Pakistan likely to be in two minds to retaliate after IAF airstrikes, India can ill-afford to lower its guard

“Either kill the tiger or be eaten by it—one or the other,” Mao Zedong pronounced in mid-1949, on the eve of the birth of the People’s Republic of China. “We must not show the slightest timidity before the wild beast.”  In the late 1960s, that speech played often on Chinese media. Faced with Beijing’s growing disobedience of its wishes, Moscow had turned on the heat on its unruly client—even considering pre-emptive strikes on its nuclear weapons. The 17 Soviet divisions facing China swelled to 27 in 1969.

Pakistan likely to be in two minds to retaliate after IAF airstrikes, India can ill-afford to lower its guard

Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan. Image from @PakPMO

The Chinese estimated that Soviet mechanised forces could overwhelm its military, and reach Beijing inside of two weeks. Plain common sense called for Beijing to bend.

But in 1969, the Chinese gratuitously ambushed Soviet border guards on Damansky Island on the Ussuri river -- losing more than 200 People’s Liberation Army troops to 58 Soviets. This defeat was a strategic success. It persuaded the Soviet Union that, ill-equipped as the PLA might be, its sheer numbers could create expensive, resource-sapping havoc. Soviet nuclear weapons could annihilate China, but Beijing’s own rudimentary liquid-fuelled nuclear missiles could deliver some devastation too.

Perhaps the most important lesson was: Soviet victory would only win an ungovernable, continent-sized begging-bowl.

Tonight, it’s more than likely that many Pakistani commanders will have texts on the Ussuri river clashes for their bedside reading. Ever since 1998, Pakistan’s warfighting doctrine has been premised on the proposition that its nuclear weapons guaranteed it immunity against Indian attack but now that assumption is in ruins.

From the Ussuri fighting, Pakistan’s generals will know weaker adversaries can transmute disaster into victory. India’s own strategic planners need to pay close attention to what Pakistan’s generals are thinking, to anticipate, and pre-empt the consequences.

Go to war

Lt Gen Tariq Khan, former commander of the Mangla-based I Corps, Pakistan’s key strike formation, laid out the country’s new strategic dilemma in comments posted on a private WhatsApp group on Tuesday.

Each Indian cross-border strike, Gen Khan noted “erode our position of deterring war through our nuclear capability”—the keystone of the strategy of a weaker conventional power. That, in turn, means “we become more and more vulnerable to an asymmetric conventional threat”.

Thus, Gen Khan went on, “Our response should be to escalate and push the envelope of hostilities so that nuclear war is a likely outcome.” In his view, such an action “is not likely to escalate beyond reasonable boundaries because the rungs in the escalation ladder are so many that signatures leading to total war will reveal themselves well before [such a] war actually breaks out”.

India, he argues, “simply will not go down this road”: the larger, richer state, it has more to lose in an all-out conflict.

Ever since the 2001-02 near-war with India, Pakistan’s military establishment has argued that any Indian strike across the border, no matter how shallow, could be met with nuclear weapons, potentially plunging both countries into a nuclear apocalypse. Shireen Mazari, now a minister in Prime Minister Imran Khan’s cabinet, has argued “Pakistan has to go for a one-rung escalation ladder” -- that is, to reach for its nuclear weapons.

For the most part, Indian commentators have cast these claims as a bluff but seen through the optics of Islamabad there’s more than hyperbole.

“Deterrence,” Gen Khan argues, “is a mindset and never a tangible posture. It is an outcome of a possibility” [emphasis added]. For Pakistan’s generals, the real question is how to revive that possibility in Indian minds.

But going to war isn’t an easy decision—even for Pakistan’s enraged generals.

Escalate covert war

“The sinews of war are infinite money,” the great Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero said. Even if Pakistan’s generals are right, and India can only be deterred by escalation, this is the worst time for Pakistan to take their advice. Imran Khan’s budget deficit is ballooning. He has been knocking on the International Monetary Fund’s doors seeking a bailout and the country faces sanctions from the Financial Action Task Force for failing to act against terror financing.

But there are other well-tested options, too.

In 2002, writing in the Pakistan army’s Green Book—an in-house compilation of essays by senior Pakistan army officers—Brigadier Muhammad Zia argued for a strategy premised around covert warfare. “India is highly volatile on its internal front due to numerous vulnerabilities which, if agitated, accordingly could yield results out of proportion to the efforts put in.” Pointing to Kashmir, the North East and Punjab, he suggested these fault lines could be employed as an “offensive option against India”.

General Pervez Musharraf, then the country’s military ruler, described the 2002 Green Book, as a “valuable document for posterity”.

Time has proved him right. Following India’s 2016 cross-Line of Control strikes—intended to punish the Jaish-e-Mohammed assault on Uri—Pakistan escalated fidayeen suicide-squad attacks in Kashmir. Indian security force fatalities rose from 99 in 2016 to 111 in 2017 and 136 in 2018. Thus, Pakistan, through its proxies, succeeded in dishing out as good as it got.

Follow live updates here

Bear in mind that Indian troops and police are trained personnel, but the Jaish terrorists are peasants with little education—and the asymmetry of costs to the two sides becomes clear. India needs legions of troops to guard Kashmir; Pakistan spends far less on internal security.

In essence, Pakistan could soak up some punishment—secure in the knowledge it is tying India down by inflicting disproportionate costs on its strategic adversary in Kashmir. It could even order its proxies to hit Indian cities, as they have in the past.

Politician-scholar Husain Haqqani has recorded that the Pakistan army's jihadist project was “not just the inadvertent outcome of decisions by some governments”. Instead, he argued, the Pakistani state's use of Islam “gradually evolved into a strategic commitment to jihadi ideology”.

The covert-war strategy is the flowering of that ideology.

Sue for peace?

There’s a third prospect, though: Pakistan might just do nothing. In a thoughtful paper, scholar George Perkovich cast light on Musharraf's reappraisal of Pakistani military strategy on India after the near-war crisis of 2001-02. Lt Gen Moinuddin Haider, who served as the interior minister under Musharraf, told Perkovich he argued that the long-term costs of continuing to back jihadists would be higher than the potential losses from taking them on.

“I was the sole voice initially, saying ‘Mr. President, your economic plan will not work, people will not invest, if you don't get rid of extremists,” Haider said.

Haider gathered allies—among them Pakistan's former intelligence chief, Lt Gen Javed Ashraf Qazi. “We must not be afraid,” General Qazi said in the wake of the 2001-02 India-Pakistan military crisis “of admitting that the Jaish was involved in the deaths of thousands of innocent Kashmiris, bombing the Indian Parliament, [the journalist] Daniel Pearl's murder and even attempts on President Musharraf's life”.

Even though Pakistan deterred India from going to war in 2002, General Musharraf turned off the tap on jihadist terror in Kashmir. From 2003, fatalities began to fall—dropping to near-zero levels in 2008. Put simply, the cost of conflict was too high.

It’s anyone’s guess which of the three choices Pakistan’s generals will now make—but the one mistake India ought not make is to imagine the last shots have been fired in what prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru once called “an informal war”.

Firstpost is now on WhatsApp. For the latest analysis, commentary and news updates, sign up for our WhatsApp services. Just go to and hit the Subscribe button.

Updated Date: Feb 27, 2019 13:40:19 IST

Also See