By Vaidya Gundlupet
While the prospect of nuclear escalation ruled out an Indian strategy of total war to compel Pakistan to change its behavior, the fear did not directly deter India from launching limited nuclear attacks across the LoC and even international border. If India did not launch these limited strikes, it was because their military utility were doubtful
The relationship between nuclear threats and conflict in general, particularly during the Cold War, and more recently, with respect to South Asia has attracted considerable scholarly attention. As Thomas Schelling perceptibly pointed out, “Some threats are inherently persuasive, some have to be made persuasive and some are bound to look like bluffs.” Applied to the nuclear world, this is understood to mean that assuring survival of the homeland is easy (nuclear threat would deter enemy attack), but additional efforts (like ‘trip wire’ U.S. forces in Europe) were needed to make any extended deterrence credible. However, during the Cold War, nuclear weapons did play a greater role than just to assure territorial security and extended deterrence. Great powers attempted to use nuclear threats to stop conflicts when neither of these conditions was met. For example, nuclear threats were used at the end of the Korean War (1953), Taiwan Straits Crisis (1958), and the Sino-Soviet conflict (1969).
However, regional powers like India and Pakistan have not been able to use nuclear threats similarly even when significant interests were involved. When a threat to a state’s survival is perceived, nuclear threat was definitely conveyed but not when other interests were at stake, even in contexts when there was no fear of nuclear retaliation. Two examples in this context are Israel during the 1973 war and United Kingdom in the Falklands War (1984) when they decided to fight the conflict at the level enemy chose – limited conventional conflict – rather than attempting to reinforce the status quo with a nuclear threat. India, in 1999, did not attempt nuclear coercion against Pakistan even though, at this point, it had superiority in numbers but decided to wage a limited conventional war to remove Pakistani forces from its territory. Comparing Israeli behavior between 1973 war and 1990 Gulf War is interesting in this context. Even when Egypt and Syria attacked territory under Israeli control in 1973, Israel did not issue a nuclear threat (at least to the enemy), but during the lead up to the 1990 Gulf War, Israel conveyed very clear, public statements implying a nuclear response if Saddam Hussein attacked Israel with chemical weapons. In the latter context, possible Iraqi use of chemical weapons threatened Israeli survival.
Thus, while nuclear blackmail rarely changed status quo, great powers used nuclear threats to reinforce status quo but regional powers have not been able to. This suggests that the political calculus for regional powers contemplating using nuclear threats is different from the factors affecting the decision-making in great powers. I argue that another factor affects the political calculus of a regional power contemplating using nuclear threats – nuclear threats invite international attention even when there is little substantively at stake for outside powers. There is a strong interest among major actors in international politics to see that states do not use nuclear weapons and this international political environment seriously impacts on the decision-making in regional powers.
The prospect of international intervention imposes costs as well as provides opportunities for gaining benefits for states considering or facing nuclear threats. In a general sense, the international community’s goal is to maintain status quo, and hence any state’s attempt to change status quo is likely to be constrained and any state’s restraint in avoiding a nuclear war is likely to be encouraged. These costs include loss of diplomatic support and military aid, and support for rival power. On the other hand, restraint garners international support. This does not mean that regional powers are always punished by great powers with sanctions. These regional powers need international support and many times actively covet it. Thus, the prospect for international intervention provides an opportunity for the regional states to use international pressure as a means to fulfill their political goals. However, since nuclear weapons are mainly instruments of deterrence rather than compellence and international community is primarily interested in avoiding a nuclear war, international political environment acts mainly to reinforce the status quo rather than allow states to change it. Thus, nuclear weapons are useful to assure survival and territorial security (like avoiding a capture of a large part of state’s territory). However, unlike great powers, regional powers cannot use nuclear threats to manage threats not involving survival or territorial security. Similarly, they are not useful for compellence or blackmail. Any attempt to use nuclear threats for compellence or manage lower level security threats is likely to fail.
A study of nuclear crisis between India and Pakistan support the above arguments. Two points are particularly noteworthy. First, except during the Kargil War, nuclear weapons did not directly influence Pakistani policy. It was always at the background, but it did not cause Pakistan to do something which otherwise it would not have done. Pakistan would have continued to sponsor insurgency in Kashmir with or without nuclear weapons and supported insurgency in Punjab from at least 1984 even though at that time it did not possess a nuclear deterrent. Second, while the prospect of nuclear escalation ruled out an Indian strategy of total war to compel Pakistan to change its behavior, the fear did not directly deter India from launching limited nuclear attacks across the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir and even international border. If India did not launch these limited strikes, it was because their military utility were doubtful (except during the Kargil War), and more importantly, the political costs of the threat of nuclear was considerable.
Pakistani and Indian behavior during the Kargil War particularly highlight the role of international political environment in instigating and limiting a “nuclear crisis.” During Kargil War, Pakistan’s goal was to infiltrate and capture some territory on Indian side of Kashmir, control Srinagar-Leh highway and cut supplies to Siachen, and finally, by highlighting Kashmir as a nuclear flashpoint, induce international intervention. Strikingly, there is no evidence that Pakistan had planned or even prepared for a general conventional war. In fact, Pakistan expected India not to escalate and considered increased Indian troops in Kashmir and particularly use of air power by India as an overreaction. In fact, even before the War, Chief of the Pakistan Air Force, Pervez Quershi had advised that the PAF would not be able to support the (conventional) operations in the Kargil sector due to geographic and logistical constraints. Then, when Indian escalation (resort to air power) at the theatre level surprised Pakistani Army, it did not push the Air Force to engage with India. Pakistani strategy was to occupy territory and buy time to get international intervention that would constrain India. This seemed a mild form of nuclear blackmail. Thus, while Pakistan occupied territory in India and made some nuclear threats, it was not ready to wage a conventional battle even to retain the territory it had occupied in Kashmir. Pakistan was basing itself on a strategy of using international political attention to achieve its goals rather than purely military instrument of war or even the threat of nuclear war. Pakistan thought that international pressure would avoid India from launching conventional counterattacks thus assuring its surreptitious military gains. What made the situation in South Asia very different from that of the Cold War Europe is that in the latter, any provocations by either party would have invited strong reaction by the other party. In a context of mutually assured destruction and sufficient interests being at stake, there was no doubting of the commitment to escalate the conflict. In the case of South Asia, Pakistan doubted Indian capability to escalate because of international political pressure.
This raises the question whether the threat of nuclear weapons constrained India. While limited attacks across the Line of Control in the Kargil sector would have been militarily useful, it would have imposed substantive political costs. India was receiving support from every important country, a lot of whom including the United States, were counseling India to show restraint and not to cross the LoC. Coming immediately after the 1998 nuclear tests which the whole world condemned, India welcomed international support. Crossing the LoC in this context would have meant that such support would have to be sacrificed. This acted as a big constraint. Political costs of waging a war in a nuclear environment constrained India but also provided it with an opportunity to gain international support for its restraint. For example, even Gen. V.P. Malik, who as the Chief of Army had a strong interest in escalating the conflict for operational reasons acknowledged, “The political leaders felt that India needed to make its case and get international support.” Similarly, India’s then National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra posited that “everything was on our side ... morality, international support” and India risked losing that if it had escalated. Thus, Pakistani and Indian behavior during the Kargil War provide evidence that international political environment provides incentives as well as imposes costs for states contemplating to use the threat of nuclear war to achieve political objectives. While Pakistan deliberately used a strategy hoping international pressure would constrain India, India was forced to conduct war at a higher (military costs) to retain international support. More importantly, international political environment emphasized reinstating the status quo. For example, the U.S. pressured Pakistan to withdraw and at the same time counseled India not to escalate.
Thus, nuclear weapons can serve only a limited set of purposes for a regional power. While historically states possessing nuclear weapons have not considerably behaved more aggressively than other states, the experience from India and Pakistan provides important insights into what nuclear weapons can do and cannot do. Based on evidence from South Asia, one can suggest that while nuclear weapons are very useful for survival, they are not likely to be effective for compellence. What possession of nuclear weapons can do for regional powers is to assure them security and thus escape from coercion of the more powerful states.
The author teaches at the University o Texas, San Antonio. Email: Vaidya.Gundlupet@utsa.edu
Source: View Point