India acted decisively in its response to the Pulwama car bomb attack. However, will India’s response be adequate for the well-entrenched Pakistani military to change its course and start operations to eliminate terrorism from its soil. The answer is ambiguous at best, and unlikely to be more rational. The decades old military-jihadi nexus isn’t going to fall apart too soon. The author evaluates the possible fallout’s while searching for a way out of the marasmus.
Decoding the Strategic and Diplomatic Implications of Surgical Strikes
In response to the Jaish orchestrated terror attacks in Pulwama, which killed more than 40 CRPF men, India conducted ‘non-military pre-emptive’ surgical Air Strikes deep in the enemy territory of Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region of Pakistan and destroyed one of the largest terror installations run by Jaish. Flabbergasted by India’s daunting operation which breached its sovereign airspace, Pakistan’s initial response was bordering on denial. Refusing to accept that India’s air strikes had caused any damage at all, it merely accepted the brief presence of Indian fighter aircraft in its territory which was intercepted by the ‘timely Pakistani scramble’.
India however had made its point clear: henceforth, in responding to the terror attacks which are abetted by the Pakistani state, even the international border between the two will be rendered meaningless. India’s decisive military response is therefore seen as a logical progression in ‘new response framework’ which manifested first in the Surgical Strikes after the Uri terror attacks in 2016. But even as there appears apparent unity in celebrating the success of Indian Air Force in carrying out a successful strike, some pertinent questions are being raised about such surgical strikes.
Will such strikes stop terrorism in the Valley? Isn’t India asking for a war by such armed responses? If terror infiltration and violations continue on the border, what is the utility of such strikes? These are some of the questions that crop up in any discussion relating to such strikes.
This article argues that, though surgical strikes are not the ultimate answer to the problem of terrorism, such armed responses are an integral component in the long-term response framework that needs to be concretely framed to address the issue. By explaining the strategic and diplomatic implications of such strikes, the article attempts to situate surgical strike in the ‘response matrix’ for future state-backed terrorist provocation
At the outset, it is essential to understand that these ‘strikes’ are not aimed at eliminating terrorism. As a matter of fact, in the short run, no conceivable policy can hope to completely stop terrorism, in Kashmir or elsewhere, which is aided and abetted by the Pakistani deep state. The simple reason for this is the very nature of Kashmir imbroglio which is not ‘just terrorism’ but a well-crafted and co-ordinated low-intensity war waged on the Indian state by Pakistan. For Pakistan, continuing this low intensity war is significant essentially for two reasons – one, this is a low cost war which is sustained by expending minimum of its own resources yet earning necessary dividends. And second, internationally it provides Pakistan the avenue of exercising the plausible deniability of its own involvement by dubbing ‘terrorists’ as non-state actors/ freedom fighters thereby distancing itself from them.
Arguably, Pakistan is getting some noticeable success in destabilizing the Valley by stoking in terrorism. Also, internationally it has enjoyed near impunity as the current geopolitical realities constrain any decisive international action against Pakistan.As abetting and facilitating terrorism continues to be Pakistan’s preferred strategy to wage sub-conventional war against India, India’s options to respond to such state backed terrorist provocation are open.
The difficulty of framing a military response is the ‘fear of escalation’ which might breach the nuclear threshold between the two rivals. Past attempts at offensive military response, like Operation Parakram, yielded little tangible result. The Cold Start doctrine, which is said to have its roots in the failure of Parakram, too has no official validation in terms of its applicability. In the absence of an implementable military response mechanism, the discourse in India often turns towards a customary rhetoric of ‘long-term-political-solution’ to the Kashmir problem.
The votaries of this ‘long-term’ approach point out two inevitabilities of armed response– one that a military or an armed offensive solution is untenable, indeed risky and the second is that armed response will only exacerbate the present tensions. So the solution to this ‘Kashmir insurgency’, according to this school of thought, can only be of political nature which prominently has two components – one is to develop ‘a peace constituency’ in Pakistan which will act as a pressure group advocating the cause of ceasing support to terrorists. And the second is creating an ‘atmosphere of trust’ within Kashmir by winning over the separatist elements and thereby maintain a sustained political dialogue.
Though an appealing approach, the problem of this two-fold political solution is, apart from being vague in terms of its objectives as well as the ways of achieving it, it eschews the contemporary reality. First, considering the nature of democracy in Pakistan, the efficacy of any pressure group is questionable to say the least. And second, for any peace overtures with separatists to be completely successful would first require isolating them from their cross-border support. Indian response to this ‘hybrid-threat’ should therefore address the realities Armed response, along with the political and diplomatic approaches, become imperative. This is where the utility of Surgical Strikes attains import.
In response to the Uri terror attacks, India conducted cross-border counter-terror strikes, commonly known as surgical strikes, on the terror launch pads in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK). However, unlike some such previous strikes, government decided to come out and publicly announce these strikes.
Though criticised by a section of media and intelligentsia, publicising surgical strikes served three critical strategic objectives. First, it exposed Pakistan’s diplomatic vulnerability. Following the attacks the international community overwhelmingly supported India’s right to conduct such operations for defending itself. The diplomatic isolation which followed was a major blow to Pakistan. Second, it also exposed Pakistan’s nuclear bluff – the blackmail under which Pakistan has continued the relentless export of terrorism to India and managed to avert any punitive armed retaliation from India. And third, it attested the existence of an armed offensive option that doesn’t cross the nuclear threshold- which is extremely significant given current situation. Pakistan’s persistent attempts to deny the occurrence of any surgical strikes further exposed the limits of Pakistan’s conventional military response to India’s attack which was a potent indicator of Pakistan’s vulnerabilities.
What is noteworthy, however is the way India packaged these ‘surgical strikes’ which is critical with two prominent components. First, India packaged these surgical strikes as pre-emptivecounter-terrorism operation simplifying that it is the sovereign right of India to defend itself from any possible terror attack. It also was aimed at constraining the possibility of conventional escalation even as India remained prepared for any contingency that may arise. Second, it consciously worked towards creating a conducive international atmosphere which in effect supported India’s armed response. The new approach was thus going for an armed offensive and integrating it with co-ordinated diplomatic manoeuvrings to minimise escalation possibilities,something which was followed in the Balakot strikes as well.
Airstrikes in Balakot after Pulwama attacks proved that the armed option in the light of deliberate Pakistani provocation through its semi-state terror outfits is a plausible option for India. Beyond the military utility, the surgical strikes were also significant for their strategic as well as diplomatic implications. Insofar strategic implications are concerned, any policy which is aimed at giving a concrete response to such terror provocation should focus on increasing the cost for perpetrators to wage such a war. The most credible deterrence is the one which disproportionately increases the costs of an operation than the expected benefits. Such armed strikes, apart from neutralizing imminent threat, would be critical for increasing the costs forthose instigating and supporting this asymmetric conflict.
Success of such strikes, however, would primarily depend on the level of India’s defence preparedness and the capacity differential between the two militaries. In conventional military terms as well as economic terms, the capacity differential between India and Pakistan today is firmly in favour of India. Bigger the difference, better it is for India. Thus the second implication is that India must consciously invest in its defence preparedness and widen the gap between the two. Apart from maximising Indian armed potential, it would force Pakistan into an unsustainable arms race. Given the economic conditions of Pakistan, such a competition is likely to pinch its economy, making it difficult for Pakistan to remain in the game.
On the diplomatic front, India must build on the leverage India has acquired in the international space. The reactions on India’s strike in Balakot from the international community once again hinted at Pakistan’s further isolation. No country came even remotely close to condemning India for ‘violating Pakistan’s sovereignty’. Even Chinese statements were focused merely on ‘de-escalating the tension’ between the two.
Though there was no explicit endorsement of India’s air strikes, but silence in the diplomatic world is often louder than words. The surgical strikes, along with giving a strategic way out in terms of armed option also brought to fore the international opinion about terrorism. There is a clear indication that India’s campaigning against terrorism and specifically state-backed terrorism emanating from across the border has currency in diplomatic spheres. Under such circumstances, India should intensify its efforts to further pressurise Pakistan diplomatically. India cannot afford to lose the momentum it has generated in its multi-pronged offensive against Pakistan.
Pakistan’s ostensible peace gesture of repatriating the Indian Pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan is essentially aimed at pacifying international criticism. The bluff of ‘peace gesture’ is apparently also turning public opinion within the country as well. What the government needs to do now is to expose this ‘peace bluff’ and continue to build the pressure on Pakistan to take concrete action against its terror sanctuaries. The air strikes were for specific objectives of one- exhibiting India’s capability of unilaterally acting against such terrorists,if pushed to that;and second– exposing Pakistan’s duplicity. The strikes in that sense were just the initiation of the efforts – the success of the operation would lie in the way India builds on it to attain its objective of forcing Pakistan to act against terror sanctuaries on its soil.
Armed responses may not be a final answer to the problem, but they are certainly an integral part of the response matrix which includes political as well as diplomatic mechanisms. In Kashmir, India is facing a long drawn hybrid state sponsored asymmetric war, where until now India assumed it lacked an option of armed response. The surgical strikes have opened up that avenue. The primary utility of the strike is building the necessary deterrence by pre-empting such attacks and also by increasing the cost of such operations. Surgical strike, is therefore, a necessary component in a comprehensive policy response needed to address the issue of state backed low intensity war in the form of terrorism.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of BharatShakti.in)