The Challenge To Deterrence in South Asia. By Brigadier (Retd.) Samson Simon Sharaf (A credible Balance of Terror also implies a balance within the elements of national power)


Deterrence is a subject studied feverishly in all academic and policy making forums of South Asia. Yet there remains a visible deficit in comprehension and practice of the concept. Few realise that the only tangible case in which deterrence as a stand alone worked was the Korean War; not against the Chinese or North Koreans, but against the strategic thought of US Military Command, when General Douglas McArthur wanted to bomb Manchurian corridor. It was then that nuclear strategist from both sides of the Atlantic got together and rediscovered Clausewitz and the adage that ‘War is too serious a matter to be left in the hands of Generals’. At the extreme end of coercive diplomacy, it was now possible for civilian statesmen to bypass the entire military instrument. Leaders in South Asia choose to ignore this lesson.
Nuclear Absolutism aside, nuclear armed political leaders of South Asia need to realise that solutions to disputes is not in threat or use of violence but rather, in purposeful negotiations. Just like the ultimate objective of any war is peace (Clausewitz), nuclear deterrence averts war and seeks peace (Brodie). If they do not, they could run out of stamina like USSR disintegrating under the weight of its own empire.
Having acquired much of our knowledge on nuclear strategy from Western and American writers, both Pakistan and India have nose-dived into the semantics and simplifications. Military commanders particularly ignore the fact that deterrence in practise and reality is a psychological notion to avert and not fight a war of any description. In simplest terms, it remains a balance of terror wherein equalisation of capabilities brings with it the equalisation of vulnerabilities; simply put: Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). If they continue to see them as super bombs, there is always a danger that such notions develop innate tendencies to drift towards a war fighting mindset under a nuclear shadow; a dangerous proposition already put to effect.
To support my argument, we have lessons from history. Nuclear Utilisation Theorists (NUTs) from all blocks toyed with the ideas of limited war, proxy wars, peripheral conflicts and political economy. This kept alive the concept of a super bomb through Flexible Response and Graduated Deterrence. However, the entire nuclear jargon failed to even maintain a status quo. USSR and Eastern Europe disintegrated through domestic political economy, least to mention any grand design of the West. In the ultimate analysis, it was the social and emotive dimension triggered by socio-economic conditions that brought an end to the Cold War.
The biggest danger in South Asia is that both India and Pakistan have chosen the Cold War Template for nuclear thinking. Each day, we see a clear drift from a Mutual Deterrence to the advent of NUTs. This was predictable even before India went nuclear in 1974 and Pakistan in 1998. Unlike the Cold War Theatre separated by the European and APEC landmasses, South Asia had a live Line of Control with a legitimate ongoing freedom struggle in Kashmir. It was inevitable that both countries would ultimately toy with the ideas of limited conflicts despite being nuclear.
Pakistan challenged its own thesis of Nuclear Stability by initiating Kargil despite international isolation. India seems to follow suit through the concepts of Limited War under a Nuclear Shadow and Cold Start Doctrine. However, within the premise of this escalation, the capability of either side to strike, survive and strike again is both progressive and retrogressive. Hypothetically, in nuclear calculus, the adversary with more striking and surviving capability is the ultimate winner. We hear of threshold theories manifesting a willingness to fight a conventional conflict short of a nuclear flash point and hence a constant urge to strike a balance resulting in an expensive conventional and unconventional arms race that hurts Pakistan. India feels assured that it could escalate the conflict to a higher level while international intervention would prevent use of nuclear weapons by Pakistan.
India appears to follow this logic by boosting its missile defence and surveillance capability with active assistance from Russia, Israel and USA. Indo-US Nuclear cooperation also provides a Nuclear Umbrella of sorts. India also stands taller on the survivability ladder due to Nuclear Powered Submarines, military bases in Nicobar and Andaman and very high altitude strategic bombers (Russia) beyond the range of Pakistan’s air defence capability. This advantage compensates its limited and suspect capability of employing fusion devices. India is also tempted to challenge the status quo and attempt a rot through covert peripheral conflicts against Pakistan through Afghanistan, manipulation of agriculture water and projection of Pakistan as a discredited failing state.
In contrast, the balance between Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence and defence unlike India is primarily indigenous. It maintains the balance of terror more through its striking, rather than its defensive capability. In face of an unequal relationship it is but logical for Pakistan to challenge the status quo through an in extremis conventional/unconventional militarism on the periphery. This explains Indian sensitivity to the attack on Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay though the trails suggest an international operation planned by individuals residing in USA.
Analytically, Pakistan’s nuclear threshold has been driven down not so much by experimentation with low-intensity warfare in Kashmir as by nearly twenty years of starkly unequal arms acquisition trends, and by India’s readiness to exploit its huge build up through Coercive and Compellence Diplomacy in tandem with USA and UK. Pakistan’s asymmetry in surveillance, residual capability and defensive shield has widened. Pakistan is being led into a nuclear and conventional arms race with no choice but a massive first use against any conventional attack. Driven into the corner, Pakistan would have the flair to do just that. However, even this minimum means diversion of major national assets towards security at the cost of national development. Hence a credible Balance of Terror also implies a balance within the elements of national power.
Technically, Pakistan’s strike nuclear forces appear more than equal and in some aspects ahead of India. However, Pakistan’s major problems in political instability, poor governance, institutionalised corruption, militancy, bad economic policies and fragmentation of society make it vulnerable to collapsing under its own weight. It is this phenomena rather than India that remains the biggest threat to the stability of nuclear capability in Pakistan.
Despite major military successes, Pakistan remains at the loosing end of this war of attrition. Other than the endemic Indian and American media scoops, some Pakistani media persons have also joined to discredit patriotic Pakistani journalists and analysts who see the game through and through.
It is in this backdrop that Pakistan will have to conduct its secretary level diplomacy in India and assure the suspect international audience that everything is safe. India is in no mood to negotiate peace.
Pakistan’s gradual surrender to compellence imposed by Indo-US pressures reflects a fragile and self centred bunkered national leadership. This alone remains the most serious aspersion on the will and determination needed to handle a credible deterrence regime. It goes to the character of this nation that despite total lack of national leadership, the people brave the odds and hold their heads high.

Brigadier Samson Simon Sharaf is a retired officer of Pakistan Army and a Political Economist.
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