If strategy is the pathway between means and ends, then today Pakistan is careening toward strategic insolvency along with an economic one. Following the ‘zero tolerance’ approach adopted by India post Uri terrorist attack, Pakistan’s policy of exploiting the low cost option of a proxy war has been put to test. Islamabad today faces military challenges that are both more severe and more numerous than at any time in decades, precisely as its economic meltdown for the first time starts to impinge on the military budget in a public and pronounced manner. Pakistan confronts internal challenges from organizations such as Tahreek-e-Labaik (Pakistan) (TLP) and Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), aggressive regional states such as Iran, Afghanistan and international terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The result has been a creeping crisis of Pakistan military’s primacy, as its position in the pyramid of power within the nation which it had become accustomed to has become precarious, and a growing gap between its commitments and capabilities has emerged.
Pakistan is presently facing strategic insolvency and has three basic options. First, Pakistan could roll back on its proxy war strategy and comply with its global commitments, thereby bringing its strategic obligations back into alignment as a responsible state. Admiral Lanba the erstwhile Chairman COSC in an interview on 28 May 19 had alluded to the likelihood of a major behavioural shift by Pakistan towards India post Balakot air strikes. In practice, this might mean dispensing with Kashmir; its unfinished agenda. Yet the appeal of this option is largely illusory, for even PM Imran Khan’s Naya Pakistan, retrenchment from Kashmir is likely to generate profound geopolitical instability. Aggressive revisionist players and hard line fundamentalist within the country may well be emboldened by this strategic retreat and bay for the government’s blood.
A second option is living with greater risk. In practice, this would mean gambling that India will not test increasingly precarious capabilities of Pakistan and the Deep State by escalatory strategies. This approach has a certain intuitive appeal despite the Bajwa Doctrine; it substitutes an offensive response of military with denial; Pakistan indeed relied on such an approach during Surgical Strikes. Yet it also entails profound liabilities. Simply hoping that exposed chinks in the armour will not be challenged could work for a time, but this approach carries enormous risk that guarantees like the nuclear bogey or the alleged ‘Swift Retort’ will eventually be tested and found wanting, with devastating effects. This approach thus risks leading Pakistan into a trap where, if its sovereignty is challenged, it is confronted with a choice between pursuing escalatory options of full-scale war that carry a prohibitive price or simply acquiescing to aggression.
This leaves a final option, which is to make the significant resource investments necessary to expand Pakistan’s capabilities and restore strategic solvency. In the case of Pakistan strategy today, this would probably entail a major, sustained military build-up complemented by defense reforms, development of future capabilities and new operational concepts, and other steps. Even if Pakistan pulls off the impossible and meets the revenue target of PKR 5.55 trillion in the next financial year, it doesn’t take the country out of the woods. The net revenue receipts are estimated at PKR 3.46 trillion. Debt servicing alone of PKR 2.89 trillion and defense expenditure of PKR 1.15 trillion are PKR 500 billion more than the utterly over-optimistic estimate of revenue that of Pakistan hopes to generate. Apropos, all other government ventures would be undertaken on further loans.
This lack of strategic choices for Pakistan and a veritable cul-de-sac with respect to options discussed above has been precipitated by the Indian compulsion to defend itself proactively and punish the perpetrators or complicit agents pre-emptively across the International Border. A strategic space has been carved out between the conventional and sub conventional domain, global acceptance to India’s right to self-defense has been unequivocal and is in consonance with the Government of India’s stance of kinetic response policy by means other than war. The whole of nation approach of countering Pakistan’s proxy war strategy has further exacerbated the challenges which the adversary faces in face of diminished global reputation and an economic meltdown of colossal magnitude.
Indian responses to terrorist strikes by state sponsored non state actors has resulted in this strategic conundrum for Pakistan where in its credibility as nation state to defend its borders has come under scrutiny and more so for the Pakistan Armed Forces on whose shoulders the burden of defending the country’s sovereignty rests and they have prided themselves to be the defenders of Pakistan, the repeated violation of its sovereign borders with impunity first by USA and now by India has surely dented the locus-standi of the Pak Armed Forces. The so-called Swift Retort by PAF post Balakot counter terrorist strike may have doused the flame internally but would have led to a fair degree of introspection. The lack of targets on the Indian side for a Quid Pro Quo response by PAF has inadvertently handed over the escalation control to Indian Armed Forces and also provided the jus-ad-bellum for a conventional strike in the future as the datum has been set by PAF. Pak Armed Forces will be compelled to do a cost versus benefit analysis of their proxy war strategy and also next set of responses along with its justification; the quagmire is turning out to be no more a low-cost option.
China-Pak collusion was like a reasonably priced third-party insurance policy for Pakistan. It sought nontrivial concessions from Pakistan, but it protected against unwelcome developments that would ultimately carry a far higher dividend when faced with an existential threat. China has generally kept up its insurance premiums for last six decades but more recently has been imperilled by a perfect storm of pernicious geopolitical developments like the US-China trade war and its reputation in the comity of nations as a responsible super power thus leading to China rescinding its stance on Maulana Masood Azhar. India has altered its post terrorist attack response strategy from ‘zero response’ as was visible during Mumbai and Pathankot terrorist strike to a ‘zero tolerance’ approach. It has indicated to the adversary to a lowered threshold of tolerance and an intent to respond under the conventional overhang to target non-conventional terrorist targets with kinetic force in a tri-services paradigm. Similarly, this approach could in the second response cycle entail integrating the use, or threat of use, of powerful non-conventional capabilities such as strategic cyber-attacks against Pakistan’s critical infrastructure for the same purpose of raising the costs more than that he would expect to pay for adhering to his proxy war strategy. Threatening to respond to Indian conventional aggression with nuclear weapons, whether tactical or strategic, might have been a fairly credible approach but Dynamic Response Strategy in no manner raises the nuclear bogey and such a response by Pakistan would tantamount to nuclear terrorism.
India possess secure second-strike capabilities, and can inflict horrific costs on Pakistan should nuclear escalation occur. (Both countries are also currently undertaking significant nuclear modernisation programs, and India is integrating explicit and implicit nuclear threats into its statecraft to a greater degree than at any time before.) Indeed, upon any sort of sustained reflection, it seems almost preposterous to suggest that if the Pakistan who is not willing to bear the fiscal costs associated with conventional conflict, would somehow be willing to risk the astronomically higher costs associated with nuclear escalation. For that matter, it is quixotic to think that Pakistan could achieve its stated full spectrum deterrence and accentuated warfighting capability with the resource crunch and limiting norms being prescribed by international agencies to ensure its financial solvency.
Pakistan’s strategic articulation has rested on the canons of New Concept of War Fighting (NCWF) which was developed as a response to Cold Start Doctrine. The Pak strategy was scaffolded on its ability to achieve its ‘Notion of Victory’. Despite its steep evolutionary loop of strategic articulation, Pakistan continued to maintain ‘War Avoidance’ as basic tenet of ‘full spectrum deterrence’ and contract the window of conventional conflict by upping the ante of a conventional war to a nuclear one in a rapid time frame. Initiation of a response to sub-conventional conflict thus has created a strategic paralysis for Pakistan where it grapples with the contrarian requirement of achieving its notion of victory and still not transcending into a conventional conflict.
It is always easier to get into a conflict than to get out of one even if it is a limited one. Limited wars are characterized by limited objectives, restricted territory or target area limitation on use of military means. There is a very remote possibility of dynamic response conflict transiting into a limited war between India and Pakistan as the effort would be to control the escalation and not let it spiral out to a limited or conventional conflict thus making the range and scope of offensives in the dynamic response calculus more probable and acceptable options. Cold Start Doctrine however can still be implemented by India as a choice and thus the need to retain conventional asymmetry as a tool of deterrence and escalation control. Future war can unfold in any shape i.e. Incremental, graduated and simultaneous.
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