India, Pakistan, and the Limits of Effective Deterrence

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India, Pakistan, and the Limits of Effective Deterrence

The Indian defense minister may have inadvertently acknowledged the limits of India’s conventional deterrence.

India, Pakistan, and the Limits of Effective Deterrence
Credit: DoD Photo by Glenn Fawcett (Released)

India’s defense minister Manohar Parrikar, who has a track record of making controversial statements, stirred up criticism recently when he emphasized the resort to covert action in response to another major attack on India from Pakistan-based militants. Speaking at a public forum, he declared “We have to neutralize terrorists through terrorists only. Why can’t we do it?  We should do it.”

Critics rebuked Parrikar for surrendering the moral high ground that India, which has suffered grievously from Pakistan-borne terrorist activity, has enjoyed with regard to its troublesome neighbor. His remarks also served up an ill-timed propaganda coup for Islamabad, which in recent months has been accusing New Delhi of being behind its own struggles with terrorism. Pakistan’s foreign affairs czar retorted, without a hint of hypocrisy, that “it must be the first time that a minister of an elected government openly advocates use of terrorism in another country on the pretext of preventing terrorism from that country or its non-state actors.”

Parrikar’s statement was the second occasion in recent weeks that a senior Indian official has highlighted the option of putting terrorist groups to work vis-à-vis Pakistan. Neeraj Kumar, a former Delhi police commissioner, earlier in his career oversaw the investigation of a series of bombings in Mumbai in early 1993 that left over 300 people dead and some 1,400 injured. He revealed in mid-April that the Indian security establishment had once formulated a plan to use “non-state” actors “to get at a certain gentleman in Pakistan,” presumably a reference to Dawood Ibrahim, the head of a powerful criminal syndicate in Mumbai who orchestrated the 1993 bombings and who is now reportedly being sheltered in Karachi by the Pakistani security service. Kumar added that the operation was on the verge of being carried out when the Indian leadership put the kibosh on it.

But beyond the issue of whether India should take a page from the Pakistani terrorist playbook, there is an even deeper point to explore in the defense minister’s remarks: By advocating the use of sub-conventional warfare, did Parrikar implicitly acknowledge the sharp limits of India’s conventional deterrence posture vis-à-vis Pakistan?

Most analysts believe that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is very unlikely to repeat the restraint his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, exhibited following the horrendous jihadi strike on Mumbai in November 2008.  Earlier this year, Robert Blackwill, a former U.S. ambassador to India, opined that:

If there is a major terrorist attack whose breadcrumbs lead to Pakistan and the Pakistan military and ISI [Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency], I think that [Modi] is likely to use military force against Pakistan territory. It’s not a certainty.  But I think Modi, both as a personality and reflecting Indian public opinion and political sentiment across the society will be much more likely to use military force than his predecessors.

Blackwill added that “hopefully the Pakistanis understand that their behavior in the past is unlikely to be tolerable to this Indian Prime Minister.”  Stephen Cohen, the dean of America’s South Asia watchers, was speaking alongside Blackwill and concurred in this judgment.

Modi presents himself as a tough-minded leader, especially on the issue of Pakistan-based terrorism. During last year’s election campaign, he lambasted Singh’s passivity following the Mumbai strike.  “They did nothing,” Modi exclaimed. “Indians died and they did — nothing.” He pledged that as prime minister he would “talk to Pakistan in Pakistan’s language, because it won’t learn lessons until then.” At another campaign event, he promised to pursue a “zero-tolerance policy” on terrorism and criticized Singh for being unable to bring Pakistan-ensconced Dawood Ibrahim to justice.

Once in office, Modi responded to the outbreak of firefights along the Kashmir divide last fall with aggressive shelling of Pakistani positions. Consonant with his tough-guy image, he boasted that “the enemy has realized that times have changed and their old habits will not be tolerated,” and proclaimed that “this is not the time for empty talk [‘boli’] … but for bullets [‘goli’] for our soldiers.”

Referring to the Kashmir skirmishes, then-Indian Defense Minister Arun Jaitley warned, “Our conventional strength is far more than theirs and therefore if they persist with this, the cost to them would be unaffordable. They will also feel the pain of this kind of adventurism.” And in his first public address last fall, Ajit Doval, Modi’s national security advisor, argued that “effective deterrence” is key to dealing with Pakistan.

Crafting a viable deterrence stance vis-à-vis Pakistan’s use of jihadi proxies has been a conundrum for India ever since the nuclearization of South Asia. Following the brazen December 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian parliament, New Delhi launched a large-scale military buildup along the border with Pakistan in an attempt to compel Islamabad to crack down on jihadi groups. But this blunt effort at coercive diplomacy exposed significant problems inside the Indian army and is widely regarded as a failure.

Seeking to redress criticisms that India’s military coercive options were too slow, lumbering, and escalatory to extract meaningful Pakistani concessions on terrorism, the Indian army unveiled the so-called “Cold Start” military doctrine in April 2004. Cold Start signaled a pronounced shift away from the army’s traditional defensive orientation by emphasizing the threat of large-scale, swiftly-mounted but calibrated punitive actions in order to deter Pakistani adventurism. Although the concept has since been scaled back, its earliest formulations called for launching eight division-size combined-arms battle groups into Pakistan, along with integrated close-air support, for the purpose of inflicting damage on Pakistani formations and seizing limited swaths of territory that could be traded away in post-conflict negotiations.

Many analysts have criticized Cold Start as overly escalatory, especially since some Indian military leaders posit that these calibrated incursions would not precipitate a nuclear riposte even though Pakistan’s major population centers and key interior lines of communication are in close proximity to the border. Moreover, political leaders in New Delhi have never shown much enthusiasm for the strategy. In a February 2010 cable to Washington, the U.S. ambassador to India reported that “several very high level [Indian government] officials have firmly stated, when asked directly about their support for Cold Start, that they have never endorsed, supported, or advocated for this doctrine.” He added that Pakistani knowledge about Cold Start “does not seem to have prompted them to prevent terror attacks against India to extent such attacks could be controlled. This fact calls into question Cold Start’s ability to deter Pakistani mischief inside India.”

Whether the Indian army has the capacity to execute a major punitive attack is also open to question given its well-known operational shortcomings, not to mention New Delhi’s growing preoccupation with the military balance vis-à-vis China and the consequent desire to be able to wage war on two widely separated fronts. For all the talk about Cold Start, Indian military leaders reportedly told Prime Minister Singh after the Mumbai attacks that the armed forces were ill-prepared to go to war. Indeed, in the 2010 cable cited above, the U.S. ambassador in New Delhi assessed that the strategy “may never be put to use on a battlefield because of substantial and serious resource constraints.” In early 2012, the Indian army chief penned a letter to Singh warning that his forces were in decrepit shape.  And India’s central audit agency reported recently that the army continues to face crippling shortages in its ammunition stocks.

In addition to these woes, a number of structural factors impede India’s successful use of military action against Pakistan, such as the complex terrain in key border areas, the favorable deployment of Pakistani forces and the likely absence of strategic surprise. As a new assessment of the military balance puts it, “Indian policymakers cannot be confident that even a limited resort to military force would achieve a rapid result….”

In lieu of major military retaliation, some suggest the option of limited air or missile strikes against terrorist infrastructure inside Pakistan.  In the wake of the U.S. commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the chief of the Indian air force asserted that his forces could carry out surgical strikes against terrorist targets. But this type of response also runs into its own operational challenges given Pakistani air defenses, India’s lack of real-time intelligence capabilities, and the potential for unintended escalatory dynamics.

From economics to foreign policy, the Modi government, now one year into its term, is beginning to realize the difficulty of converting election oratory into viable action. It recently acknowledged having no clue as to Dawood Ibrahim’s exact whereabouts. It did little beyond issuing verbal protests when a Pakistani court two months ago released from prison Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, a prominent jihadi commander accused of orchestrating the 2008 Mumbai attacks. And if Parrikar’s remarks are any indication, the limits of issuing military threats as a means of deterring Pakistan-based terrorism are also sinking in.

David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm, and heads its South Asia practice group.  He can be reached via Twitter @DavidJKarl.