Limits of Deterrence


Lt. Gen. Eric A. Vas [Retd]


The dictionary meaning of coercion implies that it must restrain by force.  Consequently, coercive policy must have the power to force compliance.  Similarly, a strategy of military deterrence must have the means to frighten, hinder or prevent the opponent from doing something you do not want him to do.  Deterrence should be considered from two points of view: conventional and nuclear.

Presently our conventional forces are overwhelmingly superior to Pakistani forces.  They deter Pakistan from provoking a war. Pakistani military experts know this, that why they have shifted to a strategy of cross border terrorism.  This enables them to avoid a direct military confrontation with India and yet maintain pressure on us from militant bases in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir [POK]

Some urge that the best way to deter Pakistan's terrorist strategy is to attack and destroy militant bases in POK.  India has the capability to do this, but there is nothing to prevent such bases being reactivated.  Hawks say that India should therefore permanently occupy POK.  Even if India had the will and resources to do this, common sense should warn us that the militants would shift into Pakistan and terrorist's attacks will continue from there. The hawks say, "So what?  We have the power and should be prepared to occupy areas in Pakistan that threaten us till that country comes to its senses." The USA after World War 2 had the power to occupy both Germany and Japan, and reshape them according to their liking.  The US is attempting to do the same in Afghanistan.  India lacks the military and sustained economic power to occupy parts of Pakistan for any length of time. Moreover it is unlikely that the international community would permit this to happen.

Others suggest that we should adopt a policy of aggressive response.   Israel follows this policy and has been repeatedly attacking terrorist bases in Palestine for the past decade.  Admittedly they have killed many terrorists along with some civilians, and have the satisfaction of saying that they are determined to carry out a policy of tit for tat.  However, terrorists' attacks on innocent Israelis continue unabated. 

So what must India do to counter Pakistan's terrorist tactics?  We must first admit and appreciate the limits of conventional deterrence. We should understand that a terrorist attack is designed for psychological effect: to demoralise rather than gain any military advantage. We must therefore guard against panic reactions.  The decision to mobilise our forces and their deployment for an offensive, consequent to the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament on 13 December 2001 is a typical example of a knee-jerk reaction rather than part of a well thought out strategy. At that time, Pakistan was known to have a covert nuclear capability.  At least on two previous occasions it had threatened to use nuclear weapons to thwart a possible Indian conventional offensive.  So India had catered for this threat.  Although India has adopted a "no first strike nuclear strategy", it made it clear that any nuclear strike by Pakistan would result in that country being decimated.  

Even though India has overwhelming conventional and nuclear superiority, General Musharraf keeps declaring that he is not afraid of India "as there is a balance of power in South Asia."  It would not be unreasonable to assume that he banks on the international community to restrain India from attacking.  When India moved its troops to the border, Pakistan's representative at the UN talked rather irresponsibly of the certainty of use of nuclear weapons by his country in the event of an Indian offensive. This posturing by Pakistan brought pressure from the USA for reigning in the jehadi element operating from POK and also possibly a warning of a threat of "the taking out" of Pakistan's nuclear capability.  Viewed from this angle, the conciliatory June 2002 speech of General Musharraf, in which he promised to curb cross border terrorism, can be rationalised.

That would have been an appropriate time for India to begin withdrawing from the border. India probably hoped that that the General would further yield under pressure and hand over 20 wanted terrorist which India had demanded.  Apparently the members of the National Security Advisory Board [NSAB] lacked sufficient understanding of what constitutes coercive diplomacy and the limits of economic, diplomatic and military deterrence. The denial of Indian airspace to civil flights and withdrawal of staff from our High Commission had no appreciable economic or diplomatic fallout.  On the contrary a reciprocal action by Pakistan for our civil flights denied us direct access to Kabul at a critical juncture when the future of Afghanistan was being reshaped and Indian help and presence had become essential. While we removed the restrictions on Pakistani civil flights, the counter-restrictions continue in order to keep us as much out of Afghanistan as possible.

  Meanwhile, strains from the continued deployment of defence forces became apparent.  Now India began desperately searching for an excuse for a withdrawal.  General Musharraf, who was sitting pretty, was constrained to remark that it was not for him to provide the same.  Finally, the successful conclusion of elections in J&K provided an escape route for withdrawal of troops. 

Mobilisation of the armed force and their subsequent move back to the barracks, consumption of fuel, wear and tear on vehicles, compensation for crop damage, dislocation of over a million people and other details would perhaps work out to a cost of nearly Rs 10,000 crores.  Large tracts of the border have been mined.  De-mining of those areas could lead to more casualties and most of the mines would be unsafe for future handling; these will need to be destroyed and replaced.  Expensive and sensitive equipment exposed to the elements would have suffered deterioration.  Some secret troop dispositions have been revealed. And all this was for no real gain. Today we can only reach out to Kabul by a circuitous route.

In January, it was announced that a Nuclear Command Authority has been created, comprising political and executive councils, plus a "strategic forces" command, to be headed by a senior air force officer.  The Political Council, with the prime minister as its chairman, is the sole body that can authorise the use of nuclear weapons.  This declaration formalised what is already in force.  This is a wise move as it is essential that those who have to be deterred should perceive such structures and weapons without any ambiguity.  But this arrangement is still worryingly inadequate.   India's "no first use" strategy must accept that Pakistan has the option to strike first.  Their nuclear weapons will take only 300 seconds to reach Delhi.  What will happen if a nuclear strike wipes out Delhi, the prime minister and the rest of the Political Council?

The USA were aware of this danger and during the Cold War it ensured that one Boeing aircraft was always air borne throughout the day and night.  A senior military officer was on board               with all the communication instruments to ensure that there would be no disruption to the retaliation process even if the President and his staff were no longer alive.  This made it very clear to the Soviet Union that the Americans were no joking about deterrence.  Whereas there is no need for India to have an aircraft air borne day and night, but we must constitute an alternative Strategic Forces Command.  This should be located in one of the far southern or eastern states as it is unlikely Pakistani missiles will have the capability to reach those targets in the coming decade.

 Given India's tendency to defer complex security decisions till crises arise, the PM should seek constitutional approval that if Delhi is written off, the CM and Governor of a selected state [this should be kept secret for security reasons] would have to function as officiating PM and President. Jointly they will functions as a Nuclear Command Authority, get in touch with the alternative Strategic Forces Command and ensure that Pakistan is decimated in the days which follow. It is only by such premeditated cold-blooded decisions that Pakistan will be made to realise that nuclear deterrence is no joke and India means business.   

Whilst continuing to maintain our conventional and nuclear deterrent policies, we must accept that the battle against Pakistani terrorism is going to be a long and arduous one and this battle cannot be deterred by conventional or nuclear weapons.  We have to remain vigilant on the Line of Control [LOC], be methodical in our surveillance of internal trouble spots, improve our intelligence, and win the hearts and minds of the people so that stray militants have no place to hide. At the same time we should make it clear to the world that India retains the right to cross the LOC in order to destroy militant bases in POK, should circumstances demand such action 

It is evident that the US and many others are fed up with Pakistani militants. and are alarmed about Pakistan's relationship established between Pakistan and North Korea in the nuclear and missile fields.  There is also the fear that nuclear material may have been transferred to Al Qaida terrorists There have been open clashes between Pakistani and US forces on the Afghanistan border while the latter were pursuing Taliban terrorists.  Our diplomatic offensive against Pakistani inspired terrorism must take these factors into consideration so that maximum international pressure is maintained on that country. . There are signs that our current strategy is having good results.  Cross border infiltration has decreased and gangs operating within J & K are being steadily rounded up. After elections in J&K, the people are keen on peace and dissidents appear to have accepted that in today's world there is little sympathy for separatism or terrorism.  So good governance accompanied by military pressure must continue in J&K along with international diplomatic pressure.

 We must accept that even if General Musharraf is sincere about curbing cross border terrorism, he is finding it difficult to control his militants.   The General recently publicly warned his countrymen that if they did not curb fundamentalism and militancy, the US is likely to make Pakistan their next target after dealing with Iraq. We must be realistic and accept that until Musharraf succeeds in taming his domestic militants, and there are good reasons to believe that he wants to do this, it will be impossible for him to prevent cross border terrorist attacks.

So, when the next major terrorist incident takes place, and we can be sure that this will happen. Although public pressure will mount for the government to retaliate, our leaders must keep their cool.  Accepting the limits of deterrence, they must avoid resorting to rhetoric statements such as "proactive policy", "zero tolerance" and "ruthlessly dealing with terrorists".  We should announce the dry facts of the incident and the casualties suffered on both sides.  At the same time we should have the courage to tell the public that there are no quick solutions or short cuts to the battle against terrorism.