India and Pakistan, since their partition have remained embroiled in a seemingly unending acrimonious relationship. This remains so, despite periodic efforts undertaken at the governmental and the non-governmental levels. The overt introduction of nuclear weapons in 1998 added a new dimension to the Indo-Pakistan relations, which continues to evolve till date. Glancing at the contemporary academic or think tank discourse on the issue, it becomes evident that while both the countries seem to be looking at the same picture, their interpretations seem very different. While this is natural for any two countries with varying national security interests or priorities, there is a need to ponder over what is exactly different in the way New Delhi and Islamabad perceive the role of nuclear weapons and its relation with the spectrums of conflict.
Pakistan’s asymmetry with the Indian military was a pressing issue for its decision-makers. To address the conventional gap, Islamabad chose to take the sub-conventional route by employing state-funded non-state actors and bleeding India by a thousand cuts. It is worth noting that sub-conventional activities (terrorism) in Kashmir were initiated and carried out by Pakistan-based and supported terror groups against the nuclear backdrop. To understand this better, let us look at the figure below with Triangle 1 (which denotes India’s focus) and Triangle 2 (which denotes Pakistan’s focus). The Triangles are divided into Sub-conventional (Level 1), Conventional (Level 2) and Nuclear (Level 3) Conflicts.
Diagrammatically, Pakistan opted for actions at the sub-conventional level (Level 1) in the triangle to address a gap in conventional capability (Level 2). Over time, Pakistan remained unsatisfied with its success in Level 1 and was consternated by its widening military and economic gap with India. New Delhi’s response to Pakistan’s sub-conventional activities was confined to counter-terrorism (CT) operations and in extreme cases (such as attack on Indian Parliament in 2001) resorted to the use of conventional strength (as denoted by the arrows in the diagram). This implies that New Delhi responded to Pakistani challenges at Level 1 through CT operations and at times by action at Level 2. The Triangles also depict how India separates the nuclear level of conflict from non-nuclear levels of conflict. On the other hand, Pakistan has tried to blur the distinctions between all the levels of conflict.
Needless to say, the South Asian geopolitical scenario changed drastically with overt nuclearisation in the sub-continent. Since then, a major divergence has always been the way India and Pakistan have viewed nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence. India views its nuclear weapons as political weapons, i.e. that they are not war-fighting weapons but considered a capability to deter any nuclear attack on India (threat perception from China acting as an important motivating factor). India separates the Level 3 from Level 1 and 2.
Contrastingly, Pakistan considers its nuclear weapons as possessing the capability to deter a conventional war with India, while continuing with sub-conventional operations. Pakistan’s continuous support of terror groups to attack India, in turn results in a conventional response from India. India attempts to deter Pakistan’s sub-conventional activities by threatening a strong conventional response. Pakistan hopes to deter Indian conventional response by threatening to take the war to the nuclear level. Consequently, Pakistan removes the distinctions between all the three levels of conflicts by indirectly connecting Level 1 to Level 3.
To illustrate, the 2004 Indian Army Doctrine popularly referred to as the Cold Start Doctrine (CSD) is Indian Army’s attempt to reduce the time taken for mobilisation and undertake operations below Pakistan’s red lines. Even with the possession of nuclear weapons, India has stuck to the non-nuclear domains of conflict, starkly in contrast with Pakistan which prefers to do away with the distinction between non-nuclear and nuclear levels. Moreover, the introduction of HATF IX/tactical nuclear weapons as a response to CSD is yet another attempt by Pakistan to undo the distinctions between the conventional and nuclear conflict. HATF IX also makes one wonder if Islamabad has changed its earlier stance of First Use (which was strategic in nature) to First Strike (which is tactical in nature). Pakistan is threatening to lower its threshold for nuclear use which implies that it would escalate any conventional war to the nuclear level, thereby attempting to take away any space for conventional action by India.
With the spiraling evolution of actions and response, the lines between all forms of conflicts are seemingly getting blurred in the Indo-Pakistan context. This can be majorly attributed to India and Pakistan’s different interpretations of deterrence and nuclear deterrence. Without doubt, this poses a danger to the stability in the region. The analysis only goes to show that India and Pakistan are speaking in different tongues when it comes to nuclear issues. Although India released the Cabinet Committee on Security Affairs (CCS) approved nuclear doctrine in January 2003, Pakistan has offered no such precedent. There are also growing uncertainties about the technical capabilities of both the countries coupled with misinterpretations regarding their nuclear signaling. At this juncture, there is a strong need for greater interaction and transparency between Indian and Pakistani officials. The need of the hour is to establish platforms where both sides can address their concerns and address misperceptions on a timely basis. This will surely make a positive contribution to Indo-Pakistan deterrence stability.
Image: Sam Panthaky-AFP, Getty