Cold Start as Deterrence against Proxy War
November 22, 2010
For some months now, the Indian Army’s ‘Cold Start’ (CS) doctrine has been attracting a lot of attention from Western diplomats, generals and political leaders. The reason is simple: the Pakistanis, who were reluctant to move against their ‘strategic assets’ (aka Taliban and al Qaeda affiliates like Lashkar-e-Taiba), have self-servingly flagged this doctrine as proof of India’s hostile and aggressive design. Waving the ‘threat’ from India, the Pakistan Army has been resisting pressure from the West to redeploy troops from the eastern border to the western front. The gullible Westerners appear to have bought the Pakistani line and are seeking to persuade India to renounce the CS doctrine. This, the Westerners believe, is the magic bullet to address Pakistan’s sense of insecurity and allow the Pakistan Army to move against terrorist safe havens inside Pakistani territory.
How much the CS doctrine has spooked the Pakistanis is clear from the statements of the Pakistani political leaders and generals. Addressing senior officers in the GHQ on 1st January, the Pakistan Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani called the CS doctrine “an adventurous and dangerous path”. He flogged this theme during his talk at the NATO headquarters in Brussels and later in a meeting with Pakistani journalists where he showed deep concern over the Indian Army’s preparations for making the CS doctrine operational. Taking the cue from him, the National Command Authority of Pakistan issued a statement in which it said that “offensive doctrines like Cold Start…tend to destabilise the regional balance.” The Azm-e-Nau military exercises, held in April-May 2010, were primarily aimed at countering the CS strategy of the Indian Army. Completely at a loss to understand Pakistan’s recalcitrance over acting against Islamist terror groups, the West appears to have latched on to Pakistan’s India bogey as a possible solution to end the Pakistani double-game in the war on terror. Hence, the efforts to try and make India back off from the CS strategy.
The problem, however, is that no amount of disavowals by India, and no amount of security assurances by the US or other Western nations, will ever convince Pakistan, which has been badly rattled by the CS doctrine, that India’s basic defence posture is defensive in nature and orientation. Despite the Indian Army Chief General VK Singh denying the existence of any such doctrine, the CS strategy has acquired a life of its own in the Pakistani military mind.
Come to think of if, this is probably not such a bad thing from India’s point of view. Even as strategists debate the practicality or otherwise of the concept of a limited war under a nuclear overhang and the CS doctrine as a military strategy – after all, the battleground has a nasty habit of springing surprises that can ground the most well-prepared battle plans – the doctrine’s validity has been confirmed by Pakistan’s frenetic efforts to put in place a counter strategy. That the Pakistan Army is preparing to counter the CS by its conventional forces and not through use of nuclear weapons is a tacit acceptance of both the theory of limited war under a nuclear overhang as well as the exploitation of this strategic space through the device of CS doctrine.
More important, however, has been the utility of the CS doctrine as a tool of psy-war. Not only has it unsettled the adversary, it has also put in place an effective deterrent against the proxy war unleashed by Pakistan-sponsored terror groups in India. In other words, Pakistan can no longer be sure whether or not India will resort to lightening strikes across the border in response to actions by Pakistani terror groups inside India. The prospect of sudden retaliation by India effectively means that the impunity with which Pakistan was exporting terror to India is in grave danger. Perhaps, this is one of the major reasons why there has been no major terrorist attack in India since 26/11.
But the utility of CS as a deterrent to sub-conventional warfare or proxy warfare depends in large measure on the credibility of the deterrent. In a sense, the dynamics and dialectics of a sub-conventional deterrence like CS are no different from those of nuclear deterrence. As and when India effectively operationalises the CS doctrine, it will have to ensure that the adversary knows the resolve of the Indian state to implement this strategy in response to another major terrorist strike. This is critical to prevent any miscalculation or misreading by Pakistan of India’s resolve. While the retaliation does not have to be immediate – to quote Mario Puzo “revenge is a dish that tastes best when it is cold” – any failure by India to resort to CS in response to a terror attack supported, inspired or originating from Pakistan will degrade the value of the deterrence.
It is in this sense that the CS doctrine is a double-edged weapon for both India and Pakistan. To retain credibility India will have to retaliate militarily using the CS strategy, otherwise not only will India lose all credibility but it will also embolden Pakistan to continue to unleash jihadist terror on India. But retaliation will put India on the escalation ladder which could easily go beyond the scope and scale of CS operations. The big unknown is that with sub-conventional deterrence in the form of CS doctrine breaking down, how much time and what level of desperation of either party will force them to take the next escalatory step which in turn could lead to making real the spectre of a nuclear exchange in the subcontinent.
To an extent, the escalation ladder will depend on how Pakistan responds to a CS by India. The dilemma for Pakistan will be that if it does not respond with its nuclear weapons, it will not only validate India’s belief of space for a limited war under a nuclear overhang but, more seriously, rob Pakistan of its nuclear deterrent, if only in the context of a limited war. In other words, Pakistan will face a Hobson’s choice: it can either degrade the quality of its nuclear deterrent or it can unleash a nuclear holocaust which will not only wipe it out but wreck horrendous damage on India and indeed on the rest of the world.
As long as the sub-conventional deterrence holds, the enunciation of the Cold Start doctrine actually introduces a degree of strategic stability in the region by forcing Pakistan to exercise extreme caution in unleashing terrorist violence in India. Far from asking India to renounce the CS doctrine or put it in the cold storage, the West needs to impress upon Pakistan that it can no longer expect India to roll over and play dead in response to actions of terror groups based inside Pakistan. If Pakistan stops using terror as an instrument of state policy, the CS strategy will stay in the cold storage. Otherwise, all bets are off.