Nuclearizing Compellence

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The nuclear deterrence established in 1998, between India and Pakistan, has lived to prevent major crises from escalating into an all-out nuclear war. The efficacy of the nuclear deterrence was duly acknowledged by both India and Pakistan in the Joint statement of 2004, recognizing each other’s nuclear capabilities as a factor of stability. India; however, soon manifested its discomfort with the idea of nuclear deterrence and opted for other coercive means to force Pakistan to behave in a certain desired manner.

By introducing Cold Start Doctrine (CSD) in 2004, which was later re-named as Pro-Active Operations (PAOs), India tried to overcome its strategic frustration by conventionally threatening Pakistan. The idea was to punish Pakistan through a limited conventional war without crossing Pakistan’s ‘perceived’ nuclear threshold. Adoption of PAOs doctrine was the classic manifestation of India moving towards strategy of compellence rather than submitting to the realities of nuclear deterrence. However, the introduction of ‘Nasr’ by Pakistan in the equation denied India to employ any conventional adventurism against Pakistan. This resulted in a doctrinal dilemma for India.  

Indian inability to effectively operationalize and execute CSD/PAOs to punish Pakistan – in the face of its newly demonstrated capability to plug the perceived gaps – led it to adopt several other means and tools of compellence which included; surgical strikes, nuclear signaling, escalation dominance and preemptive counterforce doctrine to execute its strategy of compellence. Indian offensive posturing – emboldened under fascist Modi – indicate that compellence is delivered through adopting a war-fighting doctrine.

Compellence includes the actual use of force in addition to the threat of use of force and, therefore, only increases the risk of conflict/ crisis escalation. Deterrence, on the other hand, prevents both sides from initiating a war due to the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Thomas Schelling defines compellence as ‘direct action that persuades an opponent to give up something that is required.’ It also entails a mix of diplomatic, military and economic threats to compel the adversary to behave in a certain manner.

India’s strategy of compellence failed during the recent 2019 Kashmir crisis which led to an aerial confrontation between the two nuclear armed neighbors which was first since 1971. The surgical strikes used as a tool to compel Pakistan were countered by a measured response from Pakistan which reinforced Pakistan’s conventional deterrence. Indian conventional failure steered it to employ nuclear compellence by deploying nuclear submarine and missiles against Pakistan. The escalatory approach adopted by India to dominate the crisis was successfully thwarted by Pakistan’s conventional and nuclear deterrent.

Indian use of nuclear threats and aggressive deployments, following the undesirable outcomes of 2019 Kashmir crisis, demonstrate an Indian attempt to use its nuclear capability as a tool of compellence. The associated danger with nuclearizing compellence is the fact that a failure in employing compellence has the potential to outweigh any conceivable gains. In his seminal work, Kenneth Waltz identified this problem as he wrote, “One state may threaten to harm another state not to deter it from taking a certain action but to com­pel one.” This is precisely the situation taking shape in South Asian scenario. He further explains what role the intent plays along with possession of nuclear capability as he writes, “If nuclear weapons make the offence more effective and the blackmailer’s threat more compelling, then nuclear weapons increase the chances of war…”

Like Napoleon III threatened to bombard Tripoli, if the Turks did not comply with his demands, Modi threatened Pakistan with Qatal ki Raat – a night of massacre. Modi’s blackmail did not stop at mere statements and escalated to deployment of nuclear capable missiles and submarines against Pakistan in a bid to demonstrate Indian capability to dominate escalation which in itself is a risky venture.

The risks associated with use of nuclear capability as a tool for compellence demand that India and Pakistan reaffirm the stabilizing role that nuclear capability has played and can play in avoidance of war and establishing durable peace in the region. For this, it is important that other cooperative means are employed to address the root-causes of hostile relationship and outstanding disputes. In a nuclearized environment where mutually assured destruction is a reality, use or threat of use of force is not worth the risk for any elusive desirable outcomes.

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About Tanzeela Khalil 7 Articles
Tanzeela Khalil is a Visiting Fellow at Atlantic Council, Washington DC. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect the policy of her organization in any way.

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