Deterrence and asymmetric warfare


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THE November 2008 terrorist assault on Mumbai drew a tremendous amount of international attention. For days, a global audience was riveted to cable television and the internet, following every development as Indian security forces sought to rout the attackers from their strongholds. And for weeks thereafter, experts analyzed the implications of the attacks for Indo-Pakistani relations, Indian domestic politics, and South Asian regional stability.

Such a high degree of interest is hardly surprising. The Mumbai attacks were an extremely serious event. Not only did they kill and injure a large number of people, but by striking international targets in India’s financial capital, they also sought to undermine its recent economic growth, which has helped the country to begin shedding its previous ‘third world’ mantle and move toward major-power status. In addition, the attacks threatened to set off a major Indo-Pakistani confrontation, which could have resulted in a regional conflagration.

Mumbai laid bare serious shortcomings in Indian intelligence, defence and policing capabilities. Although the Indian government had received recent, credible warnings of a seaborne terrorist operation, the Mumbai attackers slipped through India’s coastal defences and caught the Indians completely unawares. And once the assault began, Indian security personnel took nearly three days to rout just a handful of militants. The Indian government must address such critical deficiencies if it is to have any hope of ensuring the safety of its citizens in their own cities.

Important though such remedies are, they will not be sufficient to prevent events such as the Mumbai attacks from occurring in the future. Mumbai was a symptom of a larger, strategic problem plaguing Indian security policy: How to discourage terrorists and their backers from even trying to attack India. This is the critical strategic issue that Mumbai brings to the fore. If India is unable to address it, the country will remain unsafe regardless of intelligence, policing, and defence improvements. Launching Mumbai-style attacks is relatively easy and inexpensive. If terrorists and their backers continue trying to strike India in this manner, eventually they will succeed, even if India’s defences improve significantly.

At first blush, deterrence would appear to offer the solution to this problem. A robust deterrent policy would make launching attacks against India prohibitively costly. As a result, terrorists and their sponsors would stop attempting to do so. Deterrence formed the bedrock of United States grand strategy during the Cold War. Could it offer a solution to one of the central problems facing contemporary Indian security policy?

Below, I explain the concept of deterrence and briefly outline how deterrence operated at the conventional and nuclear levels during the Cold War. Next, I discuss the asymmetric warfare strategy that Pakistan has employed against India. I argue that although in theory India could deter continued Pakistani pursuit of such a strategy, the elusive, suicidal nature of the terrorists, and Pakistan’s nuclear status, make doing so extremely difficult in practice – even more difficult than it was for the United States to achieve deterrence against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Next, I explain that India’s best hope of devising a viable deterrent strategy is probably to threaten Pakistan with limited conventional military action if Islamabad continues to support anti-Indian militancy. By doing so, the Indians may be able to make continued support for militancy prohibitively costly for the Pakistani government, without triggering a regional nuclear confrontation. Indian strategists are in fact currently working on just such a ‘limited war’ approach to the problem of Pakistan supported militancy.


In the article’s final section, however, I argue that as time passes, even a limited war strategy will be increasingly unlikely to succeed. This is the case because the Pakistani state is rapidly losing control over the militants, who have begun to take on a life of their own. Thus, even if Indian policy could convince the Pakistani government to end anti-Indian militancy, it is not clear that the Pakistanis could actually do so.

Therefore, despite its initial appeal, a deterrent-centric approach probably does not hold the answer to preventing more Mumbais; it may now be too late for deterrence to succeed against this threat. Moving forward, the best way to think about asymmetric warfare in South Asia may not be as a deterrence problem, but rather as a cooperation problem. India and Pakistan must recognize their common interests on this issue and work together to pursue them. Islamist militants now endanger not just India, but also Pakistan; they launch attacks on Pakistani as well as Indian targets, they challenge Islamabad for control of Pakistani territory, and they threaten to trigger an Indo-Pakistani conflict that could devastate both countries. India and Pakistan thus have a joint interest in defeating the jihadis. The fundamental security problem facing South Asia then will be, not how to deter Pakistan from continued support for militancy, but rather how India and Pakistan can work together to defeat what has become a common enemy.


The concept of deterrence is deceptively simple. Deterrence is the use of conditional threats to convince an adversary not to take particular proscribed action. It seeks to preserve the status quo. It differs in this respect from compellence, which uses conditional threats to convince an adversary to take particular desired action, thereby altering the status quo. Both deterrence and compellence are subsets of coercion. Coercion uses conditional threats to convince an adversary to behave in a desired fashion, either continuing its current behaviour (deterrence), or altering its behaviour in some way (compellence).

Two types of deterrence exist: deterrence by denial and deterrence by punishment. Deterrence by denial prevents the enemy from achieving the benefit that he seeks, or makes doing so excessively costly and difficult. In essence, deterrence by denial threatens the enemy with a very good defence, and convinces him that successful attainment of his objective at a reasonable cost is extremely unlikely.

Deterrence by punishment, in contrast, does not seek to prevent the enemy from achieving his goals. Rather, it threatens to harm something that the enemy values in the event that he engages in particular proscribed behaviour, thereby making that behaviour prohibitively costly.


Deterrence succeeds when the adversary’s expected cost from engaging in the proscribed activity (cost of deterrent threat ´ the likelihood of suffering that cost) exceeds the activity’s expected benefit (benefit of proscribed activity ´ the likelihood of realizing that benefit). Simply put, deterrence will succeed if the adversary believes that engaging in the proscribed activity ‘is not worth it.’ But if the adversary does not believe that expected costs will exceed expected benefits, then deterrence will fail, and the adversary will engage in the proscribed activity in the hope of achieving a net gain.

Several points are worth emphasizing here. First, credibility is important to deterrence. If a deterrer’s threats are not believable, the expected cost of the deterrer’s threat will probably be low, and deterrence is likely to fail. Second, despite credibility’s importance, a relatively incredible threat can also result in successful deterrence, provided the cost associated with that threat is extremely high. Third, in order to maximize the odds of success, a deterrer would need to be able to make threats that are both costly and believable. As I explain below, this was a challenging task even during the Cold War when the superpowers had a reasonably good idea of the things that each other valued and could be confident of their ability to visit enormous harm on them. But this task is even more difficult for India, which must accomplish it against elusive, suicidal terrorists and their nuclear-armed backers.


During the Cold War, deterrence was the primary mission of United States conventional and nuclear forces. Specifically, the US sought to deter the Soviet Union from attacking the American homeland or United States allies, particularly those in Western Europe. Deterring an attack on the United States was relatively easy. It would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, for Soviet forces to launch a successful conventional invasion of the US homeland. This made for robust deterrence by denial. And, in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack on the United States, the US would almost certainly have responded with a devastating nuclear strike of its own on the Soviet homeland. This threatened punishment made the expected costs of a Soviet nuclear strike astronomically high and exceedingly unlikely.

Extending deterrence to Western Europe was more problematic. At the conventional level, US and NATO forces were generally understood to be inferior to those of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. Thus they probably would have been unable to repulse a large-scale Soviet/Pact attack. The US and NATO thus hoped to achieve deterrence by denial by maintaining sufficient forces in Western Europe to ensure that a quick Soviet victory was unlikely; the Soviets might have been able to prevail over NATO in a European war, but only after a long and costly battle. Leading analysts argued that NATO’s ability to drag out a European conflict was probably sufficient to deter the Soviets from launching a conventional attack.

At the nuclear level, the United States relied primarily on punishment, threatening to strike the Soviet homeland with nuclear weapons in the event of an East Bloc conventional invasion of Western Europe. The problem with this deterrent threat was that it was inherently not credible. If the United States launched a nuclear first strike on the Soviet Union, it would have invited a reciprocal attack against the American homeland. It was difficult to believe that the United States would accept such enormous costs to its home territory in order to protect Western Europe from conventional invasion. This lack of credibility threatened to undermine American attempts to extend deterrence to Western Europe.


The United States sought to deal with this credibility problem through policies such as stationing tactical nuclear weapons in Western Europe, thereby making nuclear escalation more likely in the event of a conventional European war; devising limited nuclear options, which would have enabled the United States to launch nuclear strikes against the Soviet Union without devastating the Soviet homeland; and deploying counterforce nuclear weapons, which would have struck Soviet strategic forces while avoiding civilian targets.

It is important to note that despite doubts about the viability of extended deterrence during the Cold War, the US could at least be confident of its ability to inflict significant costs on the Soviets in the event of an East Bloc attack. At the level of denial, the United States could ensure that any Soviet attempt to capture Western Europe became a bloody, protracted conventional military battle. And at the level of punishment, the US could visit nuclear devastation on the Soviet homeland. While the threat to do so may not have been sufficient to deter Soviet aggression, the United States’ ability to inflict costs in this manner was not in serious question.


When dealing with Islamist militants, India lacks a number of the advantages that the US enjoyed during the Cold War. A successful terrorist attack requires only a handful of operatives to slip through India’s security cordon. It is easy and cheap for terror organizations to continually deploy small numbers of personnel until they eventually succeed in doing so. Even repeated failure at the hands of Indian security services is unlikely to be prohibitively costly for terror groups. Thus, deterrence by denial is difficult for the Indians to achieve.

Deterrence by punishment is problematic as well. India does not generally know in advance the terrorists’ identity and location, and thus cannot easily target them. In addition, since the terrorists are stateless actors and are willing to die for their cause, it is difficult to inflict high costs on them in retaliation for their attacks. What homeland can India threaten to devastate? And what harm worse than death can India threaten to visit on the terrorists themselves? If India cannot do either of these things, achieving deterrence by punishment is extremely difficult.

One potentially viable option would be for India to threaten to punish third-party supporters of the terrorists, rather than the terrorists themselves. Specifically, the Indians could warn the Pakistani government that if it allows any further attacks on India to be launched from its soil, India will retaliate directly against Pakistan. In theory, this would solve the problems of identity and location discussed above; India can be confident that the Pakistani government highly values its territory, and the Indians know precisely where that territory is located.

Such a policy would, however, raise a different problem, similar to that faced by the United States during the Cold War – it would lack credibility. In order to be sufficiently costly to deter the Pakistanis from supporting terrorism against India, the Indians would have to launch large-scale attacks against Pakistan proper. Attacks on terrorist training camps in PoK, or pinprick strikes across the international border, are unlikely to be sufficient; even if India succeeds in hitting these targets, they are not sufficiently valuable to impose serious costs on Pakistan.

Large-scale attacks on Pakistan proper, by contrast, could be extremely costly to the Pakistanis. Indeed, given Pakistan’s lack of strategic depth, a major Indian armoured thrust could potentially vivisect the country, and thus threaten the survival of the Pakistani state. Such a danger, however, could trigger a Pakistani nuclear response. At the very least it could result in full-scale Pakistani conventional retaliation. This could set off a major regional war, which could subsequently escalate to the nuclear level.


Indian attempts to punish Pakistan for supporting regional terrorism would thus be extremely dangerous – probably prohibitively so. Would the Indians really be willing to risk nuclear war in order to prevent the occurrence of a future terror attack? Terrorist bombings, hijackings, and armed assaults are costly. But their cost is nowhere near that of a regional conventional or nuclear conflagration. It is unlikely that a government would pay such a price to avoid far smaller costs. Indeed, the Indians have thus far shown little willingness to do so, even in the face of major provocations. Thus Indian threats to target Pakistan for large-scale punishment in the event of future terror attacks emanating from Pakistani territory would probably lack credibility. Deterrence by punishment would therefore be difficult for the Indians to achieve, even if it were directed at a third-party, nation state actor like Pakistan, rather than at stateless, suicidal terrorists.

India, then, faces an extremely difficult deterrence problem. The Indians must threaten to take action that is sufficiently severe to make continued pursuit of an asymmetric warfare strategy prohibitively costly for Pakistan. Simultaneously, however, the threatened action must not be so severe that it would be likely to trigger a Pakistani nuclear response, and thus lack credibility. Can India strike that balance?


The Indians are actively working to find a solution to this problem. In the wake of the December 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament, and the ensuing ten-month Indo-Pakistani military stand-off, Indian strategists began to argue that space exists below the nuclear threshold for India and Pakistan to fight a limited conventional conflict. According to this logic, not all Indo-Pakistani conventional violence will necessarily spiral to the nuclear level; both sides will have strong incentives to control escalation even during an outright shooting war. Thus India and Pakistan can fight without facing nuclear catastrophe. The precise scale of such a potential war is not clear. But, according to this logic, a conventional conflict should in principle be possible. If true, this means that India could in fact leverage its conventional superiority to inflict real costs on the Pakistanis in retaliation for continued anti-Indian terrorism.

Recent Indian doctrinal innovation has attempted to operationalize this ‘limited war’ logic. For example, India’s ‘Cold Start’ doctrine seeks to drive Indian armoured, infantry, and artillery forces into Pakistan within 72 to 96 hours of a mobilization order. The Indians’ objective would be to attrit Pakistani forces and to seize a long, shallow swathe of Pakistani territory – a swathe sufficiently large to seriously harm Pakistan, but not so large as to threaten the state’s survival and trigger a nuclear response. The ability to threaten to inflict such costs could, in theory, help India to deter Pakistan from supporting further anti-Indian militancy.


Despite Cold Start’s potential promise, it does not offer a ready solution to India’s deterrence problem; the doctrine will require many years to become operational. But even if Cold Start, or some similar means of punishing Pakistan, were currently available to India, it is not clear that this would solve the problem of Pakistan-based anti-Indian militancy. This is the case because the Pakistani government is increasingly losing control of the militant organizations that it created and nurtured.

During the 1980s and the 1990s, the Pakistanis employed these groups as an asymmetric means of opposing the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and then Indian rule in Jammu and Kashmir. The militants were armed and trained by elements of the Pakistani security services, and funded by a sophisticated international financial network of supporters. They have consistently enjoyed domestic popularity within Pakistan, and remained a useful means of combating India’s presence in Kashmir and of attriting Indian resources. Consequently, the Pakistani government has continued to back them, refusing to cut support for the militants completely even in the face of significant international pressure.

Now, however, the Pakistanis’ strategy has given rise to a serious problem: The jihadi organizations have taken on a life of their own. Along with the government, the army, and the intelligence services, the militants now comprise one of the main centres of gravity within Pakistan. As a result, the militants are able to conduct their own policy. In doing so, they often act against the interests of the Pakistani government, attacking security personnel, assassinating officials, and launching attacks on India that could trigger a regional conflict. Islamist militants have also seized large chunks of territory within Pakistan. Recently, for example, Islamabad was forced to strike a truce with Taliban forces in the Swat region, agreeing to a ceasefire and allowing the Taliban to impose Sharia law in Swat. The militants have thus defeated the government for control of significant portions of territory within Pakistan’s borders. It is therefore not clear that Pakistan could fully rein in the militants even if it wanted to.


This suggests that, in truth, India’s most pressing security problem may be moving beyond the realm of deterrence. It may increasingly be too late for India to coerce Pakistan into ending anti-Indian militancy; Pakistan may be unable to do so, regardless of the nature of Indian threats. In the future, what may be more useful than deterrent strategies is a recognition of common Indo-Pakistani interests. Continued militancy is not good either for India or for Pakistan. Thus both countries have a strong incentive to cooperate to curb the jihadis. In order to do so, the Pakistani government must truly forswear militancy, ending support for the terrorists and accepting international military and financial assistance in defeating them – despite militancy’s appeal as a means of inflicting costs on India. The Pakistanis need to recognize that the costs of supporting terrorism outweigh its benefits, and that before long they may be wholly unable to regain command of the situation. As a result, they could potentially lose control of their country.


India can help the Pakistanis by forgoing the temptation to heighten Pakistan’s security concerns, avoiding policies that would threaten Pakistan while Islamabad focuses military and policing resources on its internal problems. In addition, India must revamp its own security infrastructure, thereby rendering itself less vulnerable to terrorist attack. The Indians appear to have begun this process, and have announced plans to enhance their maritime security capabilities, create an FBI-like National Investigative Agency, increase intelligence sharing, improve the training and equipment of police and domestic security forces, and strengthen anti-terrorism laws. The Indians must follow through on these initiatives. In addition, they must address the legitimate concerns of their own Muslim and Kashmiri communities. This may reduce the motivation for terrorist attacks, and lower the likelihood that foreign terrorists will find willing collaborators within India.

These steps will by no means immediately enable India to solve its Islamist militancy problem and prevent future Mumbai-style attacks. But, at this point, such measures probably offer better odds of eventual success than do wholly deterrence-based strategies. For, as I have argued, not only is deterrence extremely difficult to achieve in the context of South Asian militancy – to a large extent, the problem has already moved beyond the realm of deterrence. The best hope for India and Pakistan may now be to work together to curb a menace that threatens not only its target but also its creator.