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Time for a Symmetric Approach?

How can we tackle Pakistan? With all previous approaches having failed, here’s an option India could consider.

The latest Indian attempt to raise the cost of asymmetric warfare for Pakistan is another in a long list of inadequate responses to a low-cost policy that has gained much for its intractable adversary. India has tried diplomatic offensives, coercive diplomacy (most notably in 2001-02), and “surgical strikes” on the ground and now from the air. The cross-border flow of terrorists remains in place with occasional peaks and valleys in the graph. No amount of declarations of success from Indian leaders and officials can smother the statistics. The 2017-18 Annual Report of India’s Ministry of Home Affairs (p. 15) lists the rising trend for 2013-2017 in net infiltrations (97 and 123 respectively), terrorist incidents (170 and 342), and fatalities (combining those of security forces, civilians and terrorists: 135 and 333). From the Indian standpoint, it would be hard to show in similar terms how the strategies adopted thus far have yielded any significant benefits.

The real problem is that Indian civilian and military policymakers have not fully understood the ramifications of conflict under the shadow of nuclear weapons. Clearly, the Pakistani military has managed the “stability-instability paradox” well enough from its standpoint to keep the pressure on. The paradox, originally formulated to argue that nuclear armed rivals can fight conventional war because neither will risk crossing the nuclear threshold, did not quite work that way. Since the beginning of the Cold War, a central principle of nuclear rivalries is that in every case involving nuclear-armed rivals, military conflict has stopped well short of full-scale conventional war. The Sino-Soviet border clashes of 1969 and the Kargil conflict of 1999 localized marginal conflicts rather than “wars” in a true sense, with the contestants exercising extraordinary (and costly) restraint in the conduct of operations. Other marginal instances of combat between nuclear powers include occasional dogfights between Chinese and US fighter aircraft during the Vietnam War, the confrontation between the US and Soviet navies during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and the shooting down of American reconnaissance aircraft over the Soviet Union in May 1960 and over Cuba in October 1962.

In its updated version, the stability-instability paradox holds that states with nuclear weapons do not fight conventional wars, but can engage in “asymmetric wars” that involve relatively low-level violence, often through proxies. The availability of a nuclear “shield” enables a revisionist state to employ low-cost asymmetrical warfare tactics to put a status quoist adversary under pressure. The Americans used the mujahideen in Afghanistan to raise costs for the Soviet Union’s forces. Russia appears to have used the strategy successfully to take control over Crimea – its “little green men” did better than the Pakistani state’s “freedom fighters” in Kargil. The Pakistani military has used the lowest-cost strategy of employing proxies to exacerbate domestic turbulence in India in Punjab and Kashmir.

The strategy is effective for several reasons. First, it is deniable – Pakistan can hide behind a cloak of “lack of evidence” of its culpability. This is buttressed by a show of cooperation wherein evidence against terrorists presented to Pakistani courts is “insufficient” to produce a conviction and the accused are set free. (Unremarkably, this does not happen with respect to terrorists targeting its own leadership.) Second, India has no recourse to conventional military reprisal since Pakistan exercises nuclear deterrence, which rules out military action except in marginal ways such as surgical strikes, which produce theatre but not results. Third, the expectation that other states will apply diplomatic pressure on Pakistan is unrealistic beyond a point. More likely, they will call for restraint and apply limited (and bearable) pressure, as was the case during Operation Parakram in 2001-02 and is happening today. Fourth, even if the revisionist state does make concessions (as President Musharraf did in the crisis of 2001-02), these are always reversible (as is also true with respect to Musharraf’s declarations and crackdowns).

And fifth, it needs to be recognized that gaining control over Kashmir is not a “Pakistani” objective – it is a strategy of the Pakistani military, which needs the issue to be constantly on the boil in order to stay in power and justify its tight grip over the state and the economic gains from what a Pakistani scholar has called “Military Inc.” This is a survival strategy for the Pakistani military, for an end to the Kashmir dispute will logically raise the demand for its return to the barracks. Neither diplomacy nor the futile threat of military reprisal will work. What are the options that remain? It may be time to consider seriously the one strategy that has not been seriously attempted, if at all: a symmetric option. In short, do unto Pakistan what it is doing to you.

On the face of it, this may seem risky – after all, a weakened Pakistani state buffeted by rising militancy would be vulnerable to breakdown and no one wants its nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of extremist groups. But a calibrated strategy would aim at undermining the Pakistani state by means of nationalist proxies. The most obvious target would be Balochistan, which has been fighting against repression by the Pakistani state for decades, with nationalist upsurges in 1949, 1962-69, 1974-77 and after 2006. Today, as an analyst writing in Dawn (November 6, 2016) has noted, Balochistan has a rising middle class which is conscious of the few gains accruing to the people in the region from large-scale projects like Gwadar port and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). To exert pressure on the military-dominated Pakistan state, India might well consider extensive backing of the Baloch nationalists. Prime Minister Modi hinted at this in August 2016, but appears to have balked at doing more. As Praveen Swami noted in a 2014 article in the Hindu, India had used covert action in the past, but political approval was held back from the 1990s.

A second potential disintegration of the impecunious Pakistani state might just bring about a rethink on its praetorian ruling class or at least keep it preoccupied. Covert action in Balochistan will also threaten the prospects of the CPEC, and encourage Beijing to reconsider its tendency to back Islamabad’s asymmetric strategy. Balochistan is the thin end of the wedge. Further possibilities for a continuing symmetrical strategy could look closely at targeting Gilgit-Baltistan, where the Pakistani state has few admirers, and probing the uneasy relationship between Sindh and the Punjabi political heartland. None of this will be easy: there could be violent reprisals. National security begins at home, as we know from the Punjab experience. India needs to stop treating Jammu and Kashmir as a problem to be solved by the army and to begin integrating it politically before it can take the asymmetric offensive against its intractable neighbour. Governments in glass houses…

The options are at least worth looking at instead of resorting to the usual ineffective responses.

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About the author

Rajesh Basrur

Rajesh Basrur is Visiting Professor in the South Asia Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and Research Associate with the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, University of Oxford. He is the author of, among others (with Kate Sullivan de Estrada) Rising India: Status and Power (Routledge 2017), South Asia's Cold War (Routledge, 2008) and Minimum Deterrence and India's Nuclear Security (Stanford University Press, 2006).