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#867, 17 September 2002
The Logic of Nuclear Redlines Firdaus AhmedFreelance writer on security issues
India and Pakistan have divergent nuclear doctrines. India’s declaratory doctrine threatens assured retaliation and inflicting unacceptable damage in the wake of a nuclear attack on its territory or military forces, Pakistan relies on deterring through uncertainty as to the location of its nuclear redlines. Whereas India would like to convey its resolve on the certainty of retaliation, an element of uncertainty is also intrinsic to its position. It could choose not to retaliate, and rely on its superior conventional forces instead. However, its self-deterrence cannot be relied on with any certainty to stay India’s hand. This uncertainty is the bedrock of the Indian deterrent, rather than the certainty of retaliation which is being sought to be reinforced at present by complicated nuclear posturing and aggressive rhetoric.
India’s nuclear redlines were clearly delineated in its Draft Nuclear Doctrine as being a nuclear attack on its territory or military forces. The logic of this formulation is that it created the necessary space for utilization of its superior conventional forces against Pakistan, in the face of Pakistan’s reticence on making a ‘no first use’ commitment. To ensure that Pakistan’s nuclear card is neutralized, India resorted to two linked approaches. One was to publicly declare ‘limited war’ as being an option to address the cross border intrusions into Kashmir. The second was to convey its political resolve by provocative action like mobilization of its forces on the border and heightened rhetoric. The latter was felt necessary in the light of the general perception that India is considered a ‘soft state’.
Limited War theorizing was meant to influence Pakistan’s threat perception by making it accept that India’s ‘limited’ aims did not warrant a nuclear response. In case Pakistan does contemplate the nuclear option, the imminence of retaliation in kind was expected to dampen Pakistan’s nuclear ardour. Public outcry, a political need to demonstrate ‘strength’, primordial hatred, military pressure and the pressure of the scientific lobby could ensure the weakening of restraint and rationality. But it must be noted that the very possibility of retaliation, as against its certainty, adequately serves the purpose of deterring Pakistan.
In emulating the Cold War NATO doctrine, Pakistan has not explicitly designated its nuclear redlines. These could indicate a low, medium or high nuclear threshold. A low threshold is not unthinkable, given the two linked structural aspects of the Indo-Pak situation. One is the conventional asymmetry in India’s favour, in any non-nuclear conflict. The second factor is the Pakistan military’s institutional interest in maintaining pre-eminence in its power structure. Their combined implication is that Pakistan’s military cannot afford to lose another war, which it will if the war is waged on Indian terms. To obviate defeat, it could countenance nuclear ‘first use’ (in contrast to a ‘first strike’), in a manner that would not invite the threatened retaliation from India. For instance by tactical nuclear use against Indian military forces in its own territory (example: when we are in the cholistan desert enroute to rahimyarkhan). A medium threshold would respond to a threat to or the loss of a strategic feature. Thus, all candidate limited war objectives for India could well function as nuclear triggers, dispelling the Indian logic that a war could be kept limited. A high threshold, considered the most likely, will be to ensure state or regime preservation in the face of an Indian success to attain ambitious aims or in-conflict mission creep of its forces. India may threaten Pakistan state/regime survival as abinitio aims of the conflict or it may come about through mission creep – for instance, Gen Jacob informs us that liberation of Bangladesh was not the intended aim in 1971; nevertheless, India ended up capitalising on military success by vivisecting Pakistan.
The above discussion indicates that nuclear redlines are crucial and are demanding of attention and respect. In apparent recognition of this reality, Indian planners had chosen an area of marginal relevance for muscle flexing in late July, in the Machhal sector of Kashmir. Predictably, such small-scale actions in relatively unimportant sectors will only yield tactical gains. The danger is that, on realizing this, India may try and up the ante by neglecting the significance of nuclear redlines, particularly the one signifying the low threshold. The lesson, therefore, is to reiterate the limited utility of military force in addressing India’s twin problems of Pakistan and Kashmir. What emerges is that political problems in the nuclear age require political solutions to preserve the nuclear taboo

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