India and Pakistan: Cold Start for the Hottest War?

India and Pakistan: Cold Start for the Hottest War?

We have all been witness to a long and continuing war of words between New Delhi and Islamabad ever since the Mumbai terrorist strike of November 2008 disrupted the India-Pakistan “peace process” and “composite dialogue” which had kept going until then despite smaller problems and provocations. These statements and counter-statements, however, do not constitute the exchange that should cause the most serious concern over peace in South Asia.

A larger and direr threat is what a strangely less-noticed debate between the military establishments of the two countries presents. The chiefs of the two armies and security experts on both sides, besides others in either distinguished uniform or defense-related positions of prominence, have been engaged in the debate where a nuclear war is treated in mind-numbingly matter-of-fact terms.

It all started with a statement on November 23, 2009, by India’s Chief of Army Staff Gen. Deepak Kapoor, which deserved a much wider notice than it received. He told a seminar in New Delhi: “The possibility of a limited war under a nuclear overhang is still a reality, at least in the Indian sub-continent.”

He followed this up with public observations on December 29, 2009, about a plan to “launch self-contained and highly-mobile ‘battle groups,’ adequately backed by air cover and artillery fire assaults, for rapid thrusts into enemy territory within 96 hours.” The reference was to the “cold start” military doctrine, reportedly first propounded by the Indian army in 2004 and fine-tuned subsequently. The doctrine for a “limited war” – something “short of a nuclear war” – has triggered a debate that actually raises again the prospect of the most dreaded of conflicts between the close neighbors.

Details of the doctrine make it clear that it is designed to promote war by countering Indian democracy and international peace initiatives. India’s security analyst Subhash K. Kapila – who describes the doctrine as “a blitzkrieg-type strategy” to be pursued through “integrated battle groups” drawn from all the three wings of the armed forces – puts these objectives in other words.

In a paper titled “India’s new ‘cold start’ doctrine strategically reviewed,” Kapila notes that the doctrine, which says goodbye to weeks-long “military mobilization,” will not only retain the surprise element in the offensive. It will also serve two other purposes.

In the first place, it will “compel the political leadership to give political approval ab initio and thereby free the armed forces to generate their full combat potential from the outset.” The government is required to give the army a blank check, so to speak. Long mobilization “gives the political leadership in India time to waver under pressure, and in the process deny Indian Army its due military victories.” Secondly, lengthy preparations also allow time for “Pakistan’s external patrons … to start exerting coercive pressures and mobilizing world opinion …”

The analysis makes it clear that the doctrine will demand a new degree of militarism of India’s political leadership. The strategy can succeed, Kapila points out, only if New Delhi has the “political will to use offensive military power” and “pre-emptive military strategies,” the “political sagacity to view strategic military objectives with clarity” and the “political determination to pursue military operations to their ultimate conclusion without succumbing to external pressures.”

Last, but certainly not the least, condition for the success of the strategy will be what Kapila calls the “political determination to cross [the] nuclear threshold if Pakistan seems so inclined.” The paper notes: “Pakistan has declared that it will go for nuclear strikes against India when a significant portion of its territory has been captured or likely to be captured, … when a significant destruction of the Pakistani military machine has taken place or when Pakistani strategic assets (read nuclear deterrents) are endangered.” Offensives under the doctrine will not allow “Pakistan to reach the above conclusions.”

What about the dreadful possibility that Pakistan does reach such a conclusion, even if by mistake, and responds with a nuclear strike? The analyst provides the answer implicit in the doctrine: “Pakistan cannot expect that India would sit idle and suffer a Pakistani nuclear strike without a massive nuclear retaliation.” As the paper elaborates, “Pakistan’s external strategic patrons can coerce or dissuade both sides to avoid a nuclear conflict, but once Pakistan uses a nuclear first strike no power can restrain India from going in for its nuclear retaliation and the consequences for Pakistan in that case stand well discussed in strategic circles. Pakistan would (be) wiped out.”

Pakistani responses have been prompt and even worse than predictable. General Deepak’s counterpart, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff (CoAS) Ashfaq Pervez Kayani charged India with “charting a course of dangerous adventurism whose consequences can be both unintended and uncontrollable.” As Pakistan’s peace activist Zia Mian put it: “In other words, Pakistan was threatening to use nuclear weapons if India tried to carry out the kind of conventional attack it has been rehearsing.”

The civilian-military National Command Authority (NCA) of Pakistan, meeting under Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on January 13, took “serious note of recent Indian statements about conducting conventional military strikes under a nuclear umbrella” and said “such irresponsible statements reflected a hegemonic mindset, oblivious of dangerous implications of adventurism in a nuclearized context.”

The NCA added: “Massive inductions of advanced weapon systems, including installation of ABMs (anti-ballistic missiles), build-up of nuclear arsenal and delivery systems through ongoing and new programs, assisted by some external quarters, offensive doctrines like ‘Cold Start’ and similar accumulations in the conventional realm, tend to destabilize the regional balance.” Earlier, former Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri took it upon himself to declare: “Pakistan’s defense establishment has taken serious notice of the Indian doctrine of ‘Cold Start’ and all necessary arrangements have been made for an appropriate and timely response in case of any Indian misadventure.”

It was left, again, to security experts to elaborate on the subject. Among these was Maleeha Lodhi, a journalist, an academic and a diplomat. A former high commissioner of Pakistan to the United Kingdom, and a former ambassador to the US, she was recently reported to be under consideration as a possible replacement for Hussain Haqqani as the new Pakistani ambassador in Washington.

In an analysis published on January 5 in Pakistan’s News International, Lodhi talks of the notion of “limited war” contained in the doctrine, and says: “It overlooks the fact that in a crisis the nuclear threshold will be indeterminate. The threshold cannot be wished away by “speed in mobilization,” she said.

“In fact,” she added, “the shorter the duration needed for a mobilization the greater the risk of escalation and the likely lowering of Pakistan’s nuclear red lines. The long fuse in a crisis provided by the time required for assembly and deployment of forces has so far helped to avoid a catastrophic war.”

Lodhi warns: “If operationalized, the ‘cold start’ doctrine will force Pakistan to re-evaluate its policy of keeping its nuclear arsenal in ‘separated’ form and move towards placing its strategic capability in a higher state of readiness, including mating warheads to delivery systems. The action-reaction cycle will move the subcontinent to a perilous state of hair-trigger alert.”

The same scary prospect is raised in an article by security columnist Farzana Shah in the Asian Tribune of January 14. She writes: “(The) Indian military establishment is relying much more on President (Asif Ali) Zardari’s announcement that Pakistan will not use its nuclear weapon as first strike. In reality, it is Pakistan army who will decide which weapon is to be used when and where.”

The deciding authority, Shah suggests, only makes the danger more real. She adds: “Another problem, which India is going to face during any execution of Cold Start, is the gauge of nuclear threshold of Pakistan, a point where Pakistan would decide to go for unconventional warfare. This is where Army Chief Asfaq Pervez Kayani (has) hinted that the consequences of any misadventure in a nuclear overhang can be suicidal for India.”

Anyone with any doubt about the alternative to a peace-oriented India-Pakistan dialogue needs only to listen to even a little of the debate over the cold start doctrine and its nuclear dimension.