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Why This Surgical Strike Across LoC Changes Indo-Pak Nuclear Red Lines

India's surgical strike avenging Uri will demonstrate to Pakistan that its exaggerated nuclear bluff will no longer go unchallenged.

Rajesh Rajagopalan |

Updated:September 29, 2016, 11:14 PM IST
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Why This Surgical Strike Across LoC Changes Indo-Pak Nuclear Red Lines
Soldiers of the Border Security Force (BSF) (R) and Pakistani Rangers hold their respective flags during the "Beating the Retreat" ceremony, a daily ritual, at Indian and Pakistani joint check post at Wagah border, on the outskirts of Amritsar on December 17, 2007.

The Indian decision to conduct a strike against terrorist bases across the Line of Control (LoC) has important implications for nuclear deterrence and Pakistan's so-called nuclear 'red lines'.

Though full details of the strike are still awaited, the fact that India publicly announced it and stated that the Indian Director-General of Military Operations (DGMO) had informed his Pakistani counterpart about the attack reinforces India's decision to challenge these nuclear red lines. Irrespective of whether Pakistan responds or even how it responds, the nuclear deterrence game between India and Pakistan has changed.

Even before this operation, Pakistan's leaders had begun talking of the possibility of nuclear escalation and have threatened to attack India with nuclear weapons if India goes to war in response to the Uri attack.

This was to be expected and it tracks well with previous Pakistani behaviour: in the case of both Kargil and during the Operation Parakram crisis, too, Pakistan was the first to suggest the possibility of nuclear war.

Pakistan's threats are perfectly understandable and in keeping with its deterrence strategy. But, though these threats are logical, there is little logic to Pakistan actually using nuclear weapons. The Indian cross-LoC strike exposes a basic contradiction between the logic of Pakistan's nuclear threats and the illogic of actually carrying out such threats.

The logic of Pakistan's nuclear threats is understandable. As a state that believes it is conventionally weaker than India, Pakistan sees nuclear weapons as off-setting the relative inferiority of its conventional military power vis-à-vis India.

But, while nuclear weapons are the perfect means to ensure national survival of states that worry that their survival itself is at stake, expanding their use beyond simply ensuring national survival is problematic. This is what Pakistan has been attempting to do for the last two decades.

Pakistan has been attempting to use nuclear weapons to shield itself from any retaliation so that it could use terrorists to attack India. It has done this by claiming that any Indian military action will result in a nuclear escalation.

Unfortunately, successive Indian governments, starting with the Vajpayee government, reinforced this logic by refusing to respond to clear and blatant Pakistani support for terrorists attacking India.

It did not have to be so. Immediately after the Kargil war, the then Defence Minister George Fernandes as well as Army Chief General VP Malik proposed that there was sufficient space between a sub-conventional war and a nuclear escalation for India to consider conventional war options to respond to Pakistan's provocations.

What they were saying was simple and logical: Pakistan was unlikely to use nuclear weapons unless any Indian military operation went so far as to threaten the survival of Pakistan itself.

This meant that Pakistan's leaders would not contemplate nuclear escalation for Indian military actions that stayed well below such objectives. Indeed, no Indian leader has considered threatening the survival of Pakistan.

Thus, as long as Indian objectives and action stayed well below the threshold of threatening Pakistan's survival, India could engage in military action, including across the LoC or the international border.

Their proposal exposed the contradiction of Pakistan attempting to use nuclear weapons to shield Pakistan's support for terrorism against India. If their proposal had been followed up, Pakistan's nuclear shield would have been stripped, at least in so far as using that shield to support terrorism was concerned.

Unfortunately, neither the Vajpayee government nor the Manmohan Singh government followed up on the suggestion that India did not have to worry about Pakistan's nuclear escalation in considering a military response to Pakistan's terrorist attacks.

By not responding, they implicitly reinforced Pakistan's exaggerated nuclear red lines, which over time straddled the LoC and the border. And Pakistan's rhetoric successfully further reinforced the red line, as did Pakistan's moves to build 'Tactical Nuclear Weapons' (TNWs).

Pakistan's TNW gambit further illustrates the illogic of Pakistan actually carrying out the implied threat of nuclear escalation. Pakistan's TNWs, based on a short-range missile called the Nasr, are supposed to be used to prevent Indian armoured columns from penetrating deep into Pakistan or capturing Pakistani territory.

But the illogic is in assuming that Pakistan would actually carry out such an action, considering that any Pakistani nuclear attack, even on Indian forces that had penetrated some distance into Pakistani territory, would be met with some kind of nuclear response by India.

India's massive retaliation strategy suffers from its own credibility problem, of course: we are supposed to believe that the Indian leadership has the stomach to launch a full-scale nuclear attack that would kill tens of millions of Pakistani civilians and put at risk tens of millions more Indian civilians in a certain Pakistani retaliation, in response to a limited Pakistani nuclear attack on Indian forces in Pakistani territory.

But even given the illogic of India's massive retaliation doctrine, it would be foolish of any Pakistani commander to assume that there will be no nuclear response from India. And if there is going to be a nuclear response from India to a limited nuclear first use by Pakistan, the damage to both sides will be tremendous.

We are expected to believe that Pakistani commanders will calculate that they would be better off after such an outcome than to suffer a temporary conventional military defeat and loss of limited amount of territory for a limited amount of time (since India will not hold on to captured territory for any length of time).

This basic illogic was what the Fernandes/Malik proposal sought to exploit. And that is exactly what the Indian strike on Wednesday seeks to do also: to demonstrate to Pakistan that its exaggerated nuclear bluff will no longer go unchallenged.

It will be difficult to argue now, by either the Pakistani military or by well-meaning outsiders who fear a nuclear escalation and so counsel 'strategic restraint', that Pakistan's maximalist nuclear red lines have any credibility.

In doing so, it also opens up a whole new set of future military options for India to consider in dealing with Pakistan's nuclear terrorism.

Disclaimer: The author Dr Rajesh Rajagopalan is a Professor of International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University. The views expressed here are his own and not that of Network18

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