Pakistan’s former foreign minister Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri said during an interview on India Today TV a few days ago that “all hell would have broken loose” if India had bombed Muridke after the 26/11 terror strikes in Mumbai.
A week ago, responding to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s four-point peace initiative, the external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj told the United Nations General Assembly that only a single-point peace plan was needed and that was for Pakistan to stop sponsoring terrorism into India.
India has shown immense strategic restraint in the face of grave provocation from Pakistan. However, in the future, a major trans-border terrorist strike sponsored by Pakistan will almost certainly trigger Indian military retaliation. While it will be carefully calibrated, it could spin out of control. The fictional scenario described below could be actually played out, though the probability of its occurrence is low.
The Trigger: Dussehra-Diwali holidays, 2015. Tensions between India and Pakistan have escalated. At 1900 hours a day before Diwali (Day 1), serial bomb blasts on multiple targets in crowded markets in New Delhi result in approximately 300 casualties, including 12 foreign tourists.
A captured terrorist is found to be a former Major of the Pakistan army. Cutting across party lines, political leaders demand immediate military retaliation against Pakistan. TV anchors join in; passions are inflamed, the voices are shrill.
The Response: Day 2. The Indian Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) calls his Pakistani counterpart on the hotline and asks him to hand over the perpetrators of the terrorist strikes within 48 hours or face military action. The Pakistan DGMO expresses sympathy, but denies that the Pakistan army or the ISI played any role in the attacks. Strategic partners share evidence with India.
Day 3. Based on multi-source intelligence inputs, the Indian government determines that the attack was launched by the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT); and, there is incontrovertible evidence of ISI involvement in the planning and conduct of the strikes. The Indian Foreign Secretary speaks with his Pakistani counterpart, but Pakistan remains in denial mode.
Chaired by the Prime Minister, the cabinet committee on security (CCS) meets at 1800 hours and approves military retaliation according to pre-planned contingencies to inflict punishment on the Pakistan army.
Day 4. At 0600 hours, Indian Air Force fighter aircraft launch air-to-ground strikes against military targets in POK; artillery strikes are directed against Pakistan army’s forward posts; border action teams initiate offensive action; and, two Special Forces (SF) raids are launched on objectives in depth; collateral damage is carefully avoided.
The Indian armed forces and the nuclear forces are ordered to mobilise for war; Pakistan follows suit.
Days 5-6. The Pakistani response is similar to Indian military action, though on a smaller scale. PAF aircraft do not cross the LoC. Pakistan expels the Indian High Commissioner and asks the High Commission to close down as its security can no longer be assured. India expels the Pakistan High Commissioner.
Conventional Conflict: Days 7-8. India continues its military strikes on the LoC and on military targets in POK, causing substantive damage. F-16 aircraft of the PAF cross the international boundary in the plains and strike three Indian airfields in the Jammu and Punjab sectors. Six IAF aircraft are destroyed. The Indian CCS approves trans-border offensive operations.
Day 9. IAF launches counter-air operations across the full length of the international boundary. At dusk, the Indian army launches several multi-pronged offensive operations into Pakistan in the Sialkot, Lahore (north and south), Cholistan and Thar Desert sectors. The Indian Strike Corps begin reaching their concentration and assembly areas. The Indian Navy enforces a Maritime Exclusion Zone off the Makran Coast of Pakistan; war at sea ensues.
The UN Security Council calls for the immediate cessation of hostilities by both sides.
Days 10-11. The PAF retaliates, but with decreasing vigour. The IAF causes substantial damage to Pakistan’s corps and army reserves; Indian surface-to-surface missile (SSMs), multi-barrel rocket launchers (MBRLs) and medium-range artillery take a heavy toll of Pakistan army troops in contact and tactical reserves. India’s IBGs (integrated battle groups) make good progress, especially in the area south-east of Kasur (Lahore sector) and in the Cholistan Desert.
Pakistan launches a limited offensive with a division plus an armoured brigade from Chhamb towards Akhnur in the Jammu Sector. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister flies to China.
Nuclear Strikes: Day 12. At noon, Pakistan’s army Chief warns India through a radio and TV broadcast to pull back immediately or face the wrath of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Several of India’s IBGs have succeeded in capturing territory to a depth ranging from 8-10 km in Punjab to 20 km in desert terrain and have caused sizable material damage.
Day 13. Pakistan orders the civilian population in Cholistan Desert to be evacuated. The PAF launches a large-scale strike against Indian Strike Corps South that is in the process of moving forward on easy-to-spot, relatively unprotected railway lines; substantial damage is caused.
Day 14. Ignoring the advice of his Prime Minister, Pakistan’s army Chief approves nuclear strikes. At 1800 hours, the Army Strategic Forces Command launches two nuclear strikes on the Indian division advancing in the Cholistan Desert, one on each forward brigade. As the Indian columns are advancing in buttoned-down mode and have NBC protection, casualties are limited: 60 soldiers killed or wounded, 32 tanks and infantry combat vehicles destroyed or damaged.
The Indian offensive in the Cholistan Desert comes to a temporary halt. The GOC-in-C, Southern Command orders Strike Corps South to be prepared to launch offensive operations according to planned contingencies.
At 1830 hours, the US President calls the Indian Prime Minister and appeals to him to desist from retaliating with nuclear strikes; he also offers to mediate and says the US Secretary of Defence is already on his way to Islamabad. Several other world leaders also call the PM. At 2200 hours, the UNSC asks India to show restraint and calls on both the countries once again to cease all hostilities forthwith.
As the Indian PM walks in at 1900 hours to chair a meeting of the political council of the Nuclear Command Authority, the mood in the National Command Post is grim. The army chief gives his assessment of the situation and his recommendations; the naval and air chiefs follow. The National Security Adviser begins by saying that the time for restraint is over. He recommends multiple nuclear strikes in retaliation. After a brief discussion, the political council approves the recommendations made by the NSA.
Day 15. At 0700 hours, India launches four nuclear strikes of appropriate yield on the reserve forces of the Pakistan army. Two strikes are launched on 4 Corps reserves south-east of Kasur in the Lahore sector and two on 2 Corps (Army Reserve South) near Bahawalpur. Pakistani casualties: 660 civilians killed or wounded, 345 troops killed or wounded, 56 tanks, infantry combat vehicles and missile launchers destroyed or damaged.
De-escalation: At 1000 hours, the Indian PM makes a radio and TV broadcast to the people of Pakistan and its leadership and warns of nuclear annihilation if even one more nuclear warhead is exploded on Indian troops or on any target in India. He also offers a cease-fire, to come into effect at 1800 hours the same day. Pakistan promptly rejects the cease-fire offer unless India agrees to vacate all Pakistani territory within 48 hours of the cease-fire.
At 1430 hours, with the PM’s approval, India’s COAS authorises offensive operations by two Strike Corps. At 1830 hours, the spearheads of the Strike Corps begin rolling across the international boundary.
At 2000 hours, the US President speaks with the Pakistani PM who is at GHQ, Rawalpindi. Pakistan’s army chief, the chief of the general staff, the DGMO and the director general, Strategic Plans Division are listening in. At 2100 hours, Pakistan accepts India’s cease-fire offer effective 2200 hours.
Epilogue: For 70 years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, some basic human survival instinct has held the hand that could have pulled the nuclear trigger. India and Pakistan must ensure that this record is not broken in South Asia.
State-sponsored terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil must end immediately if the scenario described above is to remain fictional. India and Pakistan must go beyond the cosmetic nuclear confidence building measures (CBMs) now in place and institute genuine nuclear risk reduction measures (NRRMs). De-escalation during conflict will be possible only if strategic communications are in place and there are trustworthy back channel interlocutors. Finally, third party mediation has its limitations, but can often be useful during conflict.
Gurmeet Kanwal is former director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.
The views expressed are personal.