With numerous heads of state gradually coming to terms with the realities of an entire world under lockdown, India’s new domicile laws for the disputed territories of Jammu and Kashmir mark a return to business as usual for India-Pakistan tensions. Particularly following Pakistan’s official condemnation of what has been termed as the ‘Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Order 2020’, the threats which this seven decades old dispute still pose to regional peace and stability remain ever-present even amidst a prevailing global pandemic. Especially considering how just a year ago, both countries were brought dangerously close to the brink of total and perhaps even nuclear war, it is worth highlighting how India’s sustained and single-minded approach to altering the status-quo across the LoC, by any means necessary, risks yet another global catastrophe. The kind of catastrophe which may render the ongoing COVID-19 crisis as wholly insignificant compared to the near irreversible effects of a devastating nuclear war between both countries.
These dangers are clearly evident in how with even more than a year having passed since the Balakot air strikes, there has not yet been a clear acknowledgment of how India’s new-found penchant for nuclear brinkmanship and reckless flirtation with the escalation ladder has affected Pakistan’s strategic preparedness and crisis decision making. For instance, Prime Minister Modi’s now infamous reference to his planned qatal ki raat (Night of Murder)and Prime Minister Khan’s purported warning of responding to any such provocation ‘three times over’ presented startling insights into how both countries’ politico-military leaders envisioned the escalation ladder. Whereas, the above references are reported to have alluded to ballistic missiles armed with conventional payloads, the irreversible step towards a nuclear strike – be it a tactical demonstration or a pre-emptive decapitation – remained unnervingly close. The risks of which are likely to have then weighed heavily on decision makers on both sides of the border.
Considering how both sides’ missile delivery systems are inherently designed for dual-use purposes, this comingling of strategic and conventional assets presents a disquieting reaffirmation of the immense difficulties faced when accurately ascertaining the other’s intentions and risk assessments with reference to a ‘mutually acceptable’ escalation ladder. Whereas many analysts on both sides of the border have evinced confidence that both India and Pakistan understand each other’s strategic signals and postures, the deliberate change being brought about within India’s strategic doctrine and military thinking is aimed at radically altering this understanding. A development that is further adding to the difficulty of ensuring deterrence stability within an increasingly complex and technologically advanced world.
This impact of comingling strategic and conventional capabilities on critical decision-making and overall situational awareness has been discussed at length in a recent report released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.Titled ‘Under the Nuclear Shadow’ the nearly two year study is aimed at assessing the impact of some of the latest ISR capabilities on the strategic calculus and situational awareness of nuclear weapons states. It identifies a broad range of developments which key policymakers in charge of today’s nuclear arsenals need to take into account whilst recognizing ‘the complex interplay between technology, escalation, and decision making.’ Within this framework, the risks of what the report identifies as ‘Entanglement’ or decision makers’ inability to delineate between nuclear and conventional risks, represents a highly significant potential pathway for escalation.
The simple truth that these risks were in full play during last year’s confrontation between nuclear armed India and Pakistan throughout the post-Pulwama environment has since been grossly underrated by Indian policymakers. In fact, this has been evident throughout India’s search for a limited engagement with Pakistan, just below its nuclear thresholds as enshrined in its now institutionalized concepts of ‘Cold Start’ and ‘Surgical Strikes’.
As a result, the onus has been placed solely on Pakistan to disentangle such risks. What’s more, Pakistan has to now base its risk assessments of India’s intentions mostly from the missions being conducted against it, as opposed to the fast expanding, dual-use capabilities of the Indian military. These include India’s Brahmos cruise missiles and its S-400 missile defense batteries both of which can respectively deploy and detect both conventional and nuclear assets. Thus, making it extremely difficult for Pakistani decision makers to distinguish a potential conventional mission from a nuclear one.
Taking into account Pakistan’s self-avowed doctrine of Full Spectrum Deterrence, what such provocations may and have probably already led to is a significantly reduced nuclear threshold. While much has already been written on how Pakistan’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs) such as its Nasr missile batteries have significantly reduced this threshold, a perhaps highly understudied aspect is how India’s aggressive posturing and increasing ambiguity with regards to its NFU (No First Use)policy has since played psychologically on the minds of Pakistani strategists and decision makers.
As pointed out in the above referenced report, the prevalence of cognitive biases in the form of confirmation bias and availability heuristics within an increasingly complex nuclear environment in themselves present a dangerous path towards escalation. Amidst the deliberate jingoism and incessant allusions to nuclear war-fighting from key leaders within India’s national security apparatus, there is a genuine risk that India’s institutionalized brinkmanship -by willfully bringing about first-strike instability – may lead to all-out disaster under the reckless garb of calling Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. This holds especially true when considering that the dominant discourse surrounding an irrational Indian security junta, imbibed in the RSS’s fanaticism, may be directly driving certain aspects of confirmation bias and availability heuristics within Pakistani decision-making circles. A factor that has already perhaps multiplied exponentially since India’s decision to engage in a cross-border air-strike against Pakistan just 14 months ago.
Hence, with the entire world reeling from an unseen pandemic that has already changed day to day life as we know it, the risks of something even graver still loom large when considering the precarious strategic balance in South Asia. Risks that are all seriously worth re-considering as both countries simultaneously attempt to secure the well-being and future of their respective populations as part of a joint global effort. Ironically pointing towards yet another common goal which both countries can find some common ground over to help de-escalate such prevailing tensions.