The current time on the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is set at three minutes to midnight. Had there been such a clock for South Asia, it would have oscillated between four and five minutes to nuclear reckoning.
However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stopover late last year at Lahore on his return trip from Moscow had the potential to set a hypothetical South Asian Doomsday Clock back by a couple of minutes.
Even so, the terrorist attack on the Pathankot airfield demonstrates that the additional minutes gained between now and nuclear reckoning by the outbreak of India-Pakistan bonhomie may not be good enough.
What needs to be done is clear: setting back the South Asian Doomsday Clock finally and for good. This would require bringing India’s emerging strategic doctrine i.e the organising principles and ideas on which national security and foreign policy are based in sync with its military - defence and nuclear - doctrine.
The prime minister’s speech to the military brass gathered aboard INS Vikramaditya for the Combined Commanders’ conference provides a starting point for identifying the doctrinal disconnect that needs reconciling.
The speech indicated that India’s strategic doctrine for the Modi-Doval innings at the helm is finally taking shape. In retrospect, the past year of about-turns in India’s Pakistan policy appears to have been to set the stage for a longer term roll out. Having shown the prickly side early on in the innings, the duo is apparently now more confident for a sober reaching out to Pakistan.
On Pakistan, echoing his foreign minister in the Lok Sabha on her return from the Heart of Asia conference in Islamabad, Modi let on that India would attempt “engaging Pakistan to try and turn the course of history.” His indulgence in a bit of risky personal diplomacy by attending Nawaz Sharif’s birthday is an evidence that this is not mere jargon or a cliché of a routine speech.
This foreign policy shift towards Pakistan is in line with political compulsions stemming from the urgency to deliver on the promise of ‘acche din’, brought home by the drubbing his party received in Delhi and Bihar.
Strategically, better relations are important from the point of view of South Asia being hostage to the success of the next set of would-be jihadis. For illustration, had the jihadis succeeded in destroying a few aircrafts on the Pathankot airfield, the fallout from the attack would have been markedly different.
Ajit Doval, the National Security Advisor (NSA) forced on the back-foot by the controversial response, would have been left with little personal option than to recommend a hard response. An embarrassed government with little clue – judging from the ‘foot in mouth’ wrangle its defence and home ministers got it into following the Pathankot episode – would have seized war as the option, even if its foreign minister ruled that out only a fortnight ago.
Here Modi’s outlining of the military doctrine at the conference kicks in. He articulated it thus: “We need capabilities to win swift wars, for we will not have the luxury of long drawn battles.”
Little does Modi’s speech writer know that neither of these – ‘swift wars’ nor ‘long drawn battles’ – are in India’s interest. While long drawn battles are self-evidently unaffordable, ‘swift wars’ on that account are no more appealing, since wrapping up wars swiftly is easier said than done.
A potential scenario on the western front illustrates this. Modi has it that “our defence forces are prepared to deter and defeat any misadventure”. The Pathankot episode does not lend confidence that India could ‘deter’. Its failure to deter may lead it to overcompensate by attempting to ‘defeat’ an adversary. This would be to step into a quagmire.
Modi requires that the military ‘defeat any misadventure’ and ‘win’ in a ‘swift war’. For this, India would require using its tri-service might and its intelligence and diplomatic prongs. How would this impact the mind of the Pakistani decision makers?
If India generates a 1965 war like situation on the western front - in which its valiant forces actually crossed the Ichhogil Canal only to be called back - the denouement this time round would be different. It is unlikely that, Pakistan would give up the fight like it did in 1971.
It could instead be stampeded into hasty decisions. Pakistan’s foreign secretary has only last September officially let on that Pakistan would go nuclear with tactical nuclear weapons.
India’s possible nuclear response has been reinforced by Modi in his speech thus: “Our strategic deterrence is robust and reliable, in accordance with our nuclear doctrine, and our political will is clear.”
In effect, he promises retaliation will be in accord with India’s nuclear doctrine: ‘massive’ irrespective of the type of nuclear first use by Pakistan. Such an exercise of ‘political will’ by India’s Political Council of its Nuclear Command Authority would certainly be genocidal and since Pakistan has a lead on India in terms of warhead numbers, it would also be suicidal.
India’s military doctrine as outlined by Modi endangers India. A ‘swift’ war forces the nuclear genie out of the bottle. Inflicting ‘defeat’, would require wading into a nuclear-contaminated irregular war within Pakistan, setting the stage for a ‘long drawn battle’, particularly if India attempts to ‘win’.
Even if the nuclear aspect is downplayed, possible consequences are easily visible in the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US, which culminated years after George Bush declared ‘victory’ aboard USS Abraham Lincoln.
The doctrinal disconnect has been brought out by the military advisor in National Security Council Secretariat, who writing in a Ministry of Defence think tank’s publication, Journal of Defence Studies (p. 61), says:
"If the nuclear shadow demanded war avoidance as a political outcome, the operational sphere attempted to keep alive the notion of victory despite the risk of mutual annihilation ... operational doctrines that are not nested in a realistic political context."
While it appears that Modi’s strategic doctrine is a product of his national security staff, he has inherited a military doctrine predicated on a ‘short war’. He acknowledges that there is much to be done. In his speech, he said, “we look to our Armed Forces to prepare for the future. And, it cannot be achieved by doing more of the same, or preparing perspective plans based on outdated doctrines....”
The problem is that his solution in the speech is based on ‘outdated doctrine’. The prime minister feels “our forces and our government need to do more to reform their beliefs, doctrines, objectives and strategies.” Rectifying the disconnect between strategic and military doctrines must be on in the busy Sardar Patel Bhawan, the site of the National Security Council Secretariat.
Clearly, India cannot resolve the doctrinal muddle alone, it has to do so in league with Pakistan. Doctrinal reconciliation is predicated on Modi keeping up the promise in his reference to “the NSA-level dialogue (designed) to bring security experts face to face with each other.” That the two NSAs met once again, this time in Dubai, is a positive sign towards this end.
Even so, Modi appears to hedge his bets. His caveat to his changed Pakistan policy is indicative: “we will test their intentions to define the path ahead ... But, we will never drop our guard on security and we will continue to judge progress on their commitments on terrorism.”
This opens up a new direction in the India-Pakistan relationship to disruption. It is an invitation to terror attacks like the one at Pathankot. Pathankot could well be foreseen, as indeed Modi did, discerning that, “There are many challenges and barriers on the path.”
Putting off foreign secretary talks suggests that India has not quite turned a corner. While Pakistan has taken action to rein in the Jaish-e-Mohammad it can be hazarded that its chief Maulana Masood Azhar would be back on the streets sooner than later, giving India another excuse to ease up on talks.
This is no way to push back the South Asian Doomsday Clock. Only doing so ensures that “the effort is worth it, because the peace dividends are huge and the future of our children is at stake.” There would be no future in case the next bunch of jihadis pushes the Clock across the midnight hour.