On August 5, the Indian government did away with the special status enjoyed by Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) under Articles 35A and 370, bifurcating the state into two union territories. This change was fraught with military consequences: in the short term, an internal rebellion in the Valley and an external crisis with Pakistan, and, over the long term, a proxy war punctuated with periodic crises with Pakistan and the rekindling of an insurgency in Kashmir.
Hundred days after the fact, it may appear that the Indian government’s decision to run the risk of making this move, which it can be reasonably surmised was in part due to the Indian military’s confidence in its ability to manage the consequences, has largely paid off. But the respite is only likely to be through the winter.
Setting the Stage Militarily
In retrospect, it is easier to see that the government’s move in J&K was long in the making. At the subconventional level, the military conditions were created by the killing of more than 700 militants over the past three years in a concerted campaign. This containing of the insurgency created the enabling conditions in areas other than south Kashmir for the political initiative to withdraw Article 370. To an extent, it also seems to have been aided by Pakistan restraining its support to the insurgency in Kashmir as part of the “Bajwa doctrine” of reaching out to India, taken forward by Imran Khan through his peace overtures after taking over as prime minister.
With regard to dealing with a potential Pakistani response to any Indian moves in Kashmir, the Indian military presumably planned to resort to its recently-established toolkit, primarily consisting of surgical strikes—conducted by land in September 2016 following the Uri terror attack and by air at Balakot in the aftermath of the Pulwama bombing. Even if India’s Balakot aerial strikes did not hit the target—as some have argued, citing lack of evidence on the efficacy of the strikes—the deterrent was restored from the Indian point of view because India’s very decision to conduct the aerial strikes and to target mainland Pakistan demonstrated its willingness to accept elevated risk.
India has continued to hone its conventional deterrent over the years to prevent a Pakistani provocation, but the timing of recent Indian moves indicates that the military had a post-Article 370 scenario in mind.
India has continued to hone its conventional deterrent over the years to prevent a Pakistani provocation, but the timing of recent Indian moves indicates that the military had a post-Article 370 scenario in mind. The latest initiative was the test-bed exercises this summer of the integrated battle groups (IBGs) of the Western Command, part of operationalizing the Cold Start doctrine (India’s limited war doctrine that aims to conduct multiple shallow, offensive, punitive ground offensives in Pakistan). This makes for a closer coupling between the subconventional and conventional levels. Alongside, the Indian army chief’s deterrence messaging to Pakistan has been that he had forces on hand for following up on the air strikes at Balakot. After the crisis had subsided, the navy also let on that it had deployed its nuclear submarines to the North Arabian Sea (hinting at the inclusion of its nuclear-armed submarine). The intent behind showcasing and citing Indian conventional preparedness was to stay a Pakistani conventional response to India’s constitutional initiatives in J&K.
At the nuclear level, India has been attempting to influence Pakistan’s nuclear first-use decision by projecting ambiguity regarding its own no first use (NFU) pledge. After the nullification of Article 370, this was done through the Indian defense minister’s remarks about the NFU pledge being contingent on circumstances in the future. India was likely hoping to temper Pakistan’s “full spectrum deterrence” nuclear signaling that it could respond with tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) to any Indian forces crossing the International Boundary (IB). The idea of introducing ambiguity about the pledge appears to be to deter Pakistan from reaching for TNWs by implicitly holding out the threat that doing so would release India from its NFU pledge.
For his part, the Indian army chief has taken care to remind Pakistan that its notion of nuclear first use goes against the theory of strategic weapons employment. India has maintained that although IBGs are designed to operate across the IB, their limited objective of shallow strikes is meant to be well below the threshold that would warrant a nuclear response from Pakistan. With this, the Indian army chief hopes to widen the window for IBG deployment by influencing Pakistan against using nukes at an early stage in the conflict.
While details of IBG operational employment are necessarily under wraps, in case of a reprisal scenario they could administer a quick blow across the border from a standing start – thus the term “cold start” – and retrieve to their own side before Pakistan gets its act together. In case Pakistan escalates, then the role of the IBGs expands to link the subconventional level with the conventional. How the wider conventional faceoff will play out without provoking Pakistani nuclear redlines is a challenge for both armies and is set to continue till the two independently arrive at the conclusion that the risk is not worth running.
However, even though India is seeking a decoupling of the conventional and nuclear levels of the conflict, Pakistan has constantly reminded India—and the international community—of the intersection between these two levels. Pakistan did this even recently with Prime Minister Imran Khan explicitly drawing attention to this linkage at the UN General Assembly. This doctrinal interplay between the two states in the aftermath of the events of August 5 thus indicates the risk of war—nuclear war—that India has run with its J&K decision.
Did the Gamble Work?
India has tidied over the immediate term by extensive paramilitary deployment in Kashmir since early August under the ruse of heightened proxy war by Pakistan as well as through communication restrictions on Kashmiris and detentions of political leaders. What also worked in India’s favor was Pakistan’s appraisal by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a terror financing and money laundering watchdog, in October. FATF has determined Pakistan would remain on the grey list till February or be put on the blacklist if it does not make progress on the action plan. This suggests that the pressure to clean up its act for a positive FATF decision and its dire economic straits may have precluded Pakistan from attempting heightened proxy war or conventional war at least until next summer.
However, India’s August 5 move could backfire over the long term (next summer and beyond), both within Kashmir and vis-à-vis Pakistan. For one, reports of considerable human rights violations in Kashmir, such as the detention of juveniles, suggest a deepening of the suppression-alienation cycle—in fact, civil society activists returning from Kashmir report that people in the Valley have launched a civil disobedience movement. These satyagraha tactics can be expected to continue till the Supreme Court announces a decision on the petitions challenging the voiding of Article 370 but if that decision does not go the way of the Kashmiris, a renewal of the insurgency can be expected. In addition, with Prime Minister Khan indicating that support to Kashmiris is an obligation under the doctrine of jihad (struggle), Pakistan’s proxy war in Kashmir—even if largely indigenized—is set to persist.
Unease from the heightened contest could see India delivering on its promise of a robust response. Reassured by the recent acquisition of ammunition stocks at ten days intense-war rate, inclusion of the Rafale into its inventory, conversion of mechanized formations into IBGs, and restructuring of its apex military under a new chief of defense staff system, India may seek a way out through limited war.
Since it takes two to keep a war limited, it remains to be seen if Pakistan’s “new concept of warfighting” gives it the confidence to take on an Indian conventional attack without resorting to its nuclear arsenal to compensate for its conventional disadvantage. By operationalizing Cold Start and simultaneously flexing air and naval muscles, India is unwarily leaving Pakistan with little recourse other than putting a premium on its nuclear capability. This in turn leads to buffeting of India’s NFU.
By operationalizing Cold Start and simultaneously flexing air and naval muscles, India appears intent to leave Pakistan with little recourse other than putting a premium on its nuclear capability.
India hopes to cow Pakistan down, confident that Pakistani nuclear nonchalance regarding TNW introduction into a conflict is more for projection than carrying out during crunch time. The onus to keep off the escalation accelerator is thus transferred to Pakistan, the foreseeable consequence of not doing so being explicit to Pakistan. This placing of all the regional eggs in the basket of Pakistani good sense is an overstretch, an instance of Indian strategic credulity.
In short, the likely assurance of the Indian military on its ability to manage the consequences of the decision to remove the special status of J&K, which presumably emboldened the government to undergo its Kashmir initiative, has upped the possibility of war. The extent of danger is evident from a timely study that found that some 125 million people could perish in a subcontinental nuclear war. The government—on which rests the onus of the political decision—should have been more circumspect in its Kashmir decisionmaking, irrespective of the advice received from the military apex.
The Indian military’s periodic recourse to deterrence signaling is attributable to habits formed in the India-Pakistan cold war. Fortunately for it, the possibility of war has receded not due to its deterrence posturing, but by the sagacious recourse to civil disobedience by the Kashmiris. This has dampened for now both Indian repression and jihadi ardor supportive of Kashmiris in Pakistan. How the Indian security forces manage Kashmiri satyagraha will determine the temperatures in the subcontinent out to next summer.
Image 2: India’s