Ever since India and Pakistan tested their first nuclear bomb, the global community has been worried about a full-scale nuclear conflict between these two South Asian nations.

Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has effectively sold the narrative of nuclear conflict time and again to blackmail international community, and to deter India’s conventional military capability to take action against terrorist organizations and camps operating inside Pakistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).

Whenever tension escalates between the two countries after a terrorist attack by Pakistan-backed terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) or their like on Indian soil, Pakistani politicians and retired army officials openly talk about the use of tactical nuclear weapons to deter India’s cold-start doctrine or any military offensive, be it a surgical strike or a limited offensive(Kargil 1999) against terrorist groups operating inside Pakistan or PoK.

Cold-start doctrine is a military offensive used by the Indian Army in case of a large-scale terrorist attack on Indian soil, carried out by Pakistan-backed terrorist groups.

First Crisis

The idea of a‘nuclear deterrence’ strategy against a perceived threat from the Indian military was first employed in the mid-1980s. Its first and successful use by Pakistan happened during the 1986-87 Brasstacks crisis.

During this crisis, when the Indian Armed Forces began a military exercise along the Indo-Pakistani border, the Pakistani military perceived it as an imminent threat and nothing short of India’s preparation for surgical strikes in the heartland of Pakistan. Itingraineda fear of war or a threat to Pakistan’s sovereignty in the mind of the Pakistani General.

In reaction to India’s exercise near the border, to counter India’s conventional superiority and to deter any possibility of a war, Pakistan’s nuclear scientist Dr. A.Q. Khan in an interview to an Indian journalist, Kuldip Nayar, claimed:

What the CIA has been saying about our possessing the bomb is correct and so is the speculation of some foreign newspapers. They told us that Pakistan could never produce the bomb and they doubted my capabilities, but they now know we have done it. Nobody can undo Pakistan or take us for granted. We are there to stay and let it be clear that we shall use the bomb if our existence is threatened.”

The prime objective of A.Q. Khan’s interview was to warn New Delhi.In Pakistan’s view, their strategy worked, and deterred India’s offensive against Islamabad. The same A.Q. Khan has recently claimed that “Pakistan has the ability to target New Delhi from Kahuta near Rawalpindi in five minutes”. If you disagree with Dr. A.Q. Khan’s comparison of Pakistan’s relative progress on its nuclear program over the last decade, then, it would be very hard for you to believe what Dr. A.Q. Khan said during the 1986-87 Brasstacks crisis.

Though the Brasstacks exercise by India was merely to check her own operation preparedness in case of a war, Islamabad continues to believe that New Delhi was actually preparing for a war.

Second Crisis

Second such instance of a ‘nuclear deterrence’ posture was campaigned in 1990, when Pakistan was busy fueling unrest in Jammu & Kashmir through its proxies. During this crisis, New Delhi decided to launch surgical strikes inside PoK to eliminate terrorist camps and launch pads. The fear of Indian Armed Forces’ tanks rolling on the streets of Lahore gripped the minds of the Pakistani Army, forcing them to retaliate.

In a hurry, Pakistan assembled a crude nuclear bomb and modified few F-16s as a delivery platform. Though the situation was controlled through diplomatic means, Pakistan continues to believe that her nuclear posture has threatened New Delhi.

One should note that until Pakistan tested its nuke, it did not reveal anything about the use of nuclear weapons or its nuclear doctrine. The only thing that would emerge during any crisis was the clichéd ‘Pakistan would use ‘nuclear deterrence’ to counter New Delhi’s conventional nuclear capabilities’.

If Pakistan really had a ‘working bomb’ during 1986-87, Dr. A.Q. Khan wouldn’t have been giving an interview to a New Delhi journalist.Instead, Islamabad would have been getting ready with the crude bombs and modifying their F-16 fleet.

After the nuclear tests in May 1998, Pakistan started working on a nuclear doctrine and a command and control center. Many in West argued that India has forced Pakistan to build a nuclear weapon after India liberated East Pakistan, present-day Bangladesh .

This false narrative was again sold by the Pakistani military to the western think tanks and European states. Since 1947, the Pakistani Army has been trying to be at par with the Indian Armed Forces but the gap has only widened after the 1965 Indo-Pak war.

After the successful nuclear test of May 1998, Pakistan shifted from its ‘minimum nuclear deterrence’ policy to the principle of ‘massive retaliation’. Statements of Pakistani diplomats, politicians and military have confirmed this new policy of Islamabad.

This shift in Islamabad’s policy after the nuclear test confirms our doubts about Pakistan’s capability of launching a nuclear attack on Indian soil prior to it. The mere threat of launching a nuclear strike was an attempt to invite international community to intervene and deter the possibility of a war.

Third Crisis

Third such incidence of ‘nuclear blackmailing’ or selling the ‘nuclear Pakistan’ brand by Islamabad was during the Kargil War (May 1999 – July 1999). However this time around, it wasn’t India who threatened the sovereignty of Pakistan.

After successful testing of the nuclear explosive device, the idea of settling scores with India started brewing in the General Headquarters at Rawalpindi.

The then Chief of Army Staff of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, started working on a tactical operation, code-named ‘Operation Badr’ to take on Kargil heights and cut the supply line between Kashmir and Ladakh, and compel Indian forces to withdraw from the Siachen Glacier and negotiate a settlement of the broader Kashmir dispute.

Undoubtedly, the Pakistani Army was emboldened after the nuclear test in 1998. Soon after, there was a change of the COAS in Pakistan in October 1998. Gen. Pervez Musharraf started working on the very same plan which was earlier disregarded by leaders like Zia-ul-Haq and Benazir Bhutto.

Gen. Pervez Musharraf also believed that India will not cross the border this time like they did during the 1965 war because of the ‘nuclear threshold’.

However when the actual war broke out between India and Pakistan in May 1999, New Delhi launched a massive counter offensive (Operation Vijay), to cordon the Kargil region.

During the war, when the situation started slipping out of hands for Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistani foreign secretary, Shamshad Ahmad, made a warning statement on May 31 that an escalation of the Kargil conflict will push Pakistan to use ‘any weapon’ in its arsenal.

One more time, Pakistan used the‘nuclear deterrence’ against India to limit the war and New Delhi’s capacity to punish Islamabad.

From the past experiences, Islamabad has learnt that the mere threat of using ‘nuclear weapons’ has always invited international concerns.Using it at the right time would help restrict the war or the Indian Armed Forces from crossing the Line of Control (LoC)to punish Pakistani military for its action in the Kargil sector.

However, it was not the nuclear threat which restricted the Indian Army from crossing the LoC and punishing Islamabad for its action, but the assurance given by the then Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to withdraw Pakistani troops.

Many Army officials, researchers and retired Pakistani Generals still argue that it was the ‘nuclear weapon’ which restricted the Indian offensive against Pakistan.

If that had been the case, India’s former Prime Minister, Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee wouldn’t have ordered a mobilization of India’s military force to the tune of 500,000 soldiers along the international boundary bordering Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Kashmir after the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001.

Fourth Crisis

According to the international community, the 2001 attack by Pakistan-backed terrorist groups was the fourth nuclear flash point between the two nuclear-armed nations. The world was worried because of heavy troop mobilization by both sides across the International Border (IB).

Pakistan, who has so far enjoyed impunity under its ‘nuclear umbrella’, had to be punished now.This was the message Prime Minister Vajpayee wanted to convey through troop mobilization.

One more time Islamabad didn’t hesitate to raise the issue of ‘nuclear first strike’ in case of a war or any offensive by the Indian military.

During the crisis of 2001-02 Indo-Pakistani military standoffs, Gen. Pervez Musharraf addressed his nation and issued a blunt message to New Delhi:

We do not want war. But if war is thrust upon us, we would respond with full might, and give a befitting reply.”

When the world didn’t take note, he reiterated himself:

Any incursion by Indian forces across the Line of Control even by an inch will unleash a storm that will sweep the enemy.

No doubt, Islamabad has time and again sold the narrative of ‘massive retaliation’ to counter New Delhi in the best possible way. But, on a rational note, Islamabad’s formulation of the ‘massive retaliation principle’ is quite vague.

The continuous use of nuclear saber-rattling by Islamabad has only proved the point that it has already surrendered to a far superior Indian Armed Forces. Pakistan wants to defend its territory by using tactical nuclear weapons, even when they know that it would be a suicidal step.

Will Pakistan ever use its tactical nuclear weapons or keep saber-rattling?What are the options available with India in case of a terrorist strike? These important topics will be covered in the next article.