Written by Rohan John.

The contested Muslim-majority state claimed by two nuclear-armed rivals, Jammu and Kashmir is the inadvertent collateral damage in this South Asian conflict and the canvas for an atomic showdown if not alleviated. Last year, Kashmir was wrought with violence which reached a new high with protests by Kashmiris against the occupation of the Indian army that killed local separatist 22-year old Burhan Wani on July 9th. There were mass arrests, curfews and statewide policing of freedoms of press and assembly to keep the state stable, but militant attacks continued to affect Kashmiris and the security personnel alike.

The tension in Kashmir reached a boiling point after two months of unrest when militants attacked a military installation in Uri, a hundred miles from Srinagar, the capital, killing 17 soldiers and wounding at least 30 more. The Uri attack was the critical moment for India’s patience with militant cross border attacks sponsored by Pakistan or any sort of move to stake claim to Kashmir, and this offensive can only sway the already brittle balance of peace even more. The state of entropy prevalent through Kashmir with the Indian Army occupation and the constant terrorist activity is even more worrying given the presence of nuclear goliaths on either side.

The new year was infused with a fresh sense of saber-rattling when Pakistan tested its nuclear capable Submarine Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM) Babur III. Its test occurred less than a month after India tested its nuclear capable surface-to-surface Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), Agni-V, sending a clear sign that no lowering of tensions was to be expected in this deterrence-laced conflict of the subcontinent and even less so for Kashmir.

Doctrine of the Sweltering Subcontinent

India’s reaction to cross border militant attacks in the past such as the 2001 Parliament attacks and the 2008 Mumbai attacks were paltry to say the least. But the Modi administration so far has set a different standard, displaying greater aggression than its predecessors and revealing a long suspected war strategy of the Indian government to the public light. India’s test of the Agni-V ICBM on December 26th was followed by newly appointed Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat confessing to the existence of the Cold Start Doctrine only four days later, which was first publicly unveiled in 2004.

Cold Start is a war doctrine by which conflict is limited when territory can be captured quickly and without risking the chance of a nuclear detonation. The Cold Start Doctrine marks a significant change in Indian military doctrine of defensive-minded strategies to one that requires the Indian Air Force and the Indian Army to drive into enemy territory in quick droves to gain the advantage. Cold Start is designed to carry out decisive and rapid operations into, and capture, Pakistani territory before the international community steps in, or more importantly, before crossing Pakistan’s nuclear threshold. The doctrine’s secrecy until now might have more to do with India’s inability to carry out the doctrine rather than military guile, and India’s deal to purchase 460 T-90SM Main Battle Tanks (MBT) from Russia late last year might remedy that inability. Tanks serve as pivotal offensive assets in Cold Start, along with mechanized infantry formations and air attacks, carrying out swift but limited armour thrusts into Pakistan within 48-72 hours of a military conflict with Pakistan. Cold Start is in response to the ‘proxy warfare’ Islamabad has thrived on, and an attempt to leverage India’s conventional prowess against it.

Poison by Proxy

In the aftermath of the Uri attack, the Indian government initiated cross-border surgical strikes and applied diplomatic pressures, including leading a boycott of the meeting of the  South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) which was to be held in Pakistan. Pakistan now lies in between the devil and the deep blue sea of their own creation. Playing safe haven for terrorist groups to gain the upper hand over hostile neighbours lowers their international standing, and increases the likely escalation to a nuclear standoff. Pakistan’s efforts to correct the conventional military balance (currently in India’s favour) and have a worthy deterrent has led them to add to their nuclear arsenal at the rate of 15 or more warheads a year, which is faster than any other country. In response to possible quick and limited attacks into Pakistan such as the Cold Start Doctrine, the forward deployment of tactical nuclear weapons for ‘battlefield use’ has been authorized by the government, bringing the reality of nuclear terrorism and escalation to a climatic and frightening juncture.

The Atomic Powder Keg  

The India-Pakistan conflict begins and ends with Kashmir, three wars have been fought over it and the constantly rising tensions gives truth to Bill Clinton’s statement that it is the “the most dangerous place in the world”. The introduction of the Cold Start Doctrine has only worsened the already dire situation because it assures a reaction towards Pakistan if a terrorist attack were to occur on Indian soil, with escalation not far behind. Cold Start binds the Indians to retaliatory measures in the face of an attack, making it nearly impossible to step back when tensions are at their highest.

With whispers of the presence of Islamic State in Kashmir adding to the existing dangers of human error when it comes to tactical nuclear weapons, de-escalation to ensure the nuclear threshold is not broken on either side is of primary importance. Pakistan’s stated policy of not ruling out the first use of nuclear weapons so as to ensure a credible deterrent makes the escalation of this conflict more likely to end in a mushroom cloud. Kashmir acts as the flint to the atomic powder keg, conflict waiting for just the right spark to set it ablaze, while the lives of more than a billion hang in the balance and the clock chimes towards a nuclear midnight.

Rohan John is a Research Assistant at Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC) in the area of South Asia Terrorism. He is a graduate of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey where he studied Non-Proliferation and Terrorism Studies. Image Credit: CC by Kashmir Conflict/Flickr




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