Kargil war & nuclear deterrence

Chennai: 14/05/2010: The Hindu: Book Review: Title: Asymmetric Warfare in South Asia, The Causes and Conquences of the Kargil Conflict. Author: Peter R. Lavoy.   | Photo Credit: scanned in chennai

In the Cold War era, nuclear deterrence stabilised around the belief that fighting a nuclear war was not a viable option, since it would result in the devastation of both the adversaries. All this changed after India and Pakistan conducted the nuclear tests in 1998. Western strategic analysts began re-visiting the theories of nuclear deterrence to see how deterrence stability would operate in the India-Pakistan context. The Kargil conflict, initiated by Pakistan within a year of the nuclear tests, provided a testing ground for these deterrence theories. One of the better known axioms of nuclear deterrence was termed the ‘stability-instability paradox,' wherein nuclear weapons contributed to stability by acting as an effective restraint on a full-scale war, but encouraged conflicts or wars at lower levels. There were enough examples of this during the Cold War era.

The Kargil conflict was an excellent model that unfolded the possibilities of dangerous escalation to a larger war — if India had embarked on operations across the Line of Control — and of crisis management so as to avert nuclear exchange. Deterrence optimists as well as pessimists have used the conflict to justify their opinions.

Factual account

This book, edited by Peter Lavoy, is not the first to examine the way deterrence theories played out during the Kargil conflict. It is, however, the first to provide a factual account of the unfolding of the conflict in the light of evidence available on both sides. Bringing together the views and position statements by military officers, diplomats, and scholars from India, Pakistan and the United States, it offers a fascinating portrayal of a crisis that was unique in the post-Cold War era. Kargil witnessed vigorous military operations in a highly charged atmosphere of nationalist sentiments by two nuclear-armed adversaries, even as major powers were exerting their utmost to see that the catastrophe of a nuclear exchange was averted. What major strategic and operational lessons does Kargil provide in the realm of nuclear deterrence?

Robert Jervis, who coined the term ‘stability-instability paradox', described it thus: “To the extent that the military balance is stable at the level of all out nuclear war, it will become less stable at lower levels of violence.” After Kargil, Jervis has chosen to rephrase his formulation. He says, “Strategic stability permits, if not creates, instability by making lower levels of violence relatively safe because escalation up the nuclear ladder is too dangerous.”


The book is quite informative on the way Pakistan's small military coterie, led by General Pervez Musharraf, launched what was considered a small operation, which India will not find worth responding to powerfully due to risks — as Jervis puts it — of escalating up the nuclear ladder. The failure to anticipate the strategic consequences of a limited military adventure proved catastrophic. It not only changed the global perception of a nuclear Pakistan but grievously undermined political stability of Pakistan. Yet, it was in line with the military hierarchy's long-held belief in its infallibility.

An interesting question to ask is whether both sides pushed to explore the limits imposed by the possession of nuclear weapons. Pakistan did try, until it found the strategic fallout overwhelming its tactical gains. Bruce Riedel gives a chilling account of the information President Clinton provided to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif about nuclear measures the Pakistani military was undertaking. India, on the other hand, not only took back the territory seized by Pakistan, but also retained strategic high ground by limiting the military response to its side of the LoC, conveying in the process its unwillingness to reach for the nuclear escalation ladder. That meant incurring serious cost in human terms on the high fields of battle. Even as the book was being compiled, the security context has substantially changed both globally and between India and Pakistan. It is difficult to visualise another misadventure of the Kargil kind by Pakistani military. But it has not stopped playing the same game at another level. Apparently there has been no change in its mindset. This and the real risk to Pakistan's nuclear assets from that country's own and international terrorist elements have changed the nuclear deterrence field in wholly unpredictable ways.

ASYMMETRIC WARFARE IN SOUTH ASIA The Causes and Consequences of the Kargil Conflict: Edited by Peter R. Lavoy; Cambridge University Press, 4381/4, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 895.

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