India-Pakistan tension after the latest Mumbai bombings reminds us all that a war between these two nuclear-armed powers could too easily escalate far beyond control.
A doctrine of war between nuclear states urges peace
This month's deadly bombings in Mumbai again increased tensions between India and Pakistan, reminding the world of the potential for military confrontation between these two nuclear-armed states. It came at a crucial time as the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers are scheduled to meet in Delhi next week for peace talks.
So far India has refrained from blaming Pakistan for the recent terrorist attack, but it is a reminder of how important this peace process is. Any conflict, no matter how limited, poses enormous risks.
To be sure, limited wars can remain limited. From May to July of 1999, fighting in the mountainous Kargil region of Kashmir killed at least 1,000 regular and paramilitary soldiers, Indian and Pakistani. Tensions ran high but the fighting remained localised - and conventional.
But after the Kargil conflict India developed a new doctrine, called Cold Start, designed to punish Pakistan for any future transgression. Because Pakistan would have geographic advantage for a swifter assembly of forces in a crisis, Cold Start calls for bold manoeuvre by as many as eight Indian mobile Battle Groups which could cross the border on several fronts at once.
One version of Cold Start aims to occupy 50 to 80 kilometres along the border in the affected sectors - for use in post-combat bargaining - while pounding Pakistan's forces. Another version calls for speedy, hard-hitting raids followed by an equally rapid withdrawal back behind a heavily-defended border. In either case, the idea is to unbalance Pakistan's system of forces at the very outbreak of fighting.
Cold Start addresses two possibilities: a full-fledged war or a limited punitive attack in response to a Mumbai-like incident. The strategy is to keep the conflict below Pakistan's "threshold of nuclear tolerance", as it's known in jargon. That is, the Indian offensive would not be important enough to make Pakistan resort to its nuclear option. That is a nebulous goal, but let us assume that India can identify and stay below that threshold.
It seems unlikely that the Cold Start doctrine would actually be used if a full war was envisaged. However, in the event of a limited punitive sortie, intended to teach Pakistan a lesson for a Mumbai-type attack, Cold Start becomes a distinct possibility. Swift, multiple penetrations, destroying a few small towns or a number of villages or military locations of significance, under the umbrella of massive air and artillery cover, followed by a retreat in less than a day: it could succeed.
So far, however, we have not considered the Pakistani response. Inevitably, between hostile neighbours, as a military concept develops in one country its details become public knowledge and the opponent works out a response. Then the initial offensive concept is modified in light of the response. The opponent then modifies again, and the process continues unendingly.
Pakistan's response has included development of tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) - relatively low-yield atom bombs intended for use against troop concentrations, not cities. Even without TNWs, Pakistan would have the advantage of interior lines, meaning it would have to move troops shorter distances to the front. And since this battle would be fought principally in Pakistan's air space, Pakistan would enjoy the additional advantage of operating closer to its own airbases and under the protection of its air defence system.
These advantages would, I think, tilt the scales in favour of Pakistan. But it would take a bolder person than myself to attempt to predict the outcome of a war, or even a battle, under these circumstances. It should be clear to anyone that such a military adventure by India would by definition carry a very high degree of danger of escalation, quite possibly without limit.
Let us assume that India succeeded in slapping Pakistan's wrist. Pakistan would be bound to respond, putting India under enormous pressure to respond even more strongly. But Pakistan would be fully prepared for that, and there we go up the escalatory ladder, climbing ever closer to the nuclear "red line".
On the other hand, imagine the scenario I consider to be more likely: India's military incursion fails as a punishment. Then it would be India which would be forced to escalate, unless it were prepared to tuck its tail between its legs - which would be unlikely.
In either case, both sides would continue to escalate conventionally and, if defeat stared Pakistan in the face, it could resort to the nuclear option. So could India if it were denied victory.
Once fighting started, if it was to remain conventional and short of all-out war, then one side or the other would have to accept a humiliating military failure. Sensible people in both countries, and around the world, should be aware that a Cold Start would be dangerously likely to heat up to the boiling point.
We should be grateful, then, that leaders in the two countries say that the recent Mumbai bombings will not derail this month's scheduled talks between foreign ministers, about Kashmir and other issues.
Brig Gen Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer