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The South Asia Channel

Searching for A Response: India’s Muddled Strategy on Pakistan

The recent upsurge in ceasefire violations along the Line of Control (LoC) dividing Kashmir and the India-Pakistan international border is beginning to chip away at the veneer of relative stability in place for the past decade. This also comes at a time when New Delhi cancelled scheduled talks between the two foreign secretaries. The latter ...

LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images
LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images

The recent upsurge in ceasefire violations along the Line of Control (LoC) dividing Kashmir and the India-Pakistan international border is beginning to chip away at the veneer of relative stability in place for the past decade. This also comes at a time when New Delhi cancelled scheduled talks between the two foreign secretaries. The latter decision was taken when Pakistan’s High Commission in New Delhi was given a choice of dialogue with India or meeting with the All Party Hurriyat Conference, a Kashmiri separatist group. It is too early to confirm whether the “us or them” ultimatum presented to Islamabad signals a permanent departure from India’s dealings with Pakistan.

The challenge with adopting a firm approach is that New Delhi has had negligible success at coercing or persuading Islamabad in the past. Due to the limited gains of both methods — of applying carrots and/or sticks — a third approach has surfaced, which has recommended that Indian goodwill and robust diplomatic engagement should be pursued. But the supporters of this proposition are in Islamabad, and they believe India can play a role in strengthening the first democratic handover of political power in Pakistan’s history. The argument goes that if Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s civilian leadership were seen as eliciting reciprocal confidence building outcomes from India, then it would keep Pakistan’s powerful army in the barracks. Investment in this momentum could then empower the Pakistanis who support a strategic rapprochement with India. However, it is questionable that policymakers in New Delhi would be seen to reward aggression particularly when Pakistan’s generals control the country’s levers of security and strategic decision-making. Consequently, the third approach, although well intentioned, is a message that is stillborn.

Building trust between the two countries through costly signaling or incrementally is difficult to imagine given their long history of conflict – for instance, the wars of 1947, 1965, 1971 and the limited Kargil War in 1999 – and the suspicion that stems from such violence. As the more powerful nation, economically and militarily, India could take the lead, and expose itself to greater risk in the hope that its lowering of the guard might translate into meaningful reciprocal measures from Islamabad, thereby leading to an improvement of trust. However, as the victim of aggression, New Delhi is unlikely to turn soft. Domestic opposition to conciliation could be costly politically, and might be seen as a sign of weakness internally and internationally. Consequently, if Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration were indeed reformulating its approach, it would need to define its political objectives and articulate a strategy that would link its diplomatic and military means to realize those goals, and absorb the attendant costs of shifting to a more confrontational posture. It would also need to find effective ways and means for shaping and responding to the strategic environment that does not press the repeat button from the playbook of past failures.

The stall in bilateral relations has brought back into focus the insecurities between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. The last major terrorist attack in India was almost six years ago and Pakistan’s alleged complicity in the 2008 Mumbai siege cooled bilateral ties from which they have not since recovered. On my research visit to Pakistan in April this year, members of the country’s strategic community from several Islamabad-based think tanks condemned what happened in Mumbai, and acknowledged the dangers of a repeat raid. However, a troubling explanation that emerged was that the act of violence reflected the Pakistani military’s frustration at the impasse of the bilateral peace talks. In other words, there appeared to be a belief that a broader dialogue could be fashioned through the use of force where India could be compelled to compromise. Furthermore, they noted that India’s ‘arrogance’ and unresponsiveness towards Pakistan’s peace overtures could provoke hawks to purge those promoting rapprochement within Pakistan and punish India to prove that they can and still get away with it.

India’s strategic community is increasingly presenting a view that Pakistan’s first strike posture, including its tactical nuclear weapons, does not preclude New Delhi from initiating military operations in response to aggression traced back to Pakistan. In fact, India’s silence, militarily speaking, in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks has continued to haunt Indian policymakers for two reasons. One is that India did not respond to such blatant aggression, which made it look timid in the eyes of its own people. The second reason is that inaction emboldened Pakistan and its belief that it deterred India. India’s restraint was applauded globally, but the lesson the international community and Pakistan learned was that nuclear deterrence had worked. Within Indian decision-making, however, the threat of conventional hostilities escalating to the nuclear level was not shared across the board. Some argued for the employment of precision strikes, one of which was hitting known operational terrorist training camps in Pakistan. The primary objective of an overt military response was in fact the political objective, meaning that India would demonstrate its resolve by responding to egregious acts of violence committed against it. India would no longer stay silent.

The argument in favor of conducting military strikes in response to Pakistani belligerence is still in cold storage. However, the proponents who have called for initiating “Proactive Military Operations” (also known as the Cold Start Doctrine) have argued that the risk of escalation to the nuclear level is low. But why?

Firstly, New Delhi believes that the Pakistani military leadership’s most potent weapon is denial, which has been instrumentalized to the strategic level. What this interpretation has signified is that Pakistan’s military presents itself in inverted terms. Put differently, despite being a rational actor, the image Pakistan projects of itself, according to a retired Indian army corps commander, is the “rationality of being irrational.” Thus it justifies behavior that is unjustifiable to induce fear and policy-lock in New Delhi and beyond.

Secondly, there is a belief in New Delhi that Pakistan’s red lines for the use of nuclear weapons, however ambiguous, would not be low enough despite its posturing. This gap has therefore created room for limited conventional war. For India, the net benefit of conducting military operations would mean Islamabad’s red lines would have been put to the test, and this would tear open a space for limited conflict even under nuclear conditions. Such an outcome would give India the space to exercise military operations to counter future aggression, which would also undermine the nuclear shield that Pakistan has stood behind for so long. One key caveat worth noting is that no Indian military operation should cause excessive panic as that might come too close to breaching Pakistan’s red lines. What this means is that India would need to manage escalation and signal its limited objectives as a means to contain and eventually diffuse the crisis.

It is unknown whether arguments in favor of military operations have surpassed those calling for restraint. What is certain however is that it would be extremely costly for Modi to tolerate large-scale acts of terrorism. The latter holds true because the public discourse in India has exhausted its patience over Pakistan’s persistent violent behavior, and is thus prepared to bear the costs of conflict, limited or otherwise.

Nishank Motwani is a doctoral candidate at the University of New South Wales in Canberra and at the Australian Defence Force Academy, where he is researching the regional dynamics of the conflict in Afghanistan. He has master’s degrees in Strategic Studies and Diplomatic Studies from the Australian National University. He can be contacted by email at

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