.
It is possible that India is merely playing mind games with the Pakistanis. Even if this is the case, given that cross-LoC raids have been declared, coupled with the Modi government’s ability and capacity for taking risks, means that the Pakistanis will have to go back to the drawing board and re-think their strategic calculus. Not doing so could prove extremely expensive and dangerous for them.