The Usual September Indo-Pak Slugfest
Not one to pass up an opportunity for grandstanding, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to skip the annual UN General Assembly session for two years in a row makes some sense in that it deprives Pakistan of an opportunity, when it is its turn at the podium, to take potshots at India’s take in the Assembly. Since India sent its foreign minister instead, its slot has come after the heads of government have had their say. This gives India an opportunity to take potshots at Pakistan.
The India-Pakistan slug fest that develops in the august chambers of the General Assembly, indubitably hyphenates India with Pakistan, even if India gets the better of Pakistan with its choice of phrases.
This time round the speech of foreign minister Sushma Swaraj was overshadowed by India’s rebuttal made by its very able first secretary, Eenam Gambhir, to the speech by Pakistan’s stop-gap prime minister, charactering Pakistan as ‘terroristan’. Gambhir had shot to fame last year with her phrase characterizing Pakistan as the ‘ivy leagues of terrorism’ in her exercising the right of reply to Nawaz Sharif’s speech at the Assembly chamber.
That speech was useful cover for India to launch its ‘surgical strikes’, multiple raids across a wide front on terror camps across the Line of Control (LC). Pakistan for its part had struck a military installation in Uri just prior to the General Assembly meeting, so as to draw attention of the gathering to the instability in Kashmir, setting the stage for Pakistan’s India bashing.
Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif was doubly required to indulge in this then, since only earlier in the month last year, a media report had exposed a rift in Pakistan ruling elite, between its civilian government and the army, on its India policy. That the media report was close to the truth was soon made clear by the hounding of a leading columnist for Dawn, Cyril Almeida, who did the expose. In the event, Sharif hued closely to the script, authored by the army, making most of the unrest in Kashmir last year that has followed the killing of Burhan Wani.
This time round, while mostly-ailing, Swaraj’s performance bears her usual work (wo)manlike stamp, the saving grace has been in Pakistan’s permanent representative to the UN Maleeha Lodhi tripping up in her invective, flashing the wrong picture to embellish her case against use of pellet guns in the Valley. The cacophony in the usual circles in India over this gaffe does nothing to obscure the tragedy brought about by the use of such weaponry in the Valley. So, Lodhi’s is not quite the hitwicket it is made out to be amongst the converts.
However, the Pakistani side had something notable to show for its US visit, liable to be lost in the orchestrated chorus over Maleeha Lodhi’s going ballistic in the Assembly chambers.
Of significance was Pakistan’s prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, statement at an engagement at the think tank, Council on Foreign Relations. He said, “As far as tactical nuclear weapons (are concerned), we do not have any fielded tactical nuclear weapons. We have developed short-range nuclear weapons as a counter to the 'Cold Start' doctrine that India has developed. Again, those are in the same command-and-control authority that controls the other strategic weapons."
The importance of noting this is that it sets at rest the debate surrounding what Pakistan intends to do with its short range ballistic missile system, the Nasr, unveiled in 2011. Nasr’s warhead was taken to be a tactical nuclear weapon (TNW) and its utility for Pakistan, as admitted to by Abbasi, was to stymie India’s cold start offensives. The debate in India – carried further into the august pages of the leading international relations journal International Security – was that since the TNW numbers required to stop Indian mechanized offensives would be numerous, Pakistan would be self-deterred from using it in a low-threshold early-use mode. It also did not have the Nasr system in sufficient numbers to be able to stop such offensives.
As it turns out from Abbasi’s statement, this is a misreading of Pakistani intent. Even when Nasr made its debut, the Inter-Service Public Relations press note had it that it was part of the strategic deterrence capability of Pakistan, with the short range missile complementing the longer range missiles in its inventory. This was glossed over in Indian strategists rush to prove the offensive and aggressive intent of Pakistani nuclear first use. Also, self-servingly they had it that since Pakistan could not dare use it in the numbers required as it would lay waste to Pakistan itself over which Indian offensive columns would be advancing, India could afford to go down the cold start option of proactive operations.
Indian strategists needs revising this expectation. Reading the Indian debate and hoping no doubt to bolster its ‘full spectrum’ deterrence, that includes pulling the deterrence cover down over the conventional level also, the Pakistanis appear now to have clarified that the Nasr is a strategic weapon, even if of small yield. This is in keeping with theory in that the aim behind a weapon’s use would determine the type of weapon it is. For instance, in case a small yield nuclear bomb is dropped on an urban area, it is a strategic use of the weapon. Thus, all small yield weapons are not TNW.
Pakistan thus has clarified a strategic utility to the Nasr. It is not so much intended to stop India’s integrated battle groups or strike corps in their tracks, as much as to raise the ante to a level as to ensure culmination of international pressure in favour of escalation control and conflict termination. Its use would be akin to a ‘shot across the bow’.
This has two implications. One is that the recently advertised readiness of India for cold start offensives needs to be tamped down. The army chief acknowledged cold start doctrine in his first meeting with the press on the eve of the Army Day early this year. He has recently twice voiced the army’s readiness for a two front war, with this doctrine informing the strategy on the western front to quickly knock off Pakistan. In this context, Abbasi’s statement should be taken as a timely warning that the expectation of a high enough nuclear threshold to permit cold start offensives might be unwarranted.
Second, are implications for India’s nuclear doctrine. Abbasi’s statement suggests a lower order nuclear first use. India’s professed nuclear doctrine has it that it would take out Pakistan in case of any manner of nuclear first use on its part. This doctrine would be ‘unimplementable’, to borrow the phrase made famous by Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat in a different context.
India needs revising its nuclear doctrine accordingly to enable multiple options of retaliation, including quid pro quo, in such a case. Thoughts of first strike – entertained by former national security adviser Shivshankar Menon – need to be abandoned forthwith, since there is no call to invite a second strike – of which Pakistan is quite capable – just to get a Nasr or two readying for discharge. India must admit to the state of Mutual Assured Destruction prevailing in the subcontinent.
The India-Pakistan September exchange has acquired the status of a yearly fixture on the strategic calendar. The last year it was ‘surgical strikes’. This year it is about the nuclear prospects that such strikes can well set off, as would surely, their elder brother, cold start offensives. However, it is best that exchanges – howsoever charged up - are in fora such as the General Assembly rather than on the battlefield.