In his recent book “Never Give an Inch,” former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo makes an astounding revelation about a near nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan following the Indian air strike at Balakot. According to Pompeo, while he was in Hanoi, he received a call from late Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj warning that Pakistan was preparing to launch a nuclear strike against India. “No other nation could have done what we did that night”, he gloats while mentioning the extraordinary feat that he and his team, US diplomats in India and Pakistan, and National Security Advisor John Bolton were able to pull and save the world from “a horrible outcome”. Not many US Secretaries of State are remembered in history because their limited tenure in office may not provide them with a significant global event to deal with. Mike Pompeo claims that he did get one in 2019. However, his claims in the book raise concerns that either he is blowing the incident out of proportion for publicity or, even worse, neither he nor his Indian counterpart at the time understood how the dynamics of nuclear deterrence work.
Secretary Pompeo’s account in his memoir omits a crucial aspect of the events that transpired between India and Pakistan in February 2019. The senior Trump Administration officials, specifically National Security Advisor John Bolton and Mike Pompeo played a significant role in exacerbating the ongoing crisis between the two nations with their partisan support of India. Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval discussed plans for a strike in Balakot with his US counterpart just two days after the Pulwama attack. India sought and received support from the US to proceed with the strike. Historically, the United States has played a mediating role in de-escalating crises between India and Pakistan. However, following his phone call with Doval, Bolton released a statement unambiguously supporting India’s right to self-defense, a literal green signal to go ahead with its plans. This triggered a chain of events that ultimately led to the capture of an Indian pilot after being shot down on Pakistani territory. While Secretary Pompeo may want the world to thank the US for preventing a catastrophe, it is important to acknowledge the role the US played in knowingly or unwittingly precipitating it.
The narrative presented by Secretary Pompeo raises questions about the logical consistency of the assessments made by both Pompeo and Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj regarding the events of 2019. The Indian response to the Pulwama attack was to send Mirage-2000 fighter bombers, escorted by Sukhoi SU-30MKI fighter jets, to target an alleged terrorist training facility in Balakot. According to Indian accounts, the Mirage bombers dropped Spice 2000 bombs from a distance of 80 kms, allowing the bombs to self-propel towards the target utilizing their deployable wings. The Indian jets were in Pakistan’s airspace for a matter of minutes before returning as Pakistan scrambled its own jets to intercept them. The following day, Pakistan responded with Operation Swift Retort, which involved airstrikes across the Line of Control from Pakistani airspace, with the stated goal of demonstrating their right, will, and capability of self-defense, as per Inter-Services Public Relations. Considering the sequence of events, the onus of escalation was shifted to India at that point. Therefore, the idea that Pakistan was preparing to launch a nuclear strike against India while the former had an upper hand in the exchanges, seems implausible. This raises doubts about the validity of Pompeo’s claim and calls into question the understanding of deterrence dynamics by him and his Indian counterpart.
The actions taken by both India and Pakistan during the events in question were limited in scope, with less than a dozen aircraft involved from either side without any mobilization of forces on land or in the Arabian Sea. With the land and naval forces intact, and air forces largely unscathed, there was no logical reason for either of the adversaries to even contemplate bringing nuclear forces into play. The entire incident was confined to a small swathe of territory. It was a sub-conventional confrontation that did not escalate into even a wider conventional conflict, let alone a nuclear conflagration. Additionally, Pakistan’s stated policy regarding the use of its nuclear weapons is that they are to be employed only as a last resort, when it is felt that it has run out of all conventional options and the very survival of the country is at stake. There was no threat to Pakistan’s survival, particularly after the successful execution of Operation Swift Retort which dispelled the perception that Pakistan’s conventional weakness would force it to resort to nuclear use early on in any conflict and established the viability of Pakistan’s conventional military capability. The events of 2019 served to affirm the credibility of Pakistan’s conventional deterrence capabilities. The crisis not only reinforced Pakistan’s confidence in its ability to respond with conventional force, but it also served as a valuable lesson for the future on how to handle sub-conventional incursions by India. Therefore, with all its conventional forces intact, the notion that Pakistan was going nuclear straightway is illogical, to say the least.
“I thought that was it for the evening but word soon came that Shanahan and Dunford wanted to talk to Pompeo and me about a ballooning crisis between India and Pakistan. After hours of phone calls, the crisis passed, perhaps because, in substance, there never really had been one.” This is how John Bolton remembers the events of February 2019 in his book ‘The Room Where It Happened’, a strike contrast to what Mike Pompeo said in his book. Secretary Pompeo’s memoir should raise concerns in the minds of America’s friends and foes alike about either the understanding of nuclear dynamics on part of the Secretary of State, who has also been the CIA Director, or on his blatant distortion of facts about a very sensitive issue. If Pompeo is to be believed there would be legitimate questions about the Indian Foreign Minister at the time for her lack of understanding of nuclear matters and for getting into unnecessary panic. Or it may well be that she was playing the traditional Indian game of maligning Pakistan.
Research Officer, SVI