Pakistan: Where Fact and Fiction Come Together

Published in the Hindustan Times on 21st November, 2020

Lt General (retd) Asad Durrani, who headed Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in the early 1990s is no stranger to controversy. Two years ago, together with A S Dulat, chief of the Research and Analysis Wing in late 1990s, he co-authored The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and The Illusion of Peace. The slim volume based on their conversations on the Track II circuit (that he describes as a circus), covered India-Pakistan relations, Kashmir and cross-border terrorism, and got him into trouble in Pakistan. ISI hauled him over the coals, a court of enquiry suspended his pension and other retirement benefits and he was barred from leaving the country. He has since been pursuing lawsuits in local courts to get his entitlements restored.

He has authored a novel, Honour Among Spies (Harper Collins) that describes the travails of a Pakistani Lt Gen Osama Barakzai (Zirak branch of the Durrani tribe) who gets into trouble with his parent organisation (Guards) ostensibly for co-authoring a book with Indian spy ex-chief Randhir Singh. However, as he plays cat and mouse with his interrogators and engages in verbal duelling with colleagues from the Central Intelligence Agency and MI6, Osama finds other plausible reasons for his troubles, pointing the spotlight at the ‘establishment’ (a popular euphemism for the Army and ISI). Despite the disclaimer that “though inspired by some real events, this is a work of fiction”, such a book would be explosive at any time in Pakistan but appearing as the domestic political scene heats up for PM Imran Khan, Lt Gen Durrani may find that he has more than a bestseller on his hands.

Osama Barakzai was appointed to head the Intelligence outfit in the Guards by the Chief Akram Moghul in 1990. Both came under a cloud in a case filed by Admiral Khan for using Yousaf Haseeb, a banker for channelling slush funds to Naveen Shaikh to dislodge the incumbent woman PM. Part of the money is unaccounted for and Barakzai points the finger at Moghul who feels vengeful. The case lingers on through Pakistan’s courts and the current tribal Chief Jabbar Jatt, shares a sub-tribal loyalty with Moghul. He had been appointed by Naveen Shaikh (in power from 2013-17) but since switched loyalties to Khurshid Kadri.

Another thread in Barakzai’s ruminations leads to the terrorist female mastermind, Uzma bint Laden who was living incognito in Jacobabad and killed in 2011 in a daring raid by the United States (US) Navy Seals. Barakzai who had long retired, and, after a couple of diplomatic assignments, is now active on the conference circuit and a sought-after commentator on TV channels, suggests on BBC about the possibility of complicity between the Guards and the US agency. The story passes as it absolves the Guards (under then Chief Raja Rasalu) of incompetence that they were unable to detect the incoming raid. The problem resurfaces as US investigative journalist Simon Hirsh follows through and uncovers a Pakistani mole Baqar Bhatti who had walked into the US embassy to inform them about the fugitive indicating collusion.

Adding to this mix is the tricky relationship with India with the Modi government’s assertive policy of ‘surgical strikes’ after Uri, the air strike at Balakot after the Pulwama attack and the conversations between Barakzai and Randhir Singh to keep alive the hopes of the ‘composite dialogue’ initiated by former Indian PM K L Gujjar and pursued by opening up of Sardarpur shrine.

Lt Gen Durrani was DG(MI) and Gen Mirza Aslam Beg appointed him DG(ISI) in 1990. Both were interrogated in the case filed in 1996 by late Air Marshal Asghar Khan, accusing the army of funding Nawaz Sharif in the 1990 elections against Benazir Bhutto through Younis Habib, CEO of Mehran Bank. General Beg and current chief General Qamar Bajwa both belong to 16 Baloch Regt.

Lt Gen Durrani has been critical of Gen Musharraf’s role in the Kargil war (described as the Pir Panjal pass fiasco where Gen Gulrez Shahrukh keeps PM Naveen Shaikh in the dark). In 2011, Lt Gen Durrani told BBC that Pakistani authorities probably knew about Osama bin Laden hiding in Abbottabad but would have preferred to be blamed for ‘incompetence’ rather than ‘complicity’. Seymour Hersh’s disclosures in 2015 confirmed this, pointing at Gen Ashfaq Kayani and identifying the Pakistani informant as Brig Usman Khalid, subsequently resettled in USA.

Enough parallels to whet any conspiracy theorist’s appetite.

A strange reality
Nawaz Sharif may have begun his political career with the blessings of the ‘establishment’ but differences grew after Kargil and Musharraf’s coup in 1999. After returning to power in 2013, Sharif pressed treason charges against Musharraf. The Army was unhappy; Panamagate took its toll and Sharif was ousted in 2017, jailed, and has been in exile for a year. He has mounted a no-holds barred attack on the ‘selected’ PM Imran Khan and the ‘selectors’, General Bajwa and the ISI chief Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, holding them responsible for his ouster.

An Opposition front combining Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) under Bilawal Bhutto and Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) under Maryam Sharif, led by veteran Maulana Fazlur Rehman who was close to the Army but currently unhappy, has begun a series of protest rallies last month culminating in Islamabad next month. It is a re-run of the process that ousted Sharif in 2017 with Imran Khan and the Maulana in the lead, with the tacit backing of the ‘establishment’.

Last year, Gen Bajwa managed a three-year extension from an obliging Imran Khan, causing rumblings within the Army. Into this mix comes a thinly disguised novel calling out those manipulating democratic politics and hinting at internal differences within the ‘establishment’.

Only time will tell Barakzai will reappear in a sequel – Honour Restored.

Nuclear Asymmetry and Escalation Dynamics

Publication for the Chao Track

The nuclear shadow over India-Pakistan relations has certainly existed since May 1998 when both countries conducted a series of nuclear explosive tests and declared themselves to be nuclear weapon states. Many would argue that it existed even earlier. Some would date it to January 1972 when after the creation of Bangladesh, Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto convened Pakistan’s nuclear scientists announcing that the only guarantee for ensuring Pakistan’s territorial integrity was to develop nuclear weapons or even earlier to 1965 (after the 1965 unsuccessful war) when he famously declared that “we will eat grass if we have to, we will make the nuclear bomb” (1) . Others would link it to India’s Peaceful Nuclear Explosion in 1974 or US attempt at nuclear coercion during the 1971 war or even 1964 when China, which had inflicted a humiliating defeat on India in the 1962 border conflict, announced its entry on to the nuclear stage (2) .

References to the 1987 Operation Brasstacks crisis marks the first attempt at nuclear signalling; this was followed when the Kashmir crisis was escalating in May 1990, by the rushed visit of US Deputy National Security Adviser Robert Gates to Delhi and Islamabad after reports that Pakistan was moving its nuclear payloads out of Kahuta. However, since neither country was a declared nuclear weapon state at the time, such signalling had to be opaque and indirect. After 1998, there was a qualitative shift and both countries articulated their respective versions of their nuclear strategy or doctrines and subsequent crises had to factor the nuclear dimension in their messaging in a more explicit manner.

If there was a feeling that as declared nuclear weapon states, the Line of Control would stabilise, it was soon dispelled. Barely had the ink dried on the forward-looking Lahore Declaration and the MOU on nuclear confidence building measures, signed during Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s historic visit to Lahore in February 1999, when the Kargil conflict erupted. The next crisis was the mobilisation of the Indian army at the international boundary in Op Parakram during 2002-03 in response to a terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament by a group of Lashkar-e-Tayba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) militants in December 2001. Next came the terrorist attack in Mumbai by a group of LeT militants in November 2008. In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power and has since adopted a more muscular policy. Though there have been more terrorist attacks, two that often get highlighted are the JeM terrorist attack in September 2016 at an Army camp in Uri and the suicide attack using an SUV full of explosives against a convoy transporting para-military forces, in February 2019, also claimed by JeM.

In each case, both sides engaged in varying degrees of bellicose rhetoric; nuclear postures were factored into decisions taken, along with domestic factors and wider messaging. During these two decades, both countries have evolved their doctrines and developed greater capabilities. However, there is a degree of opaqueness about numbers and capabilities and also an asymmetry
in doctrinal approaches which means that only ‘reasonable’ inferences can be drawn about the rationales for decisions made.

Shaping of Nuclear Theology
Nuclear weapons have been used once, on 6th and 9th August 1945 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively and at a time when only one country possessed nuclear weapons. Therefore no empirical data regarding nuclear escalation and use can be drawn from the theories of nuclear deterrence that were subsequently developed or their near failure on numerous occasions. These instances of near failure have been documented (3) and certainly make it clear that an element of luck also played a role in ensuring that the nuclear taboo has not been breached. Furthermore, the war gaming done has been on the basis of the arsenals of the two nuclear superpowers, US and Russia (or USSR) as it was during the Cold War. The doctrines of the US and USSR also evolved in a bipolar world and the ideas of nuclear deterrence and strategic stability reflected the political reality of the bipolar world.

Therefore, looking at the India-Pakistan nuclear doctrines and crises through the bipolar prism will only provide a partial picture at best. This challenge becomes greater because US and USSR reflected symmetry in terms of their nuclear arsenals once the USSR had caught up with the US. For India and Pakistan, the relationship is marked by asymmetry and further, it is not possible to see the equation in terms of a nuclear dyad. The reason for the latter lies beyond the India Pakistan tensions in the broader geopolitical shift from Euro-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific which pitches many more nuclear actors in a crowded geopolitical space. Pakistan’s long-standing all-weather friendship with China has made it the reliable strategic partner in development of Pakistan’s conventional, nuclear and missile capabilities and China has had a long term strategic interest in forging this partnership. Return of major power rivalry brings Russia, US and North Korea into the region along with US’s treaty allies – Japan and South Korea. This region therefore hosts multiple dyads and each dyad can be linked to other nuclear actors, presenting a new challenge of seeking stability in a loosely linked nuclear chain (4)

Any nuclear doctrine must address two questions – role of nuclear weapons in addressing security threats; and the balance between explicit and ambiguous. These are political questions. In turn, the doctrine determines the nuclear posture – targeting, deployment, and finally employment. The doctrine also sends a message, to own citizens in terms of assurance and to adversaries.

Nuclear doctrine is part of security doctrine which is part of grand strategy. The term ‘grand strategy’ (5) is often used in terms of waging major wars but essentially, it is connecting the dots between ends (which keep expanding) and means (which are limited). The last example of a ‘grand strategy’ was ‘containment’ during the Cold War that was also a combat though without direct conflict. In actual practice, containment evolved far beyond political and economic containment and took on far stronger shades of military containment assuming a character quite different from how George Kennan had visualised it.

A grand strategy depends on a mix of factors – the historical experiences that have made India what it is, how India perceives itself, its civilizational, colonial and independence movement legacies, how Indian leaders visualise India’s future role, threat perceptions, resources and capabilities, regional and global developments, and international structures within which they shape India’s future. Similarly, Pakistan’s grand strategy will be based upon its sense of national identity which would seek to be distinct from India notwithstanding the shared civilisational roots, the experience of 1971 and the loss of a its eastern territory, a more dominant role of the military because of its political experiences and a leadership role in the Islamic world particularly since the 1970s. Unlike the US or USSR, neither country has formally articulated a grand strategy and that is one reason why historical narratives are becoming increasingly divergent.

Politics of Cold War
From 1945, it was clear that nuclear weapons are qualitatively different. Even today, the biggest conventional bomb is the GBU Massive Ordnance Air Blast with 11 MT of TNT equivalent; in comparison, Hiroshima was 15 kT or 15000 MT; and nuclear weapons today are many times larger in explosive yields. Broadly, there were two schools of ‘deterrence’ in the US. One was led by Bernard Brodie who believed that deterrence is automatic, it is ensured through retaliation because the one who instigates the attack cannot be certain that he has taken out the adversary’s entire nuclear arsenal. To Brodie is attributed the idea – “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on, its chief purpose must be to avert them” (6). The other was led by Albert Wohlstetter (7) who believed that deterrence works if there is assurance of massive retaliation which implies large arsenals, survivability and the assurance of a devastating second strike after facing a surprise attack (like a nuclear Pearl harbour). For Brodie, the risk of retaliation was an adequate deterrent while for Wohlstetter, it was certainty of retaliation with large numbers that was necessary. Looking at the nuclear arms race that followed when both the US and USSR accumulated over 65000 nuclear weapons between the two of them, it is clear that Wohlstetter carried the day.

This in turn gave rise to concepts of nuclear warfighting, flexible response, second strike, escalation dominance, countervalue and counterforce, survivability, compellence and prevailance. US and USSR were locked into a political and economic competition that was ideological and waged through a policy of ‘containment’ while the military competition was manifest in the nuclear arms race. In hindsight, the search for equivalence was meaningless, except in political terms. For example, in 1949, when USSR tested and declared itself a nuclear weapon state, the US had approx. 50 bombs and it would take 40 persons two days to assemble it. Till 1959, US had a centralised target planning approach and this was sought to be modified by President Eisenhower, leading to the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP-1962) which envisaged the use of 3200 nuclear weapons in a pre-emptive strike and horrified President Kennedy when presented as the option during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. At that time, US had an arsenal of 25540 devices and USSR had only 3346 but deterrence clearly worked (8). It nevertheless established the ground rule of mutual vulnerability and as USSR reached equivalence, it gave birth to the idea of managing the nuclear arms race in terms of equal numbers or the bean-counting approach to arms control.

Deterrence stability was underwritten by parity and mutual vulnerability (codified through the 1972 ABM Treaty). Arms race stability was sought to be achieved through arms control agreements like SALT, START, INF, and New START in 2010 though it did little to curb the nuclear arms race. Finally, crisis management stability was ensured through hotlines, nuclear risk reduction centres and early warning systems but these did not prevent some fairly close shaves, some inadvertent and some a result of misperception. During the 1970s, nuclear stability did not appear particularly reassuring and not many would have believed that the Cold War would end the way it actually did without a shot being fired, or that the nuclear taboo would last as long as it has done.

India’s Doctrine
India spelt out the elements of its nuclear doctrine in a paper tabled by Prime Minister Vajpayee in parliament shortly after the nuclear tests – Evolution of India’s Nuclear Policy (9). It made clear that India saw nuclear weapons not as weapons of war fighting but intended to address current and future nuclear threats through deterrence. This was followed by a draft paper circulated in 1999 to elicit wider discussion and then a more succinct and authoritative text that was released following a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security in January 2003 (10). The elements are:i. Building and maintaining a credible minimum deterrent, based on a triad;

ii. A posture of nuclear no-first-use and non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states;
iii. Nuclear retaliation in response to a nuclear attack on Indian territory, or on Indian forces anywhere, to be massive and inflict unacceptable damage;
iv. Option of nuclear retaliation in response to a chemical or biological attack retained;
v. Continued observance of moratorium on nuclear tests;
vi. Participation in Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty negotiations;
vii. Ensuring strict export controls on nuclear and missile related materials and technologies;
viii. Continued commitment to the goal of a nuclear weapon free world through global, verifiable and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament.

Since India’s doctrine makes it clear that India’s nuclear weapons are only to deter a nuclear threat or attack, India has to develop other capabilities to deal with threats of sub-conventional and conventional conflicts. By denying a war fighting role for nuclear weapons, India is able to duck temptations of an arms race with Pakistan (or China). Also, given the short distances which compress decision making time, it is not possible to make a distinction between ‘tactical’ and ‘strategic’ use of nuclear weapons. This is a departure from the US-USSR approaches which provided for 20-25 minute interval from mainland launch to mainland targets and these long-range vectors were considered ‘strategic’ and systems with ranges below 5500 kms were considered intermediate, medium and short range systems. Extended deterrence assurances to allies in Europe and Asia also introduced political compulsions for forward deployment of such weapons that were given a tactical or battlefield role. It also created the grounds for the nuclear arms race.

Pakistan’s Doctrine
Pakistan has attributed a different role for its nuclear weapons. It prefers to retain a degree of ambiguity claiming that it strengthens deterrence. It consistently maintains that its nuclear capability is India specific and therefore its size will be guided by India’s arsenal. While Pakistan also states that it will have a minimum credible deterrent (sometimes also called a minimum defensive deterrent), its role is to deter nuclear use by India and also act as an equaliser against India’s conventional superiority. Pakistan therefore rejects the idea of a no first use. This led Pakistan to declare four red lines which could trigger a nuclear response – were India to occupy a large part of Pakistan’s territory, to destroy a large part of Pakistan’s military, seek to strangulate Pakistan’s economy, or create political destabilisation.

This has since evolved to full spectrum deterrence as Pakistan developed short range systems for tactical use with the 60 km range Hatf IX or Nasr ballistic missile attracting considerable attention. This was flight tested in 2011 and according to statements by the Inter Services Public Relations Directorate (ISPR) “adds deterrence value to Pakistan’s Strategic Weapons Development programme at shorter ranges”. The Nasr could carry “nuclear warheads of appropriate yield with high accuracy” and is a quick response system with shoot and scoot capabilities (11).

Lt Gen Khalid Kidwai led the Strategic Plans Division for a long time and described Pakistan’s battlefield nuclear weapons, together with other longer range ballistic and cruise missiles, as measures for providing Pakistan with “full spectrum deterrence, including at strategic, operational and tactical levels” (12). Pakistan likens its doctrine of full spectrum deterrence while emphasising first-use, to NATO’s flexible response strategy during the Cold War to counter Soviet conventional superiority. Pakistan’s battlefield nuclear weapons are designed to ensure that India cannot embark on a limited conventional operation as it would breach Pakistan’s nuclear threshold. According to Lt Gen Kidwai, it makes war less likely and contributes to regional stability.

Implications of Asymmetry
There is a fundamental asymmetry in the positions of both countries unlike that between US and USSR during the Cold War. Therefore deterrence equations regarding stability need to be rewritten.

Five levels of conflict between India and Pakistan can be defined –

  1. sub-conventional war or attacks by terrorist groups that are based in Pakistan and have worked out a modus vivendi with the Pakistani authorities, as in the attack on Indian parliament in December 2001;
  2. sub-conventional war with a combination of regular troops, as in Kargil in spring of 1999; 
  3. conventional war below the nuclear threshold;
  4. conventional war escalated to the use of Tactical Nuclear Weapons; 
  5. full scale conflict with large scale use of nuclear weapons. 

All the crises referred to earlier have been caused by events falling in the first two categories above making it clear to the Indian side that possession of nuclear weapons will not deter such attacks. With each realisation, India has had to grapple with the concept of appropriate retaliation. The basic challenge for India is to prevent attacks falling in the first and second categories through a combination of deterrence and threat of punitive action. Each time, logical reflection has revealed that this cannot be achieved by taking a leaf out of Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine.

During the Kargil crisis, India used air power but exercised restraint in deploying it on the Indian side; further the Indian objective was to restore the ground positions to status quo ante. The Indian strategy was successful and the international community was supportive with the US playing a major role (13).

The terrorist attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001 was audacious and the Indian response of mobilising half a million soldiers on the border with Pakistan was guaranteed to attract international intervention, coming just a few months after 9/11 which had led to the US intervention in Afghanistan. It led to the expected outcome and beginning in 2003, the Line of Control went silent and cross border infiltration from Pakistan came down drastically. However, the deployment was a costly exercise in coercive diplomacy lasting nearly two years.

The weeks taken to deploy forces revealed another shortcoming leading to the idea of rapid deployment of integrated battle groups, captured in the catchy label of Cold Start. It was been officially denied, then revived as a pro-active conventional war strategy (14). Whether it can act as a deterrent remains doubtful but it certainly provided a ready justification to Pakistan for tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs). In doing so, Pakistan lowered the nuclear threshold and reduced the space available for India for a conventional riposte. Whether Pakistan has the systems for battle field management and escalation control in an evolving nuclear environment may be doubtful since this was a grey zone even for the US and USSR, but it has blurred the line between nuclear and conventional war. It further highlights the asymmetry between the postures of the two countries since the Indian doctrine is based on a high nuclear threshold with a clean firebreak.

The November 2008 attack in Mumbai by 10 LeT militants at multiple targets shocked India but was also a rude reminder of lack of kinetic options available to it. Further, it tilted the debate towards nuclear deterrence, quite unproductively. Western analysts, already unfamiliar with asymmetric nuclear dyads were now saddled with the additional challenge of thinking through nuclear deterrence with respect to non-state actors. India’s doctrine based on a credible minimum deterrent backed by no-first-use to serve the sole purpose of safeguarding from nuclear threats and attacks began to be questioned.

Another key difference with respect to the Cold War theorising is that both India and Pakistan make political use of the ‘nuclear flashpoint’ idea since it is a favourite for Western analysts and media. However, they use it for very different objectives. Pakistan uses it to highlight the centrality of the long-standing Kashmir dispute, hoping to catalyse some international involvement in pushing for its resolution. The idea of international involvement is anathema for India which highlights its commitment to bilateralism enshrined in the 1972 Simla Agreement. Further, it responds to the ‘nuclear flashpoint’ by highlighting Pakistan’s irresponsible behaviour of nuclear sabre rattling, Dr A Q Khan’s well documented proliferation activities and linkages of Pakistani ‘deep state’ with internationally proscribed outfits like LeT and JeM that have engaged in terrorist attacks in India. It also enables India to contrast its own responsible approach by highlighting its no-first-use doctrine and its exemplary non-proliferation credentials.

Debate Over India’s Deterrent
However, inability to prevent such attacks or engage in kinetic retaliation led to questioning of its nuclear doctrine. Deterrence is always a product of power and intent. Power is hard military capability and intent is political will. In India, questions about whether the thermonuclear test in 1998 was a fizzle re-emerged. DRDO’s lackadaisical progress towards operationalising the triad came up for unfavourable comparisons. Questioning of military capability was accompanied by questions regarding political will to undertake punitive strikes.

Together, both cast doubt on the credibility of India’s nuclear deterrent posture. This high decibel debate obfuscated the realisation that even a first-use policy could not have added to India’s kinetic options. Nevertheless, analysts pulled out the old Cold War deterrence playbooks and began to talk about limited war and escalation dominance. Some held up the example of Israel as a country that has dealt with terrorist attacks with firm and resolute political will. Neither example stands up to objective scrutiny. Israel’s adversaries are Hamas and Hizbollah and even repeated operations by Israeli military and intelligence services against them have at best yielded a stalemate that provides temporary respite. Secondly, Israel’s kinetic actions are not taken under a nuclear overhang and finally, Israel’s real time intelligence and surveillance capabilities are far superior to those of its adversaries.

Application of escalation dominance is even more unreal. The term gained currency during the 1960s as US strategic thinkers grappled with questions about the credibility of “massive retaliation” by unsure allies, covered under the extended deterrence nuclear umbrella. Flexible response sowed the seeds of nuclear warfighting by diluting the firebreak between nuclear and conventional weapons as strategists envisaged scenarios of nuclear war, often originating away from their homeland, under conditions of near parity with the USSR. Herman Kahn (15) explained 44 rungs on the nuclear escalation ladder whose only contribution in hindsight was to provide a more respectable label to the nuclear arms race. In later years, Kahn admitted that the key variable in escalation dominance is the ability of the adversary to take risk and absorb pain, neither of which is accurately predictable. Further, escalation dominance leads to counterforce which requires a new set of capabilities and damage limitation policies involving layered missile defences and civil defence preparedness, neither of which exist in India.

After the introduction of TNWs by Pakistan, questions are raised about the credibility of ‘massive retaliation’, the term used in India’s stated nuclear doctrine. Would India respond with ‘massive retaliation’ if an advancing Indian armoured column in Pakistani territory was stopped by Pakistan using a TNW? Former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran sought to address it by pointing out that India made no distinction between tactical and strategic nuclear use because a nuclear exchange, once initiated, would escalate to strategic level (16).

The no-first-use policy was also questioned when Prime Minister Modi came to power in 2014 because the BJP’s election manifesto had promised to review India’s nuclear doctrine which was widely interpreted to mean the jettisoning of the no-first-use policy. However, Modi set all speculation at rest when before embarking on a visit to Japan in August that year, he described no-first-use as an enduring feature of India’s nuclear strategy and “a reflection of our cultural inheritance” (17).

In September 2016, four militants belonging to JeM launched a fedayeen style attack at an Indian army camp. Nineteen Indian soldiers were killed in a gunfight lasting a few hours. Eleven days later, India announced that It had launched surgical strikes against five terrorist launch pads across the Line of Control in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir killing a large number of terrorists. There was little evidence and the numbers killed varied between 50 and 150. Pakistan denied that any such attack had taken place and assured its citizens that Pakistan army was capable of thwarting any incursion by India across the Line of Control. The desire for kinetic action had been fulfilled and attention was diverted from the more serious issue of procedural lapses that had enabled the terrorists to gain access to the military camp. Attention was then devoted to ensuring Pakistan’s isolation; the SAARC summit was postponed at India’s behest and has not been held since.

The next major terrorist attack was on 14 February 2019 when an Indian fedayeen drove his explosive laden SUV into a CRPF convoy, killing 46. The attack was claimed by JeM. With national elections due in two months, kinetic retaliation was necessary. On 26 February, Indian pilots crossed into Pakistan to bomb a JeM training camp at Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. It was described as a ‘pre-emptive strike” on “non-military targets”, based on credible intelligence. Once again, there was little clarity about numbers killed or whether the aircraft had actually crossed into Pakistan or merely crossed the Line of Control. This time, Pakistan acknowledged the attack but asserted that there were no casualties as Indian bombs had missed the targets. The following morning, Pakistani jets mounted a counterstrike. Their ordinance not hit any military targets or cause casualties but in the dog-fight an Indian plane was downed and the pilot captured in Afghanistan. Rhetoric heightened and the international community intervened. US, Saudi and Emirati leaders claimed to have played a role in the Indian pilot’s quick release on 1 March. The Indian pilot was given a hero’s welcome on return and Pakistan received credit for having defused the situation.

What has Changed and What Hasn’t?

Modi has dispelled the notion that Pakistan’s TNWs will deter India from kinetic retaliation. Some retired military officers have recalled that the ‘surgical strikes’ after Uri were essentially shallow cross border operations that were undertaken in the past too but without fanfare. Certainly, Modi has changed that but the military authorities are understandably cautious and take care not to cross each other’s red lines. They also understand the limited military options available, given current capabilities on both sides though political rhetoric tends to amplify the magnitude of kinetic actions. For example, the messaging during Balakot that air strikes were not aimed at military targets or that it was pre-emptive indicates that officials are more restrained than what political rhetoric would indicate. In other words, nobody called anybody’s nuclear bluff as many strategic theorists would have us believe.

Pakistan had developed a comfort level with the notion that its TNWs were a deterrent that prevent India from retaliation. In doing so, it conflated retaliation with the idea of ‘limited war’ as visualised in NATO’s Cold War doctrines for European theatre. Not only are these outdated for the US in the Asia-Pacific theatre, these are even more irrelevant when applied to the Uri and Balakot events. Modi has ensured that henceforth any Indian government will undertake some kinetic retaliation while taking care that the Pakistani military does not perceive it as escalatory. Rhetoric will have a different and a shriller pitch driven by domestic politics.

What is instructive is that all the escalation scenarios whether predicting changes in Indian doctrine towards counterforce (18) or even a nuclear use, share the same story beginning. A terror strike by a Pakistan based group, Indian military action, Pakistani retaliation and then matters getting out of control to cross the nuclear threshold. It merits thought that such scenarios imply a tacit acceptance that Pakistan will continue to host such groups on its territory. This is not a situation which nuclear adversaries have faced earlier.

While it is a fact that there is an element of uncertainty in any conflict and the possibility of the unforeseen, the nuclear deterrence theories of the Cold War or the US-USSR arms control can hardly be the models for nuclear stability for understanding escalation dynamics in the asymmetric India-Pakistan context. Indian and Pakistan will have to find their own vocabulary which is not easy
since as pointed out, given Pakistan’s predilection to promote the nuclear flashpoint thesis; it likes to convey that its nuclear doctrine derives from NATO postures during the Cold War.

Finally, it is worth asking a counterfactual question. Had neither country possessed nuclear weapons, what kind of military action could India have contemplated after Uri or Balakot or Mumbai? After all, the wars India and Pakistan have fought have been limited wars, limited in terms of both objectives and duration, primarily on account of warfighting capabilities and also because of involvement of major powers. These realities which do not give India a decisive conventional superiority, still determine the nature and extent of Indian retaliation even under the nuclear shadow.


  • 1. Feroz Khan, Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb (Stanford University Press, 2012)
  • 2 Raj Chengappa, Weapons of Peace: The Secret Story of India’s Quest to be a Nuclear Power (Harper Collins, 2000)
  • 3 Patricia Lewis, Heather Williams, Benoit Pelopidas and Sasan Aghlani, Too Close for Comfort (Chatham House April,2014)
  • 4 Robert Einhorn and Waheguru Pal Singh Sidhu, The Strategic Chain: Linking Pakistan, China, India and the United States (Brookings, 2017)
  • 5 John Lewis Gaddis, On Grand Strategy (Penguin Press, 2018)
  • 6 Bernard Brodie, The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order (editor and contributor), Harcourt, 1946.
  • 7 Albert Wohlstetter, The Delicate Balance of Terror (P-1472, Rand Corporation)
  • 8 Robert S Norris and Hans M Kristenson, Global Nuclear Inventories 1945-2013 (Bulletin of Atomic Scientists 2013)
  • 9 Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Evolution of India’s Nuclear Policy (tabled in Lok Sabha on 27 May 1998)
  • 10 Prime Minister’s Office, Cabinet Committee on Security reviews Progress in Operationalising India’s Nuclear Doctrine (Press Release dated 4 January 2003)
  • 11 No. PR94/2011-ISPR (Press Release by ISPR dated 19 April 2011)
  • 12 Conversation with Lt Gen Khalid Kidwai (transcript from Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference, 23 March 2015)
  • 13 Bruce Riedel, American Diplomacy and the 1999 Kargil Summit at Blair House (University of Pennsylvania, 2002)
  • 14 Walter Ladwig, A Cold Start for Hot Wars? The Indian Army’s New Limited War Doctrine (International Security Issue 32 (3), Winter 2007-08)
  • 15 Herman Kahn, On Escalation: Metaphors and Scenarios (Frederick A Prager, 1965)
  • 16 Shyam Saran, Is India’s Nuclear Deterrent Credible? (Speech at India Habitat Centre, Delhi on 24 April 2013)
  • 17 Rakesh Sood, Should India Revise its Nuclear Doctrine? (Policy Brief No 18, Asia Pacific Leadership Network, December 2014)
  • 18 Christopher Clary and Vipin Narang, India’s Counterforce Temptations (International Security Vol 43 No 3, Winter 2018/19)