EARLY ON THE morning of February 26th India launched an air strike against a camp of Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), the terrorist organisation responsible for a suicide bombing against a paramilitary convoy in Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). The aerial attack on the camp, at Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber- Pakhtunkhwa province, demolished more than a bunch of buildings. A part of collateral damage occurred in what is probably the most arcane branch of political science—theories of nuclear behaviour. These theories try to explain why and under what circumstances countries resort to nuclear weapons.
In the case of India and Pakistan conventional nuclear wisdom has evolved at a rapid pace since the summer of 1998, when both New Delhi and Islamabad carried out nuclear tests. Then, in a somewhat triumphant mood, the Indian nuclear establishment declared that conventional wars were history in South Asia. Armed with nuclear weapons both neighbours could get on with solving pressing problems including poverty. Just about a year later, the two countries would fight their fourth conventional war, this time under the shadow of nuclear weapons. Unlike optimistic South Asian nuclear warriors, this possibility had been presaged much earlier in the depths of the Cold War. The ungainly expression ‘stability-instability paradox’, conjectured that two nuclear-armed rivals, secure in the belief that neither will use the ultimate weapon, confidently go about unleashing violence at the conventional level.
To non-nuclear warriors—basically ordinary people—this was another example of the circular logic that accompanied nuclear weapons—if nuclear weapons were meant to rule out conventional wars, what was to be made of the ‘stability- instability paradox’ that ruled out nuclear conflagration but brought conventional wars back into picture? If one sets aside the intellectual gymnastics involved, the answer is simple. Conventional wars of the kind seen during the 20th century— for example India and Pakistan in 1971, the US in Korea or the bloodbath of the World War II kind—were not feasible anymore. What was possible were aggressive encounters at lower levels of violence—shorter in duration, limited to a small geographic area—in contrast to a war as understood in its conventional meaning.
It was one of those twists of history that this understanding of what nuclear weapons made impossible and what they rendered possible was almost tailor-made for the conflict between India and Pakistan. Here were two nuclear-armed neighbours who had just fought a war—Kargil 1999—and had a long-standing and bitter conflict over territory each claimed to be its own: J&K. Pakistan’s solution to wrest Kashmir from India rested on a two-pronged strategy. One, unleash terrorists bred on its soil in Kashmir and two, foment unrest in Indian territory using those terrorists. With the exception of a few years, early this century when cross-border terrorist flows pared to a trickle, Pakistan has kept the pot boiling these two decades.
An essential requirement for doing this was to impress on India that any aggressive steps to counter terrorism—for example, launching pre-emptive attacks on Pakistani soil— would be met with a nuclear riposte. On the face of it, this is an unbelievable assertion. It comes close to saying something like ‘throw a stone at me and I’ll throw a nuke at you’. Even more unbelievably, India continued to believe this for almost two decades. To give one example, in the Kargil war Indian fighter pilots were told not to cross the Line of Control (LoC) in J&K as this was considered a sensitive threshold. It is not clear on what basis this assertion was made. Perhaps, it was part of the ‘nuclear learning’ that made the Indian leadership of the time cautious. What was caution for India was, however, another matter for Pakistan—it made immense sense for Islamabad to assert a ‘nuclear limit’ that was as low as possible. It claimed an exceptionally low threshold for a very long time.
This was the phase during which India ‘absorbed’ the costs of terrorism in terms of losses to human life, financial uncertainty and a general loss of confidence in doing anything about it. This state of mind has been captured memorably by former foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon in his book Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy (2016). ‘India’s immediate political objective must recognize that this is a long conflict that cannot be solved—that it is protracted and intractable. This is an idea that most Indians are reluctant to accept and some find intolerable, but it is nonetheless gaining ground in India. Given the situation in Pakistan, the institutional interest of the Pakistan Army, and the radicalization (or Talibanization) of Pakistani society, I do not think that any other conclusion would be prudent,’ he writes.
In these years, India has absorbed plenty of losses from terrorism. In J&K in particular, the spate of terrorist attacks picked up after 2015, leading to a cascading effect of violence and counter- violence. It is not just the number of security personnel and civilian deaths that are a cause of concern but the damage per encounter in terms of troops killed, damage to civilian property and ordinary persons killed that has made terrorism a costly affair. In addition to the ‘ordinary statistics’ of death that get buried, it is the big attacks against the army and paramilitary forces like the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) that gained notoriety this time. In October 2016, 19 soldiers were killed in an attack on an army base in Uri. Two years later, the Pulwama attack led to the death of at least 40 CRPF men.
Unlike the past, however, both attacks met with a stronger- than-expected Indian response. While the details of these operations remain controversial, some things are clear. Uri led to a rare ground incursion into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Pulwama led to a strike in Pakistani territory. Both amount to a significant ratcheting up of military operations against Pakistan. Both have generated a degree of disbelief among scholars. It has also led to a hunt for explanations.
Has India finally overcome its psychological fears about Pakistan's potential use of nuclear weapons? That is a question that few are willing to address without resorting to explanations based on domestic politics
This has proved to be a difficult quest—if India was considered hemmed in due to a lack of viable military options against Pakistan’s nuclear threats, how does one explain Uri and Balakot?
Not surprisingly, instead of addressing India’s changing thresholds and the possible changes in its security calculus, these deviations are now being explained in terms of the country’s domestic politics.
One explanation latched upon by virtually the who’s who of the nuclear theory world is based on what are called ‘audience costs’. The idea dates to a 1994 study by James Fearon, a Stanford University scholar who specialises in the origins of war. Fearon looked at eyeball-to-eyeball confrontations between countries and built a theory that predicted which countries would back down and which ones would escalate all the way to war. The idea is straightforward—if a country mobilises its army in response to a crisis situation, it can back down after some time, escalate further or attack the enemy country. In case it decides to back away from military action, it generates what Fearon calls audience costs: ‘These costs arise from the action of domestic audiences concerned with whether the leadership is successful or unsuccessful at foreign policy.’ If these costs are high, a ‘lock in’ is produced whereby there is no option left except to escalate tensions or attack. Otherwise, the leader suffers politically at the hands of voters—in case the country is a democracy—or in other ways in case of a non-democracy.
Going by this theory, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ‘locked in’ soon after the Uri attack when he promised retribution. He had no option but to go for the surgical strikes. Similarly, in the case of Pulwama, he was left with no option but to order a strike against terrorist facilities in Pakistan.
It is a plausible theory but one that has little empirical or historical support. Confrontations between India and Pakistan are not new. In the wake of the attack on Parliament in December 2001, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government ordered a massive mobilisation of troops on the border. After five months, India backed away without firing a single shot at Pakistan. If audience costs were indeed an issue, Vajpayee should have escalated further or launched an attack on Pakistan. Instead he backed down. His Government was defeated in the 2004 General Election but security issues were literally not there on the election agenda that year.
In somewhat different circumstances, India did nothing after the November 2008 Mumbai attacks that were known to have been planned and launched from Pakistani soil. This was a different case, as India had not mobilised or escalated militarily in any way. But once again, these attacks were hardly an issue in the 2009 Assembly elections in Maharashtra or the General Election that year. Both were won by the Congress party, which was in power when the Mumbai attacks occurred.
“I am not convinced about the audience costs argument,” says Rajesh Rajagopalan, a professor of international relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Governments cannot fully calculate such costs and there are not only domestic costs but also international audience costs as well,” he adds. The international costs arise when the ‘world’ watches a country that has ambitions of becoming a regional if not great power but is unable to defend its people from terrorist attacks. In the current bout of theorising, there has been no accounting for international audience costs, an equally plausible source of escalation as India has now a much more visible presence in various fora across the world in comparison to, say, 2002 or even 2008.
Perhaps much of this sort of accounting has to do with the perception of Modi as a strong leader who does not back away from taking ‘tough’ steps on national security issues. But this is at best, a perception—no leader, however powerful his image may be, is likely to abandon rational calculations before launching an offensive operation against a nuclear-armed neighbour. The trouble with theories that look at India’s new-found assertiveness is that they wholly discard the rational calculations of costs and benefits in the decision-making process.
AS INDIA FINALLY overcome its psychological fears about Pakistan’s potential use of nuclear weapons? That is another question that few scholars are willing to address without resorting to explanations based on domestic politics.
“I am not fully convinced that we are there but I think we are getting there,” says Rajagopalan when asked about India’s nuclear fears. “I hope the next time we will carry out a more sustained campaign. Now that we have done this twice, there will be greater confidence to carry out operations,” he adds.
There are plenty of questions about India’s assertive military posture. There is plenty of speculation about fighter jets downed, types of aircraft and missiles used, the damage—or lack of it—to terrorist infrastructure and the number of terrorists killed. This is akin to missing the forest for the trees. The real questions are about what has changed between 2002 and now that made India take recourse to military options—what made New Delhi call Pakistan’s bluff? Did it have anything to do with learning over this time or was it about confidence that it lacked earlier? There are virtually no theories to look at this situation. To be sure, there is plenty in the game theory literature that models such situations but there are no specific theories or studies that look at these sudden changes.
At the moment, there are plenty of doubts about the efficacy of Indian actions on the one hand, and warmongering on the other. Both are extreme positions. Perhaps a better explanation is that India finds itself on a knife-edge military equilibrium where under-confidence and over-confidence confront it on either side. It is a fine equilibrium that requires continued focus on learning and discarding of noise.