Border violence between India and Pakistan is spiraling to unprecedented levels. Provocations on the Pakistani side range from an internal tussle between the civilian regime and the army to a desire to ascertain the new Indian government’s resolve. India’s response shows New Delhi is establishing clear red lines, an endeavor that reflects a new firmness in India’s conduct of its external affairs. This new stance was also on display with China during General Secretary Xi Jinping’s recent visit to India. During this visit, Indian Prime Minister Modi decided to raise the border standoff issue publically and dispatched troops to counter Chinese incursions, a move lauded inside India for its boldness. Similarly, Modi’s controversial decision to cancel foreign secretary level talks with Pakistan earned him praise for seeking to set the agenda on India’s terms.
Given the continuity that characterizes Indian foreign policy making, it is too early to postulate a dramatic break from the past. Still, the ascension of India’s first non-Congress, non-coalition government in three decades undoubtedly injected new life in the conduct of India’s international affairs. The veiled reference by Pakistan to the nuclear capabilities possessed by both nations raises crucial questions about a conventional Indo-Pak conflict under a nuclear overhang and highlights the need for strategic clarity in South Asia.
Pakistan finds itself confronted by several internal and external problems. India’s cancellation of foreign secretary-level talks was followed by Pakistan’s failure to internationalize the Kashmir issue at the United Nations General Assembly. Pakistan’s growing disquiet stems from a period of flagging U.S. interest in the country, as well as the recent U.S.-India decision to improve cooperation to target predominantly Pakistan-based terrorist groups.Meanwhile, China is increasingly dissatisfied with Pakistani sanctuary for militant groups operating in Xinjiang. Iran-Pakistan border clashes have led to increased hostility and Afghanistan-Pakistan relations remain delicate.
On top of its foreign policy problems, the present Pakistani government must focus most of its energies on massive domestic unrest. Connected to the domestic turmoil is Indo-Pakistani verbal jousting over Kashmir, an annual rite that has become increasingly hostile. Such a rhetorical escalation is problematic for the possibility of increased hostilities, as Pakistani officials use the issue to unite domestic constituencies, often by bolstering the role of the Pakistani military while delegitimizing the civilian government.
Moreover, much speculation remains as to the rationale behind India’s uncharacteristically rapid and overwhelming response to recent Pakistani firing across the border—a move that took Pakistan by absolute surprise. In light of this, it remains unclear whether India would similarly respond to either a major terrorist attack akin to the 2008 Mumbai attacks or further escalation along the border. If either event occurs, it is likely that Modi—who rose to power selling the dream of a strong and prosperous India—would be compelled to respond in force, lest he lose all credibility. This scenario raises the specter of an armed conflict between the two historically antagonistic, nuclear-armed neighbors.
A hotly contested debate persists around whether the nuclearization of the subcontinent created a barrier to escalation or engendered a more dangerous situation in which Pakistan wages sub-conventional warfare behind a nuclear shield. More worrying is the danger that an armed conflict involving the use of nuclear weapons—even at the tactical level—would result in rapid escalation to the strategic level. This factor has historically informed India’s decision to abstain from resorting to force in response to Pakistani attacks in India.
Yet India is slowly recognizing the entrenched Pakistani perception of a weak Indian political community emboldens Islamabad to sponsor anti-India terrorist groups. Thus, despite the lack of a Pakistani No First Use policy (as accentuated by their recently fielded tactical nuclear weapons arsenal) and the perceptible trend toward sea-basing of nuclear weapons, the space to engage in conventional conflicts today is greater than ever before.
A series of successfully executed conventional Indian attacks directed against Pakistan would embarrass Pakistani generals so completely that their stranglehold over Pakistan might crumble. A humiliated Pakistani military would find its historically resonant status as the guardian of state institutions shattered, and would result in an erosion of their substantial support base that enables them to create and employ irregular Islamist extremist forces. It is conceivable that this dynamic may be perceived by Indian policymakers as a means to mitigate the terrorist threat emanating from Pakistan in the long run. If true, it behooves India to examine the coercive options available to effect such a change.
Neither cross-border artillery duels nor mobilization of armed forces—the latter attempted in 2002—have yielded much movement in Pakistani decision-making. By contrast, India has studiously refrained from exercising options at the higher end of the coercive spectrum: surgical air strikes, commando raids, naval blockades, or rapid incursions by integrated battle groups as embodied in the controversial Cold Start Doctrine. All these coercive options carry significant danger of escalation into wider conflict, but a Cold Start-type operation may be in a class all its own.
Cold Start (or Proactive Military Operations) was an operational plan developed after the mobilization of India’s armed forces following the 2002 terrorist attacks on Indian parliament. As an offensive operational plan seeking to grant India a retaliatory conventional strike capability, Cold Start sought to make shallow territorial gains in Pakistan without delivering a killing blow that might breach Pakistan’s nuclear threshold. Cold Start required the reorganization of the Army’s combat power from its three strike corps into eight division-sized integrated battle groups supported by naval and air fires. Within four days of the mobilization order, these units were expected to strike Pakistan along multiple axes of advance.
The U.S. appraisal of the plan concluded that India lacked the political will to execute Cold Start under the Congress-led UPA government in power in India over the past decade, a conclusion verified after the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. India’s hope that Cold Start’s existence would have some deterrent value has not materialized, in part because little effort have was taken to make the proposition credible. The poor operational readiness rate of Indian units, absence of forward prepositioning of war reserves, and lack of buy-in by the Indian Navy and Air Force all detracted from Cold Start’s credibility. The absence of new facilities to garrison its integrated battle groups and the failure to even detach any units from the strike corps to the integrated battle groups reinforce the plan’s lack of credibility.
Without established strategic clarity, an ad-hoc intrusive Indian response to Pakistani aggression unnecessarily risks wider escalation. Given the increasing probability that India will not maintain a posture of recessed deterrence, Pakistan’s discomfort becomes even more apparent. India has already inducted multiple nuclear ballistic submarines and has begun the development of Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicles to improve its nuclear strike capabilities. India’s stated doctrine of massive retaliation—regardless of the type of the attack—further complicates the issue; it appears highly unlikely that India would retaliate in an overwhelming fashion if Indian armed forces were attacked with a tactical nuclear weapon while within Pakistani territory.
Considering the proximity of Pakistan’s population centers to the Indian border in non-desert areas, it is unclear if Pakistan’s nuclear threshold would be breached, even by shallow Indian penetrations. Either way, whether the Indian government decides to fully endorse Cold Start or develop an alternate articulation of a doctrinal framework for undertaking “Proactive Military Operations,” clarity on its part is increasingly crucial to prevent strategic miscalculations in the subcontinent.
Himanil Raina is a B.A., LL.B. (Hons) student at the NALSAR University of Law and a freelance writer on geopolitical and international affairs.