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Monday, April 05, 2010

The Bright Side of ‘Asymmetric Escalation’

Vipin Narang in his article ‘Posturing for Peace?’ gets it wrong. This is uncharacteristic of the reputed journal, International Security; but he would not be wrong for long. What he thinks is Pakistan’s posture today is not quite true for now, but is likely the way Pakistan is headed in the future. He characterises the Pakistani nuclear deterrent as one of ‘asymmetric escalation’, since Pakistan relies on nuclear weapons for deterring conventional attack also. He maintains that Pakistan has already incorporated nuclear weapons into its war-fighting repertoire. This is not true for the moment. However, in light of India’s movement towards increasing the conventional asymmetry, this is the way Pakistan is likely headed.

He claims that Pakistan ‘believed it had little choice but to test its nuclear weapons and adopt an asymmetric escalation posture that fully integrated nuclear weapons into its military forces to credibly and directly deter Indian conventional attacks ‘(Posturing for Peace? Pakistan’s Nuclear Postures and South Asian Stability,’ International Security, 34 (3), p. 47).’ In this view, Pakistan has resorted to delegation, has the doctrine, organisation, capabilities and numbers to ‘escalate the conflict by threatening first use of nuclear weapons on advancing Indian forces once they cross the border onto Pakistani soil – through deterrence by denial (p. 57).’ He opines that this has deterred India since the Chagai tests to the extent of deterring even surgical strikes in the wake of 26/11.

That the possibility of escalation would have informed Indian considerations since can be conceded. That it was clinching, thereby deterring India, is more difficult to accept. Instead, India has been more restrained than deterred. The reason for restraint could well be more self-serving than Indians would let on; because that restraint helps build up political capital for the time India does resort to military force. Self-deterrence at the conventional level in not having the requisite wherewithal would have been a more compelling argument than deterrence due to Pakistani nuclear postures.

The nuclear posture of default reliance on nuclear weapons in an outbreak of conflict is in any case unlikely to exist. Moreover, Indian conventional attacks would unlikely be nudging any thresholds in any case. Finally, analysts like the US’ Peter Lavoy, and India’s Gurmeet Kanwal, maintain that Pakistan would largely rely on the conventional deterrent. Therefore, as the Indian military believes, there is a case for conventional operations, albeit limited, restricted to a short, sharp war.

By this yardstick, Narang’s is an inaccurate reading of the current status. At best, Pakistan could resort to warning shots across the bow as a war termination signal. This does not require the posture that Narang attributes it. While Pakistan does use nuclear weapons to deter conventional war also, this does not, as of now, involve a posture reminiscent of the NATO during the Cold War. Nevertheless, his view is prescient.

With India set to spend US$50-80 billion on acquisitions, Pakistan may feel compelled towards ‘asymmetric escalation’ as visualised by Narang. Pakistan has coaxed a few more F-16s out of the US and more military and counter-insurgency aid. It can be expected to also divert a proportion of the latter to the eastern front as was admitted to by Musharraf, despite Obama promising to be more eagle eyed than was Bush. These exertions indicate that it prefers a conventional counter. A nuclear counter would be one forced on it.

India’s defence minister, commenting on the ‘strategic dialogue’ between Pakistan and the US, criticised conventional arms flows to Pakistan. Retired General Deepak Kapoor in his capacity as Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee had earlier questioned its nuclear build up. Apprehending the worst from a potential adversary’s growing capability is expected from those in charge of a country’s national security. Indian apprehension is that greater power with Pakistan only emboldens it in the pursuit of a proxy war. This compels India not only to consider escalatory options but also to up-the-ante, militarily.

Pakistani moves on both conventional and nuclear levels can liberally be interpreted as balancing. It helps dissuade India from chancing the war option. Nevertheless, India’s reservations need to be taken on board. As the stability/instability paradox indicates, Pakistan could be tempted to renew the proxy war to tie down surplus Indian military capacity. A nuclear posture that Narang discerns would be a cover for the same. Despite this, it would not be able to cause a movement on Kashmir. India’s defence expenditure would gain justification but as to whether upping-the-ante would make India more secure, would remain questionable. Both states would be chasing the chimera of security at a higher level of conventional and nuclear capability, at higher costs, risks, dangers and less likelihood of success.

The silver lining is perhaps that all this brings the need for a political resolution of outstanding issues to the foreground. India’s slow acquisitions processes indicate that it is only unwillingly upping-the-ante. The backlash of proxy war in Pakistan may yet unfold to the cost of its Army. Therefore, prior to testing military waters afresh, the two could attempt the political route once again.

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