Does the nuclear arsenal “protect” Pakistan?

I don’t know the answer to this but it’s interesting to speculate.

(1.) How much stronger is India’s conventional army to Pakistan’s; specifically the airforce?

(2.) If Pakistan didn’t have recourse to nuclear warfare; what would it do in the case of a conventional army attack by India?

(3.) Would China/another power interfere; “could” they interfere?

(4.) In the last thirty years India-Pakistan have gone from a 20% per capita advantage in Pak’s favour to a 20% per capita advantage in India’s favour. What is the comparable geopolitical relationship between the two countries; is it Taiwan-China or Japan-China. What’s the closest analogue?

(5.) Is Pak’s High Command motivated to adopt unconventional warfare in the knowledge that any escalation would be nuclear-tipped.

(6.) Does the precedent of Pakistan (and maybe N. Korea/Israel) have nuclear weapons incentivise other nations (Iran, Saudi) to reach “nuclear status” to make sure that it is similarly immune to any sort of attack.

For once I’m not venturing opinions but asking for informed commentary.

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12 Replies to “Does the nuclear arsenal “protect” Pakistan?”

  1. “For once I’m not venturing opinions but asking for informed commentary.”

    I mean in our minds we all are collectively Indo-Pakistan expert so hopefully that should suffice 😛

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  2. 1) Evenly matched for a burst of full conventional war for 4-5 days. After that, India dominates completely.

    2) Similar tactics as employed by Israel, i.e. preemptive strikes on key Indian military locations to delay the inevitable Indian dominance from being a matter of 4-5 days to 14-15 days. In that timeframe, Pak diplomatic and PR campaign in full force calling for peace/ceasefire/painting aggressive India etc (also tagging on here will be the Anglo fathers of Pakistan state on both sides of Atlantic via BBC/NYT doing the classic == Indo Pak Hindu Muslim they’ve been doing before there even was a Pakistan) . Basically all the stuff you saw on display recently. Also with the fact that both are nuclear, they get to do nuclear rattling/nuclear winter alarmism as part of the PR machinery (this latter bluff got called recently).

    3) Logistically very difficult to interfere significantly for China without openly declaring war on India. Limited to truck shipments over Karakoram highway or trying to break Indian naval blockade at Gwadar/Karachi. Airplanes taking off in Tibet are limited in amount of weight they can carry due to high altitude. India might give back room assurances that CPEC will not be affected and can be converted into CPBEC or India herself participates in BRI.

    4) Maybe China-Philippines? Haven’t given this one much thought, not sure of importance of this question to understanding the Indo Pak balance. I’ll tell you what. There is a high possibility that India can simultaneously conduct its 1-month long election process in April AND a full fledged war (or the current type of slapping matches or something in between) if the need comes to it. That is how insignificant Pakistan is to India, in that, it doesn’t require the political leadership to even be there… Modi has handed off the military execution including escalation ladder management entirely to the military brass, and latter is only answering now to the president of India, not to the civilian executive, which is essentially lame duck after the last Lok Sabha session until election results are announced and new govt swears in in June.

    5) Highly doubtful. Pak high command enjoys the fact that their “military has a country”. Even if Pakistan is territorially reduced to just Pakjab+KP+AK, say Balochistan and Sindhudesh become new sovereign nations, nukes will not come into play. Especially with US withdrawal and strategic depth of Pak state increasing further northwest across Durand line, they will not see the strategic retreat from the southern colonies (Balochistan and Sindh) as a devastating loss to the state of Pakistan and its core nature (ghazwa e hind) just like the loss of the eastern colony in Bangladesh didn’t deter it.

    6) I think this nukulaar thing is overplayed. Rich powerful people around the world do not stand for any ideology or nationality or religion, please forget that they give 2 shits about any of these things lol. Over the last week while Pak self imposed a no fly zone over their country (and still continues to have one over most of its airspace contingous to India), one saw on flight radar a lone private jet once or twice heading out of Islamagood towards Dubai or Jeddah, meaning families cousins of fauji elites were getting out. Expect more of that and less of the nukes in any eventual war lol.

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  3. Nuclear weapons definitely make a full-scale war between India and Pakistan less likely. The last real war was in 1971. They also make India much less likely to cross the border. In 1965 (a war which Pakistan started), the Indian army crossed the Punjab border and reached the outskirts of Lahore. They wouldn’t do that today.
    On the other hand, the fact that both countries have nukes makes the prospect of war between them much scarier than it would be otherwise.

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  4. (1.) How much stronger is India’s conventional army to Pakistan’s; specifically the airforce?

    Absolute #’s are misleading because India’s army has to face off against China as well. On the Indo-Pak boundary the armies are well matched. Both armies go back to the British Indian Army so there is common culture, tactics, structures, and (lack of) efficiency and initiative. The troops themselves have seen action on a # of fronts – Kashmir for India and FATA and Balochistan for Pakistan. The difference has always been in the quality of brigade and Corp level leadership, as also in the top level leadership of the Army staff. I would say broadly a draw, as evidenced by the multiple wars that led to no major outcomes, except for 1971 which is whole separate discussion.

    (2.) If Pakistan didn’t have recourse to nuclear warfare; what would it do in the case of a conventional army attack by India?

    Traditionally an invading force needs either a 2X-3X numerical superiority or a significant edge in technology and tactics to effect a decisive outcome. This is not the case with either India or Pakistan. One factor that comes into play is the availability of spares and munitions which are quickly depleted by both sides in war. India may have a more developed defense production sector, but both armies are very vulnerable to supplies from abroad. Here, China’s role becomes critical. Will it pour in supplies to keep the Pakistani Army supplied or will it play a more hands-off role? Some supplies can be provided over the Karakorum highway, but that is also vulnerable to Indian air force attacks. Pakistan is also vulnerable to naval blockade/intervention. So the longer a conflict lasts, the more vulnerable is Pakistan. Hence its emphasis on nuclear weapons.

    (3.) Would China/another power interfere; “could” they interfere?

    Very complicated question. Not easy to answer. China’s interference becomes more certain as its investment in CPEC grows.

    (4.) In the last thirty years India-Pakistan have gone from a 20% per capita advantage in Pak’s favour to a 20% per capita advantage in India’s favour. What is the comparable geopolitical relationship between the two countries; is it Taiwan-China or Japan-China. What’s the closest analogue?

    These analogues are not really applicable and worth applying. Too many differences and special circumstances.

    (5.) Is Pak’s High Command motivated to adopt unconventional warfare in the knowledge that any escalation would be nuclear-tipped.

    That is the big question. Is the Pakistani high command willing to risk the very existence of Pakistan as a nation state? Perhaps more importantly, are they willing to cede their complete domination to an alternate civilian administration in Pakistan in case they “lose” another conflict with India?

    (6.) Does the precedent of Pakistan (and maybe N. Korea/Israel) have nuclear weapons incentivise other nations (Iran, Saudi) to reach “nuclear status” to make sure that it is similarly immune to any sort of attack.

    Again, a very big topic.

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    1. A big game changer in recent years is how China is switching from an alliance with Pakistan to attempting a partnership with India. China is similarly trying to support the Afghan government and Afghan National Army. China feels deeply threatened by global Jihadi Islamism.

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  5. Xerxes, your scenario nearly materialized. During the 1981 Israeli strike on Iraq . . . Israel reached out to India about a simultaneous strike on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. Indira declined.

    If Indira had gone along with Israel . . . . Israel would have set back the Pakistani nuclear program.

    The world would then have proceeded very differently. When the US turned against Pakistan in 1989; and when Pakistan send the mujahadeen (that were fighting in Afghanistan) to fight in Kashmir; India would likely have responded far more strongly. Perhaps leading to a conventional war that pressured Pakistan to abandon Islamism.

    In 1998, Iran would likely have conventionally invaded Afghanistan to put the Northern alliance in power (assisted by Russia, India and Turkey). Iran chose not to because of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal.

    In the aftermath of the 1998 attacks on Tanzania and Kenya . . . the US (probably in collaboration with India) would likely have retaliated directly against Pakistan. The post 9/11 response would have directly targeted Pakistan. We could easily have seen a scenario where Americans and Indians jointly administered certain parts of Pakistan.

    After AQ/Daesh linked terrorist attacks against China; China might have responded more harshly with Pakistan.

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    1. Your wishful thinking about destroying Pakistan is really getting out of hand. We’re here to stay and neither India, Israel nor any other country can do anything about it.

      That’s what the nuclear weapons are for. To protect Pakistan against any ridiculous fantasies that anyone has.

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      1. Kabir, there has always been a fringe element in India which has dreamt of “Akhand Bharat” and/or complete destruction of Pakistan, or bringing Muslims of the subcontinent back into the Dharmic fold.

        However, the vast majority of Indians harbor no such notions. Justifying Pakistani nuclear weapons because of this fringe element is a sad commentary, and brings home to me how completely the Pakistani military establishment has dictated the narrative in Pakistan.

        India has been a predominantly a status quo power. You can question India’s bona fides in Kashmir, but even in the case of Kashmir, no mainstream Indian is desirous of uniting PoK and Gilgit-Baltistan into a state that is part of the Indian Union. Too much water has flown down the Indus tributaries for this to be remotely possible.

        What India seems to have finally tired of, is putting up with is (A) Pakistan’s overt and covert support of insurgency in Kashmir and (B) terrorist acts in India. Nuclear weapons or not, India will respond.

        If Pakistan were to reign in and dismantle its proxy militias, there is a definite prospect of some sort of a political solution to Kashmir. After all, Kashmir is draining the resources of both India and Pakistan. Mainstream India also acknowledges that it needs to turn the page in Kashmir.

        However, it will not happen because of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

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        1. When people talk about reunification, they believe muslims will stay muslims. There is no concept of conversion in Dharmic discourse. There is also no concept of exclusivity, or the idea that someone cannot be part of many religions simultaneously.

          Dattatreya–Guru of Gurus–had 24 Gurus. Implicitly it is okay for Hindus to have 24 religions.

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        2. AshokChakra,
          I know that most mainstream Indians are not pining for “Akhand Bharat”. I was expressing my frustration at this specific commenter’s repeated fantasies of Pakistan’s destruction. The idea of Americans and Indians jointly administrating parts of Pakistan is understandably extremely offensive to Pakistanis. As is the notion that India of all countries can play any role in ending the so-called “Pakistani civil war” (whatever that means).

          As long as India has nuclear weapons, Pakistan must have them too. They are an essential deterrent against a full-scale war. India can try more strikes into Pakistan but as this last week has shown, we are fully prepared to respond.

          I completely agree that Pakistan should stop the use of proxy forces in Kashmir. This is detrimental to our own country and it doesn’t help the Kashmiri cause. The only solution to the Kashmir conflict is negotiation between India, Pakistan and the Kashmiri people.

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  6. The nuclear arsenal is a double edged sword. On the one hand, it prevents India from decapitating the Pakistan army. There is a ton of scholarly work on how the Pakistani army has hurt Pakistan.

    On the other hand, it does allow Pakistan to annoy India and thereby present use to China. If I was the Pakistani leadership, I would get a bunch of money from China in the name of containing Pakistan, build infrastructure, then make peace with India and find a way to avoid paying back China.

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  7. Zach,

    Two points that I did not note which are relevant in any upcoming conflict between India and Pakistan. A very consequential factor is going to be China’s role.

    I doubt that China throws its troops into the fight. I am referring to intelligence shared by China with Pakistan in terms of (A) reconnaissance using drones/satellites, Indian troop movements, and movement of Indian naval assets, as well as (B) insights gleaned from Indian computer and C&C systems that may have have been penetrated by Chinese hackers.

    In the current global environment, the US may be able to even the balance, but not sure it will put skin in the game.

    This means that one can forget about scenarios such as in 1971 with the Indian navy deploying a fleet within striking range of Karachi and surprising the Pakistani military. Chinese eyes in the sky will be monitoring every Indian naval asset.

    Second factor is the orientation and role of the Kashmiri populace during an outright conflict. During the 1965 war, Kashmiris were the ones who brought the Pakistani infiltrators to the notice of the Indian military. During 1971, the war was about Bangladesh and Kashmiris did not take any overt role. Kargil war happened in a region where the locals have not been involved in the insurgency against India. This time could be different. Fighting a full fledged frontal war while also having to protect your local supply lines from sabotage by locals is a very tricky situation to be in. Expect considerable uptick in attacks on Indian military, roads, communication links, bridges, etc., in Kashmir. Also expect retaliatory “actions” on the part of Indian military.

    This makes a full fledged India-Pakistan war a very messy affair, even if by and large both sides decide that they will NOT target population centers.

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