Achieving intended outcomes by deploying escalation as a policy objective is dependent on external factors that are beyond effective control of parties to a conflict. Most of these factors may not exist in objective reality. This is exactly what India and Pakistan cannot afford
The chain of events following the Pulwama attack has plunged the security environment in the Indian sub-continent to its lowest point since Operation Parakram. Media-led clamour for retaliatory use of force against Pakistan has been gaining decibels ever since. And such has been the predictability of Government response in the post-truth world that limited use of military force was instantly foretold.
However, the air strikes on Jaish-e-Mohammad training camps inside Pakistani territory came as a surprise to both Pakistan as well as analysts on both sides of the border. While India termed the strikes as “non-military” and “pre-emptive”, the use of sophisticated terminology did not deter Pakistan from carrying out retaliatory airstrikes, which led to an Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot and his Mig-21 being shot down.
Amid claims and counter-claims of who inflicted how much damage, the two nuclear powers are once again on the verge of a full-fledged military conflict. What is appalling is that despite the criticality of the situation, prominent intelligentsia is suggesting that India must seek escalation. Their argument is that previous piecemeal military actions have failed to establish credible deterrence. While precedents may favour this argument, there is a fundamental flaw with the use of escalation as a deliberate policy measure — its propensity to spiral out of control.
Numerous externalities impact the deviation between intended objectives and actual outcome of an escalatory action. To begin with, what should be the escalatory threshold? The subjectivity of escalatory threshold is one of the reasons that escalation is so difficult to manage and/or successfully exploit. Escalatory threshold may be symmetric — where a threshold is viewed similarly by both parties or asymmetric — situations where a threshold may loom large for one party but may seem obscure to the other. Second is the anticipated response from an adversary. Generally, when one party to a conflict crosses the escalatory threshold, it expects the other side to follow suit. Once again, this response may be symmetric, asymmetric or sometimes even absent.
For example, during World War I, when the German Army introduced gas warfare, the Allied forces responded in equal measure, which kept the perceptive breach of escalatory threshold in balance. However, such a symmetric response may not be available if the prospect of equal retaliation seems less appealing or unavailable to the other party. For example, during Operation Desert Storm, frustrated by the sustained air strikes of the US-led forces, Iraq deliberately sought to escalate the conflict by firing ballistic missiles at Israel. The idea was to irk the coalition forces and draw them into war. However, Israel did not retaliate and coalition forces refused to be drawn into a premature full-blown war.
To sum up, achieving intended outcomes by deploying escalation as a policy objective is dependent on external factors which are beyond effective control of parties to a conflict. Most of these factors are presumptive in nature and may or may not exist in objective reality. This increases the chance of a miscalculation exponentially and that is exactly what two nuclear-armed nations cannot afford.
Even if India is certain to attain escalation dominance, it makes for little practical sense, given that stakes are higher for India as compared to Pakistan. An armed conflict at this point will have a multi-modal impact on India. The immediate casualty would be the economy. Wars are expensive. Just to add to perspective, the US federal price tag for the post 9/11 wars is pegged over $5.9 trillion till date (more than double of India’s GDP). The Indian economy is already facing headwinds from a rebound in global oil prices amidst a host of other macro-economic concerns, besides uncertainty over the upcoming general elections. While the near $3 trillion economy may stay resilient in the face of a limited armed conflict, an escalated conflict may lead to diminished foreign investment and consequent economic slowdown. India is currently jockeying, some would argue not particularly successfully, a limited time-frame during which it can leverage its demographic dividend to transition into a higher-income and productive economy.
Further, an armed conflict at this point will also derail the modernisation of the armed forces. The much-needed force modernisation has only recently started to show some form. Indian armed forces are in the process of acquiring as well as developing new platforms and structures to boost defence preparedness. Key amongst these is the restructuring of the Indian Army into a leaner force by creating integrated battle groups. Strides have also been made in creating a separate command for cyber and space warfare. These reforms are critical to the enhancement of the combat capability of the Indian forces. China, too, is undergoing similar reforms, under which its territorial Army has been downsized. An economically and militarily fragile India will not enjoy the same strategic advantages as it currently does, which puts at risk its membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the UN Security Council.
The risks of an escalation gone wrong far outweigh any perceived benefits. With the release of the captured IAF pilot, India’s option to escalate has become politically unviable. In this backdrop, non-military escalation would be the most viable strategy.
It would be in India’s utmost interest to maintain sustained multi-pronged pressure on Pakistan and ensure that it is declared an international pariah. To begin with, India must rise over the rhetoric and officially treat Pakistan as a terror-sponsoring state in its foreign policy. India’s economic heft and the recent uptick in Indo-China relations post the Wuhan summit, must also be leveraged to score a diplomatic upper hand in its initiatives to blacklist terrorist organisations breeding on Pakistani soil. Non-military punitive actions like weaponising the Indus Water Treaty must be duly considered. Above all, India must carve out a consistent Pakistan policy as the extant mixture of hard and soft approach has far outrun its course.
(The writer is legal associate and defence analyst, Koan Advisory Group)