By Mihir Shah
Pakistan’s possession of nuclear weaponry should not prevent India from considering offensive military action in response to a terrorist attack.
“But Pakistan is a nuclear weapon state.”It’s almost an incantation—invoked to strike down any talk of military retaliation against the Pakistani military-jihadi complex for perpetrating acts of terrorism against India. It is backed by a powerful-sounding argument, which proclaims that any such action on India’s part would be madness, for it runs the risk of it snowballing into an all-out war that ultimately culminates in a nuclear holocaust.
This assessment has its roots in the events of Operation Parakram—the 2001-2002 India-Pakistan standoff that saw threats of a nuclear exchange forcing India to back down without achieving anything concrete. Thereafter, Pakistan’s rapid nuclear build-up, coupled with its perceived willingness to use nuclear weapons to blunt an Indian attack has led many commentators to conclude that has completely nullified India’s advantage in conventional strength. The implication is that India can no longer respond to Pakistani provocations with force. That the only way forward is dialogue with Pakistan or a concerted diplomatic effort to build a global consensus against Pakistan’s use of terrorism as a state policy.
While this proposition certainly holds true under a very narrow range of conditions, to say that it precludes the military option altogether is false. To understand why, it is important to recognise that Pakistan is not the irrational, suicidal state that many observers believe it to be. Its past history demonstrates that it is a fundamentally rational actor, albeit one prone to strategic overreach. And like any rational actor, it would never seek to instigate a conflict that threatens its own existence. Its nuclear deterrent is just that—a deterrent designed to prevent an all-out war that puts Pakistan at a military disadvantage and the continued existence of the state at risk.
It is indeed true that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal successfully prevents India from launching a large-scale war to destroy the Pakistani state’s capacity to make violence. But what if the Indian leadership eschews itsall-or-nothing view of military action? What if it chooses to limit the extent of potential hostilities to a much smaller scale? Would iteffectively neutralise Pakistan’s casus belli for nuclear brinkmanship?
Two events from recent history—both involving actual combat instead of mere posturing—indicate that it would.
In 1999, Pakistani soldiers, initially disguised as irregulars, crossed the Line of Control (LoC) and occupied key Indian positions in the Kargil sector. The Indian government, unable to force a Pakistani withdrawal through the proportionate use of force, escalated the skirmishes to a larger border war. It pressed large numbers of troops into direct combat, subjected enemy positions to heavy artillery barrages, and ultimately launched air strikes against enemy strongholds and supply nodes.
Had the Pakistani leadership been truly as irrational and pugnacious as it portrays, it could have chosen to spread the war to other sectors, or even ratcheted up nuclear tensions to force a ceasefire that left it in a favourable position. Instead, it actively sought to de-escalate hostilities; first by eschewing the use of air power to counter India’s aerial dominance, and then by seeking US diplomatic interventionto bring an end to the fighting.
The Pakistani response was largely driven by the Indian government’s decision to confine the conflict to a limited sector and keep Indian forces from crossing the Line of Control. Often derided as “weak”, it was a calculated gambit that helped achieve two outcomes. One, it painted Pakistan as the aggressor and allowed India to retain control over the public narrative. Two, it granted the Indian military the freedom to undertake all manner of offensive operations on the Indian side and within a limited distance into no man’s land without holding back.
The second event occurred barely two weeks after the war officially ended. In August 1999, the Indian leadership proceeded to further escalate already heightened tensions: it authorised the Indian Air Force to shoot downa Pakistan Navy aircraft that violated Indian airspace over Gujarat. It was an uncharacteristically aggressive move on India’s part, though it was couched as a defensive one. Once again, Pakistani bellicosity was conspicuous by its absence. Instead of upping the ante through retaliatory action, Pakistan opted to take the matter to the International Court of Justice, seeking compensation for its loss from India.
Bothepisodes reveal a broad range of opportunities—both covert as well as overt—for limited military retaliation against Pakistan that don’t threaten the survival of the state and its administration, and avoid crossing any nuclear redlines. One option is surgical Special Forces raids targeting terrorist infrastructure and key personnel. Another is the use of artillery fire to destroy Pakistani Army installations, terrorist launch pads, and logistics infrastructure across the border. Yet another would be small-scale missile strikes to hit targets deeper inside Pakistan.
Of these, the second strikes the right balance betweeneffectiveness,risk, and escalatory potential. An artillery battery located well inside India’s borders can devastate an area target up to 90 kilometres away.Additionally, a multitude of modern technologies allow artillery to operate with a flexibility that was impossible in the past. These include precision-guided shells and rockets; long-range projectiles; a variety of munition types; counter-battery radars; drones for target acquisition, real-time engagement, and battle-damage assessment; and many more. Such technologies now allow artillery fire to be precisely tailored to achieve desired military outcomes without having a single soldier cross the border. The Indian Army has first-hand experience with such offensives. It has regularly usedartillery fire to inflict heavy casualties on the Pakistani side—the firefightsin September 2014 being particularly effective—and could do so again.
This sort of offensive isunlikely to invite an immediate nuclear response from Pakistan. At worst, itmight invite a conventional riposte, possibly of a similar nature. But this is where the Indian armed forces could leverage their superior firepower, technology, and staying power to keep Pakistan on the back foot while staying firmly in control of the escalation ladder, as they did during the Kargil War.
The Modi government has already shown its resolve to take a tough stance against terrorism, first by pursuing terrorists into Myanmar and then by turning up the heat on the Balochistan issue. Moreover, India’s military modernisation has equipped it with a wide range of military capabilities that would allow the nation to carefully calibrate its response to Pakistan-backed terror without inviting a nuclear attack in return. Applied judiciously, these capabilities might enable India to extract a price for terrorist violence that crosses a certain threshold, deter future attacks,and more importantly, pave the way for peace on India’s terms.
Author’s Note: This piece was first published in the Indian Defence Review. At that time, I got a flurry of emails accusing me of being a delusional idiot, a warmonger, and worse. So before I set off another round of ill-considered outbursts, I’ll issue a pre-emptive clarification of sorts. I am not in favour of reflexive, ill thought-out military intervention, and this piece is not a call for war. It merely seeks to make the case that limited military response is a feasible option, and carries less risk than is popularly imagined.
Mihir Shah is a US-based engineer who tracks military issues closely. He has contributed before to Livefist, Pragati & Swarajya magazine. He works at a firm specialising in energy efficiency consulting. Views expressed by the author are his own.