A Military Attack on Pakistan Will Lead to India's Worst Nightmare

The key to peace in the region is to tackle the roots of the tension, which is the dispute over Kashmir.

An Indian soldier guarding the base at URI following a terrorist attack last week. Credit: PTI

An Indian soldier guarding the base at URI following a terrorist attack last week. Credit: PTI

Delhi’s decision, in the aftermath of the Uri attack, to ‘go on the strategic offensive’ against terrorist attacks launched with the support, if not connivance, of the Pakistan government has been noted all over the world. Few commentators had expected any other reaction. But unless it is planned meticulously with a precise definition of its objective and a careful appraisal of the alternatives for achieving it, such a shift is fraught with danger.

Indian TV has been baying for blood, but the goal of the Modi government should not be to ‘punish’ Pakistan for its sins, but to force it to give up using terrorism as a tool of foreign policy altogether. Such an effort is long overdue, but cannot be made by India alone, for the circumstances of Pakistan’s birth ensure that the entire nation will willingly commit suicide rather than bend its knee to India.

India can achieve this goal only in concert with other nations and heads of government. As the almost empty UN General Assembly hall to which Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif gave his address so eloquently showed, the time for a concerted effort to get Pakistan off this track is ripe. So the relentless, ugly, jingoistic drum-beating that is being indulged in by TV channels vying for TRP ratings, and the threats of disproportionate retaliatory strikes being voiced by RSS/BJP functionaries, is not only unnecessary, but is also likely to prove self defeating because it is arousing dormant fears in the rest of the world not only of a nuclear war in South Asia, but of the prolonged nuclear winter that will follow in its wake.

Lest this sound fanciful, we need only remember that a mere 20,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide spewed into the stratosphere by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1990 brought down the global average temperature in 1991 by half a degree Celsius and caused a severe drought in sub-Saharan Africa. We have no precise idea what a full-scale nuclear war will release into the atmosphere, but it is also worth remembering that 650,000 years ago, during the coldest ice age of the past million years, the global average surface temperature was only five degrees below what it is today.

Paradoxically, the first step in a strategy that enlists the support of the world should be to call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff and warn it, in cold and precise terms, that India has run out of patience and shall respond to any future attack with a retaliatory military strike. Pakistan has been sheltering behind its pointed refusal to adhere to a nuclear no first strike doctrine, and sending out emissaries like its former nuclear weapons chief General Khalid Siddiqi to warn the world that it will use battlefield nuclear weapons such as the Nasr, if India resorts to a “cold start” military strike. This was repeated by Pakistan’s army chief after the Uri attack .

In the past this warning would suffice to shift the discussion of options in India to the forms of retaliation that are possible without triggering a nuclear response from Pakistan. But this time India needs to call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff in order to show how hollow it really is. The way to do this is to remind it that the US tested, and then gave up, the idea of incorporating, battlefield nuclear weapons into its armoury because it found, over numerous war games, that there can be no graduated response in nuclear warfare. Even developing a second strike capability only raises the threshold of nuclear war higher. Once it has been crossed no country can afford to be the second to use nuclear weapons. The very first Pakistani nuclear missile will therefore force India to respond with a full scale nuclear retaliation against every base, cantonment and city in the country.

Delhi can make this threat even more credible by starting to marry the warheads of its Prithvi missiles with their carriers. Pakistan will then have to choose between doing the same and creating a hair trigger situation on the subcontinent or quietly resiling from its nuclear first use doctrine. The world will come down heavily on it to do the latter. Were this to happen it would be a resounding, diplomatic victory for India over Pakistan.

A fragile stalemate

If Pakistan does not step back from its first use nuclear doctrine where will that leave the two countries? The answer is  – with a hair-trigger peace, kept only by fully armed nuclear missiles aimed at each other’s cities. Is such a peace durable?

It can be argued that if NATO and the Soviet Union could live with such a peace for almost half a century, so can Pakistan and India. But the parallel is dangerously deceptive. The US and the USSR could do so because both were stable, responsible powers and because it took 25 minutes or more for their strategic missiles to reach their targets –time enough to recognise mistakes, have second thoughts and abort the strike if necessary. Even then the US Joint chiefs pushed hard for a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the USSR in 1954, and were turned by US President Dwight Eisenhower only when they could not assure him that not a single Soviet missile would reach an American city.

Pakistan, and to a lesser extent India, do not have the stable governments of the USA and USSR, and the travel time for nuclear missiles between the two countries is no more than four minutes. The danger of even a faulty radar identification setting off a nuclear attack is therefore too great to live with for any length of time.

So the most that going on the strategic offensive now will gain for India is some breathing space in which to find a more durable peace. That peace can only be had by tackling the roots of the tension in South Asia. These lie in the Kashmir dispute.

Unfortunately every single thing that the Modi government is doing in Kashmir is only exacerbating the tension between Pakistan and India. The BJP’s policy makers and their RSS overlords, are fixated on the idea that Pakistan is ravening at the mouth to swallow Kashmir. So it is taking advantage of the BJP’s ascent to power to stoke Kashmiri separatism, using paid stone pelters as its principal weapon.

This assessment is not so much wrong as grossly exaggerated. Pakistan has been meddling more intensely in Kashmir during the past two years than it has done at any time in the preceding decade, but its involvement is still at a very low level compared to the 1990s because it has its hands full, fighting terrorists substantially more dangerous than the ones the Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba are sending into Kashmir.

Estimates made by SATPORG, the South Asia Terrorism Portal, show that the thirteen years of civil war in Pakistan have taken the lives of more than 21,000 civilians, more than 6,500 soldiers and more than 33,000 terrorists. These figures are almost certainly too low, for the Pakistan army has been chary all along of counting the civilians killed in their operations and reluctant to disclose the full extent of its own losses. But they amount to a dreadful toll for they exceed the total numbers killed in Kashmir in twice that length of time.

To fight this war Pakistan has moved almost 40% of its regular army from the Indian border to the tribal areas adjoining Afghanistan, and now feels dangerously vulnerable to an aggressive Indian government on its eastern border. The civil war is bleeding its finances and its economy is in precarious health. The last thing it needs therefore is a second battle front on its eastern border.

Sharif has been eager to resume negotiations with India on “all issues including Kashmir” ever since Narendra Modi came to power. The event that has changed this is the formation of a BJP-PDP coalition government in February 2015.

Mufti Sayeed had pushed hard for this with the best of intentions, but in retrospect it is clear that he gravely miscalculated the way the alliance would be received in the valley. In Kashmiri eyes the National Conference forfeited its right to represent Kashmiriyat when it entered into a pre-poll coalition with the Congress in 1987. For the highly politicised youth this was the second betrayal of Kashmiriyat by a ‘mainstream’ party. That is why the new insurgency that began towards the end of 2014 was grounded in South Kashmir, the stronghold of the PDP.

Left again without a leader or party that could voice their aspirations, Kashmiri youth concluded that mainstream parties would never be able to represent Kashmiri nationalism because they would not be able to resist the lure of power. When Burhan Wani began an overt recruitment drive by posting his, and his group’s, photos on the Internet in April 2015, they believed that they had found a new leader. The rage that boiled over when news of his death spread through the Valley, was born out of despair and helplessness, and is feeding upon the cruelty of a state that replies to stones with pellets that blind and bullets that kill.

Kashmiris desperately need a new leadership that can lead them to azadi, but as of now the azadi that will satisfy them is one that Delhi can easily offer them within the framework of the Indian Constitution. This is because, with the exception of the very young, who have not yet thought of a future, and the slightly older, virtually unemployable madrassa-educated youth who are leading them, almost no one wants an azadi that will sever Kashmir’s economic links with Jammu and the rest of India.

This was confirmed by a meticulously constructed Chatham House survey of opinion in both parts of Kashmir in 2009, which found that even in Anantnag, Budgam, Srinagar and Baramula districts – the hotbed of separatism in the valley – only 2-7% of the people wanted to go to Pakistan. What has changed is the intensity with which the 75-95% who wanted “azadi” then, however defined, want it now. One cannot but fear that with each passing day of lockdown and curfew in the Valley a little more of this is swinging Pakistan’s way.

As politicians who have spent a lifetime surfing the waves of public opinion, Modi and his senior colleagues must understand that the Sharif government cannot stop stoking the fire even if it wanted to for, after swearing black and blue for six decades that Kashmir is the unfinished part of the creation of the Pakistani state, no elected government there would be explain this sudden restraint to its people and its army.

All of these conflicting pulls – hunger for Kashmir, fear of opening a second front with India, the fear of added economic stress, and the need to propitiate public opinion – are reflected in Sharif’s speech at the UN General Assembly. For while Sharif condemned India’s ‘brutal’ regime in Kashmir, he did so on human rights, not legal, historical or religious, grounds. And while he did ask for the UN to force India to hold a plebiscite, he also emphasized that Pakistan was ready to resolve all issues with India bilaterally, including Kashmir.

The Uri attack seems to contradict this nuanced analysis of Pakistan’s behavior. But that is only because we have become accustomed to thinking of the Pakistani state as a single entity intent upon the destruction of India. The reality, which Pakistani authors readily acknowledge, is that Pakistan has never been the homogeneous state of India’s nightmares. From its inception it has been a state in embryo, pulled in different directions by the army, the religious establishment and a small but vigorous civil society. After sixty turbulent years, civil society has gradually begun to win the battle and is currently engaged in a life-and-death struggle to pull the country back from the brink of becoming another breeding ground for a perverted Islamist Jihad.

But it is still extremely weak, and is being forced to make concessions to the other two claimants to power, in order to survive. India’s, and for that matter South Asia’s and the world’s, long term interests are far better served by helping it to grow stronger. But every single action of the Modi government, from cracking down on Kashmir to condoning the reign of terror unleashed upon Muslims in the name of the holy cow, is making the army and the mullahs in Pakistan stronger and sapping the strength of its still nascent democracy. A retaliatory military strike now will hand power in Pakistan back to the military and the mullahs. India’s worst nightmare will then have become a reality.