Stable deterrence and flawed Pakistani nuclear strategy - by Ejaz Haider Back   Home  
the current crisis has exposed the weaknesses in Pakistan’s nuclear strategy but could, paradoxically, lead to deterrence stability in the region
In the wake of India’s military build-up and muscle-flexing following the December 13 attack on Indian Parliament, and Pakistan’s efforts to defuse the crisis rather than opting for a confrontation, some analysts have concluded that deterrence between the two adversaries has failed.

The argument runs thus: Pakistan’s nuclear tests were supposed to give it a strategic parity with India, compensating for major asymmetries between the two. The “equality of destructive power” was to keep India at bay. But if India is prepared for a war and has made Islamabad blink, then deterrence, obviously, has failed. Is that right? Can the function of deterrence – in terms either of its success or failure – be calculated thus?

Four points need to be made here: one, the failure or success of deterrence cannot be determined on the basis of a single “deterrence episode”. Deterrence may require a series of crises or confrontations before it becomes stable. Two, the Indian military build-up, which has successfully forced Pakistan to climb off the escalation ladder, has less to do with deterrence failure and more to do with Islamabad’s flawed nuclear strategy.

Three, deterrence models (achieving stable deterrence) in regional situations, while largely dependent on certain fundamental principles, are difficult to work out for a host of reasons. Factors influencing deterrence can range from the nature of ongoing conflicts, geographic contiguity between adversaries, political instability and internal strife in one or both states, a desire on the part of one or both to change the status quo, the ability or otherwise of the adversaries to enter into regional or other alliances, the nature of those alliances, their impact on the military capabilities of one or both, commitments to any ideologies, the ability or otherwise of leaders on both sides to communicate and interpret signals, the absence of second-strike capabilities etc., etc. This list is not exhaustive by any means and should, therefore, give some idea of the difficulties and complexities involved in creating stable deterrence.

Finally, the present military build-up, far from signaling deterrence failure, is likely to go a long way in stabilising deterrence relationship between India and Pakistan. Stable mutual deterrence in large measure “assumes that the participants are satisfied actors”. Seen through a “longitudinal model” or a series of confrontations, if one or both adversaries can be brought to accept the status quo, then the chances of achieving stable deterrence will be enhanced.

In a very interesting study of deterrence relationships in the Middle East, Elli Lieberman (“The Deterrence Theory: Success or Failure in Arab-Israeli Wars?” McNair Paper Number 45, October 1995), challenges the view put forth by Richard Ned Lebow and Janice Gross Stein (“Deterrence: The Elusive Dependent Variable,” World Politics 42, no 3 – April 1990) that deterrence does not function. Lieberman points out that: “Leaders challenge deterrence, or go to war, when there are uncertainties about the capability or will of the defender; and, once these uncertainties are reduced through the creation of specific reputations for capability and will, deterrence stability is created even when political pressures to challenge deterrence continue to exist.” From this he concludes that the phenomenon of deterrence is “temporal, dynamic, and causal” and stability requires conflict. In other words, states may need to fight wars to create deterrence stability through “reputations for capability and will”.

Of course, Lieberman situates the discussion within an environment of conventional conflict and, therefore, his arguments cannot be entirely replicated in the South Asian context where both India and Pakistan are nuclear-armed. But he makes an important point. For deterrence to work in a situation where one adversary attempts to change the status quo (regardless of the legitimacy of that status quo), the defender has to show itself to be resolute through a series of confrontations to create deterrence stability. In the present context, this also links up with the weaknesses in Pakistani nuclear strategy. Consider.

In 1965, Pakistan wanted the war to remain confined to Kashmir. That did not happen. India countered Pakistan Army’s initial successes by expanding the zone of conflict and increasing the costs of war for Pakistan. The conflict ended in a stalemate. The 1998 nuclear tests were thought to have changed that situation. Pakistan now considered itself in a better position to challenge India through low intensity conflict. The planners seem to have argued that nuclear parity allows Pakistan to force India to fight on its (Pakistan’s) terms. This meant that India could now be denied the luxury of expanding the conflict and capitalising on the conventional asymmetries.

Pakistan also linked this strategy with first-use of nuclear weapons: it will escalate to nuclear level if India decides to overlook the nuclear factor or try to create space for fighting a large-scale conventional war. A recent briefing by the Strategic Plans Division – which acts as the secretariat for the National Command Authority – to two visiting Italian physicists reveals that planners have worked out four scenarios in which Pakistan would resort to nuclear weapons in a conflict with India. The first relates to “space threshold”: If India attacks Pakistan and conquers a large part of its territory. The second pertains to “military threshold”: If India destroys a large part of its land or air forces. The third refers to “economic strangulation”: for instance, a naval blockade by India that threatens Pakistan’s economic survival. The final scenario refers to “domestic destabilisation”: if India pushes Pakistan into political destabilization or instigates a large-scale internal subversion.

The nexus – in fact a symbiotic relationship – between using the nuclear parity to push a forward military strategy and the threat to use nuclear weapons first-and-early in a conflict if India threatens retaliation has been shown by current events to be flawed and could not have resulted in mutual deterrence stability. For instance, empirical evidence suggests that the scenarios worked out – leaving aside the fourth which is outlandish and vague – do not relate to an Indian threat in a vacuum. Indeed, they refer to a Pakistani response to any Indian attempt to up the ante and bring the war to Pakistani territory in retaliation to Pakistan’s compellence strategy. This would mean that Pakistani strategy – both the conventional and nuclear aspects – is aimed at deterring India from taking advantage of the asymmetries within the framework of sub-conventional conflict rather than attempting to avoid conflict altogether.

In other words, Pakistan wants to create deterrence stability in a situation of perpetual conflict and threatens, if deterrence were to break down, to escalate to nuclear level. By creating a linkage between nuclear capability and sub-conventional warfare, it has sought to bring the nuclear threshold down and make space for low intensity conflict without the fear of having to fight a large-scale conventional conflict. This is flawed on two counts.

One, deterrence stability between two nuclear adversaries cannot be pegged on perpetual, hot conflict, especially when a challenger seeks to continuously bleed a defender. At some point, the defender has either to rise to the challenge or quit. In both cases, the conflict has to come to an end. The strategy of first-use in this sense is very different from the way NATO used it in its conflict with the Soviet Union. NATO, perceiving itself to be conventionally inferior to the Soviet Union resorted to first-use. But it was also the status quo power. The perceived challenger in that scenario was the Soviet Union. NATO feared that the USSR wanted to change the status quo in central Europe. Moreover, while both sides fought conventional proxy wars throughout the cold war period, at no point did they attempt to take on each other directly. The lesson was learnt during the Cuban missile crisis. Precisely for that reason, they kept each other at a respectable distance in Central Europe where they were directly facing each other. Pakistan has tried to reverse that logic. It is conventionally inferior; it is also the challenger; and it threatens to use nuclear weapons if India moves beyond sub-conventional warfare. The adversary has to accept the terms of the conflict on Pakistan’s logic.

That logic has now been challenged in the post-September 11 scenario. With the availability of more data and information, the present military build-up could become a good case study of deterrence between India and Pakistan. By exposing the weaknesses in Pakistan’s strategy and thereby the limitations of that strategy within the framework of overall capabilities, it could, paradoxically, go a long way in establishing deterrence stability between the two adversaries. How is that?

Contrary to Pakistan’s strategy, which has not really translated into any politico-strategic gains for it, hinged as it is on changing the status quo, Indian strategy in the current scenario has worked because it is linked to a doable objective, has taken advantage of an international environment conducive to Indian viewpoint, and its objective is compatible with the resources – military, diplomatic and economic – at hand.

Internationally, the proxies used by Pakistan as part of its sub-conventional warfare against India have been discredited. There is a convergence of interest between India and the Western world in terms of putting them down. This has naturally translated in diplomatic plus for New Delhi, which has been lobbying hard since the Kargil conflict in mid-1999 to get the world to notice the phenomenon. Militarily, India has tried to push the nuclear threshold up to create space for a conventional conflict, or at least generate threat of such a conflict through phased escalation. Between the two extremes of quitting and massive response, it has exercised the many options available to it to challenge Pakistan at multiple levels.

Using the asymmetries, it has succeeded in increasing the costs of escalation for Pakistan. Faced with this slow, controlled climb up the ladder, Islamabad could quit, match the response or go up the ladder. Given the asymmetry, India knew that it enjoyed a marked advantage at every rung of the ladder. To add to its advantage, it threatened to employ Pakistan’s strategy of limited conflict against it under the nuclear overhang with or without coming into direct confrontation. This could translate into missile and air strikes at selective targets, small-scale, multi-pronged incursions, a naval blockade or a combination of all these options.

For instance, for a naval blockade to be effective, India does not need to put its surface ships in Pakistan’s Exclusive Economic Zone. It could just get its submarines to patrol the area and send out a threat to all ships trying to enter the Pakistani EEC. Pakistan Navy does not have the capability to deter the Indian Navy from effecting a blockade in the first place and Pakistan seems to rely on its air force to challenge the Indian blockade even though aircraft would not be much use against submarines. In any case, use of air force would obviously up the ante and increase the costs and risks for Pakistan. Indeed, it is a known fact that US experts simulating scenarios between India and Pakistan invariably found a beleaguered Pakistan opting to open up hostilities.

However, this is where deterrence comes into play. While India has used the options available to it short of actually opening up hostilities and been successful in forcing Pakistan to reverse its strategy of low intensity conflict, anything beyond this point could be the slippery slope. While actualizing the nuclear threat is likely to put unbearable burden on Pakistan in the event that India either captures Pakistani territory or destroys a large part of its military assets, the fact is that India cannot work on the assumption that such a decision – to escalate to nuclear level – is beyond Pakistan. It will be too risky to determine the “slippery slopes”. To that extent it has been, and will be, deterred from going over the brink. Since it has already taken care of Pakistan’s strategy of low intensity conflict under the nuclear overhang, the likelihood of the two states settling down to an uneasy, cold confrontation is today brighter than before.
Published in Pakistan newspaper FridayTimes