India Pakistan two nuclear weapon states in South Asia have always been on the radar of escalation watchers in the globe given the intense military rivalry that is evident through the prolonged eyeball to eyeball deployment of troops of both sides on the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir and the International Border.
With Pakistan’s propensity to support and catalyse terrorist groups to launch an attack in Jammu and Kashmir as well as rest of India, the nuclear flash point has ever remained a concern for watchers of strategic stability.
Conventional wisdom is that the nuclear escalation ladder between India and Pakistan will follow the path of incrementalism.
Thus a terrorist attack which caused heavy casualties or was a major symbolic target of the Indian state was not expected to lead to adoption of the nuclear option – at least so far.
This pathway was expected to move along the lines from terror to conventional to finally nuclear with many intermediate steps in between that has been flagged in various studies from time to time.
Post Pulwama and Balakot Paradigm
However recent revelations by former US Secretary of State – Michael Pompeo in a book recalling the events seems to suggest that there is also a likelihood of a step upwards in escalation leading from a terrorist attack, an Indian conventional response in terms of a single incident of air strike, Pakistan’s aerial response and possibly nuclear escalation .
Multiple media sources have quoted Pompeo quoting from his book ,‘Never Give an Inch: Fighting for the America I Love’ that a joint effort had to be undertaken by him, then US national security adviser John Bolton, Kenneth Juster, then US ambassador to India to defuse tensions between India and Pakistan in February 2019.
“I do not think the world properly knows just how close the India-Pakistan rivalry came to spilling over into a nuclear conflagration in February 2019. The truth is, I don’t know precisely the answer either; I just know it was too close,” he writes while the author has not seen the excerpts of the book, but given quotes from the same in multiple media sources credibility has been assumed.
“After an Islamist terrorist attack in Kashmir – probably enabled in part by Pakistan’s lax counterterror policies – killed forty Indians, India responded with an air strike against terrorists inside Pakistan. The Pakistanis shot down a plane in a subsequent dogfight and kept the Indian pilot prisoner,” Pompeo writes as per the Hindustan Times.
It is believed that India activated missile sites for launch as per the Hindustan Times on this occasion leading Pakistan to possibly believe that a nuclear strike is imminent. However these missiles were possibly conventionally armed BrahMos super sonic cruise missiles with a range of 270 kms then.
As per Pompeo India raised concerns through possibly the National Security Adviser Mr Ajit Doval though not directly referred to in the book as his counterpart as, “him,” whereas India’s External Affairs Minister was Ms Sushma Swaraj then an important political leader of the ruling BJP.
Pompeo was told that the Indian side, “believed the Pakistanis had begun to prepare their nuclear weapons for a strike,” and that New Delhi “was contemplating its own escalation”.
Pompeo claims that he asked the Indian side for restraint while he spoke to then Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Jawed Bajwa.
Hindustan Times in a report in March 2019 quoting official of the Cabinet Committee of Security, the highest national security body in the country had claimed that National Security Adviser Ajit Doval told his US counterpart John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that, “India was prepared for the worst if any bodily harm came to Wing Commander Varthaman”.
Thus, there are sufficient grounds to believe that the narration by Mr Pompeo is a factual account of events almost three years back.
As per Pompeo Bajwa believed that the Indian side was preparing nuclear deployment.
“As one might expect, he [Bajwa] believed the Indians were preparing their nuclear weapons for deployment,” Pompeo is said to have written in his book.
The former US Secretary of State then claims that his team worked both sides India and Pakistan to defuse the crisis by early release of Indian Air Force pilot AbhinandanVarthaman who had landed in Pakistan territory after he bailed out of his MiG 21 which was to crash. Varthaman was held as a PW but was soon released.
As his pictures of being ill treated were floated in the media, the Indian leadership was incensed. Whether any nuclear option was considered is difficult to assess but Pompeo claims so.
Lessons for the Future
Pompeo’s revelations need greater analysis and debate as these are only initial excerpts from the book but one that may have grave portends for the future of strategic stability in the India Pakistan context.
Will this lead to the Indian side restraining use of air power to a terrorist attack which has been traced to Pakistan remains to be seen?
Those proposing restraint in employment of the air force for countering a terrorist attack had raised just such consequences, nevertheless given magnitude of the attack where in over 40 Indian central security forces were killed in Pulwama by a suicide bomber, the decision was accepted and even lauded in certain circles including some US officials as then National Security Adviser John Bolton.
Role of Present Pak Army Chief General Asim Munir
Interestingly India’s Research and Analysis Wing secretary Anil Dhasmana reportedly spoke to his Pakistan counterpart then Inter Services Intelligence chief Lt Gen Asim Munir warning him of escalation if the Indian pilot was not released.
Asim Munir is presently the Chief of the Pakistan Army, who having been on the hot seat in 2019 will have drawn his own conclusions for application if necessary in the days ahead.