Nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan have been involved in several intense crises in recent years. During these crises however it is not simply the presence of a threat which defines their disputes. Looking at India’s behaviour towards Pakistan Karthika Sasikumar (San Jose State University, USA) explains how during a time of crisis, threatening behaviour is matched with acts of reassurance.

Analysts tend to discuss the threats issued by the parties during crises however these crises have also featured signals of reassurance. In fact reassurance has kept these crises from ‘going nuclear’ and triggering a nuclear explosion.

Reassurance is an integral part of deterrence. For deterrence to work, retaliation must be credible. Credibility, in turn, rests on both capability and intention. Capability refers to nuclear weapons hardware, as well as command and control systems. Intention is psychological: a signal that you are able and willing to respond to certain threats (but not others) with nuclear weapon use. Intention, in turn, has two components that seem at first glance to be at cross-purposes. First, intention must convey threat. You must convince the adversary that you will carry out a nuclear strike if ‘red lines’ are crossed. Second, signals of intention must also reassure: that unless and until those lines are crossed, nuclear weapons will be kept in reserve, won’t be brandished in minor crises, in anger or vengeance, or deployed for partisan political purposes.

In sum, reassurance denotes the actions and statements by leaders signalling that the country’s response is rational, motivated by strategic—rather than partisan—objectives, and limited in time and geographic scope. While both countries have practised reassurance, here are some examples of Indian reassurance of Pakistan.

India’s reassurance of Pakistan

About a year after India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons and declared themselves Nuclear Weapon States, the Kargil War broke out in May 1999. India moved some missiles and increased the alert status of conventional forces. At the same time, Indian leaders realised the importance of staying behind Pakistan’s ‘red lines’ – that is, the threshold beyond which Pakistan would use nuclear weapons. They were also mindful of the international audience: this was the first test of Indian assertions that nuclear weapons would be used only as a last resort.

At this time, forces were kept on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LoC, distinct from the international border), even though this heightened Indian casualties. Note that in this, South Asia’s first media war, Indian public opinion supported crossing the LoC in ‘hot pursuit’ of the infiltrators—and the government was heading into national elections. India succeeded in reassuring the international community; while Pakistan’s tactical victory in Kargil became a strategic defeat.

Reassurance during the 2011 attack on India’s parliament

In December 2001, the Indian Parliament was attacked. New Delhi demanded the extradition of the terrorists involved, who were allegedly residing in Pakistan. The demand was backed up with the largest troop mobilization since the 1971 war. While addressing the international community, India drew parallels with the 9/11 attack, and the US determination to punish states that harboured terrorists. Yet, there were some reassuring signals. India continued to adhere to routine confidence building measures: exchanging lists of nuclear facilities, and notifying Pakistan about missile tests. As in 1999, India did not cross the LoC. Within hours of a somewhat belligerent statement by the Chief of Army Staff, the Defence Minister walked it back.

Reassurance during the Mumbai attacks

In 2008, Mumbai—India’s commercial capital—was hit by simultaneous attacks. The world feared that the government in New Delhi—months away from a general election—would retaliate with military action, that could escalate to nuclear war. In India, ex-bureaucrats, former military personnel, and media pundits called for conducting ‘limited military strikes’ across the LoC, perhaps using special forces or so-called smart bombs. In the event, India did not mobilise military forces, and rejected a proposal by the Air Force to bomb suspected terrorist camps located in Pakistan. The few accounts that exist of decision-making in New Delhi, confirm that the spectre of nuclear retaliation stayed the hand of revenge. These reassuring signals opened up the space for world leaders to chide Pakistan instead. Indian leaders concluded that “military force ought to be used only as the last resort, and efforts mounted first to exert international pressure to make support for terror very costly for Pakistan.”

Reassurance during the 2016 Uri attack

In September 2016, Indian soldiers were targeted in a militant attack on a camp in Uri, a garrison town close to the LoC. This time, the Indian government struck back with simultaneous raids in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. There is considerable doubt and confusion about the location of the targets and number of casualties in the raids, which New Delhi termed ‘surgical strikes’ on terrorist training camps. Even these raids, though unprecedented and destabilising, were cushioned with reassuring signals.

India’s Director-General of Military Operations stated: “Based on very credible and specific information which we received yesterday that some terrorist teams had positioned themselves at launch pads along the Line of Control… the Indian army conducted surgical strikes last night at these launch pads.”

The operation was said to be based on information about specific terrorist plots. It refers to “launch pads,” a technical-sounding term, and uses words such as “specific,” “credible,” “focused,” and “positioned.” The statement is carefully crafted to remove any impression that India was lashing out in anger: “The matter had been taken up at highest diplomatic levels and through military channels. India has also offered consular access to these apprehended terrorists for Pakistan to verify their confessions. Furthermore, we had proposed that fingerprints and DNA samples of terrorists killed in Punch and Uri could be made available to Pakistan for investigation. Despite our persistent urging that Pakistan respect its January 2004 commitment for not allowing its soil or territory under its control to be used for terrorism against India, there has been no let up.”

Finally, the statement emphasises limited scope: “The operations aimed at neutralising terrorists have since ceased. We do not have any plans for further continuation.” Rather than interpret Indian actions as ‘hot pursuit,’ Islamabad accepted that the Indian government needed a face saving measure as it faced a militant upsurge in Kashmir.

Reassurance during the Pulwama attacks

Kashmir is also the location of the latest crisis. In February 2019, a suicide bomber attacked a military convoy in Pulwama. In retaliation, India bombed targets—which it claims were terrorist camps—across the LoC and deep in Pakistan territory (Pakistan disputes this). Like the 2016 strikes, this was a bold move by India, scaling several rungs on the escalatory ladder. Tensions rose when, on the day after the air attacks, an Indian pilot was shot down by Pakistan.

What reassuring signals did we note? First, Indian air strikes ceased within a few hours. They were explicitly termed “non-military.” Second, the targets were not Pakistan military installations or personnel. Third, as in 2016, the official statement claimed the raid was a counter-terrorism action, pre-empting a specific planned attack by a specific terrorist group. Finally, India engaged the help of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to defuse the situation. Pakistan responded by denying that the strikes had crossed the international border. It also returned the captured pilot expeditiously.

A way to guarantee peace?

These narratives should not be taken to mean that nuclear weapons guarantee peace. First, it may be rational for Pakistan not to reassure, to signal that is highly motivated to use nuclear weapons to trigger intervention by the United States or other powers. Second, Pakistan may choose not to ‘receive’ signals of reassurance, depending on its civil-military dynamics and electoral cycle. Third, reassuring signals may not work with terrorist groups. Fourth, reassuring signals are based on assumptions about Pakistan’s ‘red lines,’ which Pakistan keeps deliberately fuzzy. For instance, it is not clear whether Pakistan regards cross-LoC or cross-international border attacks as the nuclear firebreak.

Perhaps most worrying is that domestic audiences in India and Pakistan—inflamed by media coverage—are increasingly perceiving signals of reassurance as signs of political weakness. As the scholar Janice Gross Stein points out, in the long run, reassurance alone is not enough for peace.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Photo: Abstract background. Credit: Pixabay, Manuchi.

Karthika Sasikumar is a Professor in the Political Science Department, San Jose State University, California. Her research focuses on international security, South Asia, nuclear weapons, terrorism, and migration.

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