In a recent article, “Advancing without Attacking: The Strategic Game around the Use of Force,” Dan Altman presents a new framework to study how states behave in crises. In his view, states often engage in a game of chess, attempting to outmaneuver the adversary’s natural red lines to make gains and exploit the adversary’s reluctance to use force first. This review of Altman’s article assesses if the framework he articulates—advancing without attacking—explains the dynamics of India-Pakistan conflicts. It concludes that advancing without attacking, which is premised on the sanctity of the use-of-force red line, fails to explain South Asian conflict dynamics because neither India nor Pakistan shy away from using force when the opportunity arises. Instead, the prospect of conflict escalation—with the probability of nuclear use—reinforces the centrality of traditional coercion in explaining South Asian conflict dynamics.
Traditional Coercion vs. Advancing Without Attacking
Studies of conflict have primarily examined how states engaged in crises rely on the threat of conflict escalation to attempt to intimidate their adversary into giving in to their coercive demands. Various tools, such as military mobilization, public statements, and shows of force, have been employed by states to signal their resolve to live up to the threat posed. Altman writes that, according to this traditional view of crisis strategy, states make gains by “sending signals of resolve to create perceptions of credibility and leveraging the credible threat of future escalation to coerce concessions.” However, this common academic perception of states’ crisis strategies does not explain how they often make gains by unilateral impositions, which do not explicitly rely on signals of resolve to escalate conflict in the future.
Altman postulates that the framework of advancing without attacking fills this gap in our understanding of states’ crises strategies. He argues that a state can make gains by fait accompli (seizing the object of dispute or part thereof outright) or through imposed pressure (creating a new status quo that is costly to the adversary) in such a way that it not cross the red lines of the adversary, such as the use-of-force red line. Additionally, Altman posits that a state can outmaneuver the adversary’s use-of-force red line by either outflanking it or targeting gray areas through actions that do not explicitly violate the red line in question.
Use-of-Force Red Lines in South Asia
Instances in which adversaries choose to use force in response to the actions a state has employed in accordance within Altman’s framework constitute failed examples of advancing without attacking. In the South Asian context, a failed case of application of the advancing without attacking framework occurred during the 1999 Kargil conflict, when Pakistani troops crossed over the Line of Control (LoC) to occupy positions on Indian territory, exploiting gaps in Indian border defenses as well as baseline intelligence gathering. The breach of the LoC and invasion occurred without any overt use of force by Pakistan; thus, these initial actions can be explained by the advancing without attacking framework. However, since India began using force as soon as the invasion was detected, this forms a failed case of advancing without attacking. While other factors like U.S. diplomacy were at play, the use of force by India compelled Pakistan to give up the earlier gains made.
The Kargil conflict, as well as the India-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971, showcases how both India and Pakistan have demonstrated the willingness to use force against each other rather often. Since Altman’s advancing without attacking framework is premised on the sanctity of the use-of-force red line, it loses the ability to explain Indian and Pakistani actions beyond a point, after which traditional coercion begins to hold much more explanatory power. This is true in the case of the Kargil conflict as well. Though India used force against Pakistani invaders, the use of force was strictly localized in the Kargil sector of Jammu and Kashmir and India did not escalate the conventional conflict onto the Pakistani side of the Line of Control (LoC) or the international border. This is unlike the situation in 1965, when, following a similar Pakistani invasion in Kashmir under Operation Gibraltar, India sent in its conventional forces across the international border into Pakistani province of the Punjab. Numerous scholars, such as Sumit Ganguly and Vipin Narang, have credited the absence of conflict escalation by India in 1999 to Pakistan’s nuclear coercion effected since 1998.
Explanatory Power of Coercion in the Twin Peaks Crisis
Altman argues that Pakistan’s decision to use non-state actors as proxies against India under its “bleed India through a thousand cuts” policy can be explained by the advancing without attacking framework. In Altman’s view, Pakistan has made gains by exploiting ambiguity about who is attacking, deliberately navigating into a gray area of India’s natural red lines. However, the advancing without attacking framework does not explain India’s decision or refusal to use force against Pakistan. For instance, India has employed heavy crossborder firing repeatedly in response to Pakistan’s alleged use of non-state actors for terrorist attacks in Jammu and Kashmir. Similarly, during the 2001-02 Twin Peaks crisis, following a Pakistani terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001, India heavily mobilized its forces. While other factors—such as crisis management on behalf of the United States—also contributed to preventing the outbreak of war, Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence—in effect, traditional coercion—holds the most explanatory power for why India refrained from the use of force during that crisis.
In fact, Pakistan’s use of non-state actors as proxies taken together with its nuclear posture, do not fall into the parameters of an advancing without attacking strategy as postulated by Altman. To deny India the space to launch a low-intensity conventional offensive, Pakistan has adopted an aggressive asymmetric escalation posture by developing and perhaps deploying TNWs, under its revised official policy of full spectrum deterrence. In essence, Islamabad’s decision to use non-state actors as proxies has been backed by its signal of resolve to use nuclear weapons first to deter Indian conventional retribution.
When New Delhi has explored military options, however, the Indian army’s inability to employ the Cold Start Doctrine has been the major factor preventing the use of force. The doctrine, which was conceptualized in 2004 to address the shortfalls of the Indian army’s Sundarji Doctrine—shortfalls that became evident after the Twin Peaks crisis—entails a plan to wage limited war with Pakistan in such a way that does not cross Pakistan’s nuclear-use red lines. However, several factors, such as poor military preparedness, lack of differential military skills, assertive civil-military relations, and poor inter-services coordination, have disabled India from employing Cold Start. Consequently, during the 2008 crisis following the Mumbai terror attacks, when the civilian government in New Delhi did seek a military response, then-Indian Army Chief General Deepak Kapoor admitted that the army was not ready for war with Pakistan. Thus, it has not been Pakistan’s employment of an advancing without attacking strategy, but traditional coercion and India’s inability to execute Cold Start when desired, that has defined India-Pakistan conflict over Islamabad’s use of proxy actors.
Advancing without Attacking in South Asia: India’s Surgical Strikes
India’s decision to conduct “surgical strikes” in September 2016 across the Line of Control (LoC) provides another instance we can examine to assess the explanatory power of the advancing without attacking framework in South Asia. After four militants attacked an army camp in the town of Uri in Jammu and Kashmir, New Delhi exploited the gaps in Pakistan’s line of defense to eliminate terrorists stationed in camps preparing to infiltrate into India. However, the decision to conduct surgical strikes was backed by a signal of resolve to use force further if Pakistan explicitly used force in response to the strikes. At the press briefing announcing the strikes, the Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) of the Indian Army, Lt. General Ranbir Singh noted: “We do not have any plans for further continuation. However, the Indian Armed Forces are fully prepared for any contingency that may arise.” In his book, Securing India the Modi Way, journalist Nitin Gokhale writes that Prime Minister Modi and his team had “factored in the possibility of any escalation” and prepared for contingencies arising from Pakistani use of force in response to the strikes.
When assessing whether these surgical strikes align with Altman’s advancing without attacking framework, we must bear in mind that Pakistan has threatened first use of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) to deter low-intensity conventional offensives by India under its aggressive asymmetric escalation posture. Following the strikes, some Indian experts claimed that the strikes had crossed Pakistan’s nuclear-use red line and had, thus, called Pakistan’s bluff. However, as I have assessed elsewhere, the scale of Indian operations was well below that of a low-intensity conventional attack. Thus, through surgical strikes, India was willing to tolerate crossing Pakistan’s use-of-force red line, but deliberately avoided crossing its nuclear-use red line. This places India’s surgical strikes within the framework of advancing without attacking, but in a different context than Altman has envisioned in his paper.
Altman’s article banks on the sanctity of the use-of-force red line to assess how the framework of advancing without attacking better explains the actions taken by the Soviet Union and the Western powers during the Berlin blockade crisis of 1948-49. However, in South Asia, a region in which the sanctity of the use-of-force red line is in question, the framework largely fails to explain the actions taken by India and Pakistan during crises or otherwise. As an examination of India’s surgical strikes shows, it may be more fitting to explore the relevance of nuclear-use red lines to Altman’s framework within the South Asian context.
Editor’s Note: In an ongoing series aimed at bridging the divide between policy analysis and academic scholarship, SAV contributors review recent articles and books published by leading scholars to evaluate the latest theoretical and analytical debates on strategic issues and their implications for South Asia. Read the series here.
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