Recent obituaries on the death of Sandy Berger, Clinton’s national security advisor, prompted a return to the Kargil War. Sandy Berger apparently defused an India-Pakistan nuclear crisis during the war, quite like another national security official, Robert Gates, had done once previously in 1990. Alongside, excerpts from an Indian war correspondent’s just released memoirs of the period also make a mention of the nuclear dimension to the conflict.
Reportedly, Brajesh Mishra went over to Europe to suggest Americans use their good offices with the Pakistanis to wind up their intrusions in Kargil, or else India would use all measures to evict them. The hint was that India may require crossing the Line of Control (LC) and, following its 1965 War footsteps, would not necessarily restrict itself to the LC sector. This could provoke a nuclear response from Pakistan, necessitating nuclear retaliation by India. The scenario impressed Clinton enough to persuade Nawaz Sharif to call back the Pakistani intruders. The rest as they say is history.
The Kargil War prompted a rethink in India at both levels: conventional and nuclear. However, there was a mismatch between the two. While at the conventional level, India went on to a proactive and offensive doctrine, at the nuclear level it promised ‘massive’ – city busting – nuclear retaliation. A conventional offensive could prompt a Pakistani nuclear counter, leading to reflexive escalation on India’s part that would insensibly put its own cities at risk.
This would have been sustainable in case the conventional offensive was made a remote possibility by measures such as meaningful talks over conflict triggers such as Kashmir. However, while the talks did get underway, as the then Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri’s memoirs testify, they could not be sustained and eventually were derailed by Mumbai, 26/11.
The latest Exercise Drad Sankalp has all the hallmarks of nuclear dangers: ‘decisive manoeuvres by mechanized forces on ground in harmony with utilization of the Third Dimension (air power (added)) to ensure complete dominance of the battlefield.’ The highlighted phrases would tend to trigger Pakistan’s nuclear card, officially pointed out finally by its foreign secretary only this September.
The mention of ‘integrated theatre’ concept the finds mention in the press note suggests that the manouvers appear to be prepared for such an eventuality. What the phrase means is that even though the Pakistani frontage has three geographic commands arrayed, they are capable of fighting as one, as was the case in the 1965 War in which General Harbaksh Singh was the de-facto theatre commander. While in 1965, the war was brought to an end with General JN ‘Mucchu’ Chaudhuri pleading lack of artillery ammunition, the integrated theater concept also entails integrated logistics, implying that India could rely on its depth in resources to continue the war despite its going nuclear.
India is evidently still fighting the last war. Deterrence wonks would have it that this ability will strengthen deterrence by implying ‘escalation dominance’, an ability to prevail even if Pakistan goes nuclear and at any level of nuclear exchange(s). However, the Chennai floods bring home that this does not hold for the civilian front. It would be wishful to believe that the civilian front will remain unscathed in war.