Crisis is a situation between states which is characterized by surprise (sudden, unexpected) and poses a threat (potential to harm the interest of a state), which requires decision-making by a state in a time-constrained environment in order to prevent further escalation into a full-blown conflict or war. In South Asian crises, the geographical contiguity is an important element while talking about the dynamics of possible escalation.
Herman Kahn defines escalation to be a situation, where there is likely “competition
in risk-taking,” or at least resolve, and a matching of local resources, in some form of limited conflict between two sides. Usually, either side could win by increasing its efforts in some way, provided the other side did not negate the increase by increasing its own efforts. The fear that the other side may react, indeed overreact, is most likely to deter escalation.”
The scholarship on international crises disaggregates four distinct phases of crises, i.e. Crisis onset, escalation, de-escalation and termination or Impact.
Potential Catalysts or Crisis Triggers
In South Asia, the much hyped template for crisis onset or triggering event has generally been regarded to be a terrorist incident by a so-called non-state actor in India which the Indian government would blame on elements in Pakistan, initiating a crisis.
The main cause of crisis recurrence in South Asia has been the underlying unresolved dispute over Kashmir that has led to crises time and again. There could be other catalysts like a stage-managed incident to provide pretext for action across the border, to provide a pretext to implement Cold Start doctrine etc.
After the August 5th illegal annexation of Indian Occupied Kashmir as an Indian state by the abrogation of Article 370, India is now talking of claiming Pakistan administered Azad Kashmir. A recent analysis published in Carnegie Endowment states that in a new template for crisis onset, India might operationalize Cold Start and grab Pakistan’s territory in Azad Kashmir.
Any limited incursion across the LoC may not remain limited and would entail the inherent risk of escalation. The Indian risky mindset is manifested in its doctrinal thinking as well. In its Joint Defence Forces Doctrine (2017) India claims that, “Conflict will be … prevented through a process of credible deterrence, coercive diplomacy and conclusively by punitive destruction, disruption and constraint in a nuclear environment across the Spectrum of Conflict.” The Land Warfare Doctrine reinforces the idea of network centricity and covering the whole spectrum of conflict. Indian Land Warfare Doctrine, seeks to employ deterrence by punishment against Pakistan, by launching swift offensives to take out Pakistan’s center of gravity and secure spatial gains in the event of war. This doctrinal thinking is risky and would portend negatively for the future of peace in South Asia and might lead to India’s risk-taking approach in initiating a crisis, under the false belief that it would be able to control escalation.
Balakot Strikes and Nuclear Escalation
Soon after the Pulwama attack, Indian PM Modi declared that he had given a ‘free hand’ to his military to strike at the time and place of its own choosing. Later in a purported attack inside Pakistan’s territory in Balakot, the strike formation used by India included Mirage 2000 jets, dual-use platforms; capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear warheads.
Pakistan’s leadership, irrespective of the highly-charged environment responded with great maturity, statesmanship and restraint, at the same time making clear that Pakistan would not let the attack go unresponded. When it did respond, the PAF dropped bombs at four places in Indian controlled Kashmir, including on a compound within the Indian Army brigade HQ without targeting the personnel, signaling both restraint and the capability. In the ensuing battle, India lost two of its fighter jets.
Pakistan’s carefully calibrated response strategy served well in dampening the fears in policy analysis that portray that any attack inside Pakistan’s territory would invoke Pakistan’s nuclear threshold. Pakistan, through its response, demonstrated that it has valid conventional means of deterrence to raise the cost for incursion in its territory.
Pakistan’s strategy was a mix of what Moeed Yousaf calls “resolve-prudence trade-off ”, in his novel work on crisis management in South Asia. While elaborating on the factors that shape the regional rivals crisis behavior Moeed writes that, ‘regional rivals can be expected to manipulate the risk of war to convey resolve as well as exercise caution given the danger of nuclear war.” Pakistan demonstrated resolve continually through statements by officials claiming the attacks would not go unanswered and that Pakistan would respond at a time and place of its choosing. For Instance, DG ISPR stated after Pakistan’s retaliation on February 27th that “the sole purpose of this action was to demonstrate our right, will and capability for self-defence. We do not wish to escalate but are fully prepared if forced into that paradigm”.
And the prudence was demonstrated by returning the pilot of the aircraft downed by the PAF which turned out to be the crisis de-escalation move. India, besides the continued rhetoric didn’t escalate the conflict beyond that point and used its media and election rallies to twist and put a spin on the operational ground reality of the aerial battle and losses.
Contrary to popular wisdom that in a military crisis it would be Pakistan that would asymmetrically escalate the conflict India gave the conflict a nuclear connotation by asymmetrically escalating across the air and naval domain.
Soon after the first round of air battle between India and Pakistan that led to the shooting down of Indian aircraft by Pakistan Air Force, India contemplated missile strikes against Pakistan’s key military targets using its ballistic/cruise missiles. Modi later admitted contemplating military action in an election rally where he boasted of ‘the night of massacre’, had Pakistan not returned the Indian pilot. If India had undertaken such a strike, it could possibly have been considered a preemptive counterforce strike by Pakistan. The capabilities being developed by India and shifting doctrinal sands allude to an enhanced predilection in undertaking such a preemptive strike in the future.
India’s attempts for escalation of the crisis were not limited to just vertical escalation. In the naval domain, Indian Navy moved to the operational deployment of its major combat units including the Carrier Battle Group with its aircraft carrier, nuclear submarine and conventional flotilla. During the same time, Pakistan Navy detected and forced to surface an Indian attack submarine. Pakistan Navy didn’t target the submarine despite simmering tensions and military readiness.
The crisis offers several lessons from a crisis management perspective. The assumption that Pakistan will come worse off in the first round and escalate the crisis was proven wrong, also raising questions about India’s misplaced strategic assessment of Pakistan’s conventional response. After the Uri attacks, when India claimed to have conducted so-called surgical strikes, Pakistan denied the claim which gave India the chance to portray domestically, as if it had successfully avenged Uri. The international community also stood by Indian false claim. This emboldened India to undertake further risktaking approach in the current episode. Pakistan’s DG ISPR, on Feb 22, amid threats of an impending Indian attack made it clear that if India initiates an attack, “Pakistan would also escalate …we shall have a superior force ratio at decisive points. Never think that due to our commitments elsewhere, our capacity would be lacking”. When Pakistan did respond, the response was proportionate and rational, i.e the choice of limiting the counter strikes to non-civilian targets while demonstrating the capability and resolve to respond.
Deterrence is as much a function of capability as of the political will, the Balakot crisis demonstrated that the danger of escalation was real, based on the misplaced Indian strategic thinking that it would be able to control escalation, for instance recent statements of taking over Azad Jammu and Kashmir by employing military force. This thinking could lead to further adventurism and risktaking. Modi’s government is more risk prone which essentially means that Pakistan’s strategic thinking now has to account for an adversary, which has misplaced confidence in its capabilities and a poor understanding of the adversary’s capability.
The probability of crises recurrence is high in South Asia and in a crisis cycle, neither side would be able to guarantee controlling or dominating the escalation ladder. In this regard, Gen Kidwai , former DG SPD, commented on the escalation ladder in a rather interesting way, as he said. “ while it may be easy for (India) to climb the first rung on an escalatory ladder, the second rung would always belong to Pakistan, and that India’s choice to further up the ante by moving to the third rung would invariably be dangerously problematic in anticipation of the fourth rung response by Pakistan”, while stressing that the escalatory rung climbing cannot be choreographed and could quickly get out of control.
India’s reckless attitude in the crisis and using the nuclear card (signaling) to escalate the crisis is a dangerous trend. In a future crisis, with a more risk acceptant leader like Modi in power, Pakistan should not rule out stage-managing of crisis by carrying out false flag operations, to achieve its goal of undermining Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence.
Another lesson has been that the international environment is more conducive to India’s risk acceptant approach. Post Pulwama, the US encouraged India to go down the dangerous path of escalation under the pretext of self-defence. If the international community buys into India’s narrative that Kashmir is an internal matter it would further embolden Modi’s risk-prone policies vis-à-vis Pakistan.
Finally, a grave concern relates to the opacity of Indian nuclear command and control; especially questions on who authorized the deployment of the nuclear submarine alongside aircraft carrier. Was the decision to deploy relegated to military commanders as no formal meeting of India’s Nuclear command authority was reported? This is a grave concern which portends negatively for nuclear postures in the future and undermine peacetime and crisis stability negatively.
Future Escalation Pathways
Deliberating on counterfactuals can be an instructive approach to understanding future pathways for escalation. For instance, use of dual use platform like Mirage 2000 is inherently escalatory. There were three strike packages initially detected by Pakistan, what if Pakistan had engaged them at more than one place; there would have been serious risk of vertical escalation. Secondly, threat of use of dual-use missiles like Brahmos points to the risk-prone approach with an inherent potential for escalation (misunderstanding because of commingling of platforms).
An important variable in managing crisis is reliance on well-established institutional structures, i.e. it is important to create processes with clear institutional roles during crisis scenario; where each arms of the state clearly and unambiguously understands their role and responsibilities. Moreover, improved information dissemination and media management is also crucial for management of crisis.
With minimal chances of third-party mediation, the new template for the crisis in South Asia is one in which Pakistan would have to employ its own conventional and nuclear deterrent means to counter Indian ambitions for war.
India’s attitude during the Balakot crisis with deployment of nuclear platforms across the air and naval domains as well as the use of dual-use platforms for military missions portends negatively for the readiness postures during future crises in South Asia. Finally, the technologies that favor first use (like BMDs, PGMs, hypersonic cruise missiles, enhanced ISR capabilities etc.) alongside integration for rapid decisive action, and speed would enhance nuclear readiness levels and might lead to precipitating crises and might even lead to an early occurrence of an escalatory spiral that may take a dynamic of its own.
This article was published in the Pakistan Politico on December 21, 2019.