Tag Archives | India Pakistan conflict escalation

What India’s surgical strike achieved, and what it didn’t?

by Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

Having introduced an uncertainty in its response, it is perhaps better for India to reduce the vulnerability of its military establishments.

In the wake of the attacks on the Indian army base in Nagrota, familiar uncomfortable questions have come to the fore: is it the lack of intelligence support that’s making such attacks recur? Has the fragile situation in the Kashmir valley helped rejuvenate terrorist networks? Or, are obsolete security mechanisms making military installations vulnerable to repeated attacks? Despite the recent spate of attacks on military infrastructure, these sticky, fly-papery questions still haven’t found responses that will make them dissolve away.

Nevertheless, the Nagrota attack throws up a completely new question: what did the “surgical strikes” of 29th September achieve — is there a need to replicate such strikes after the Nagrota attacks or should that option be dispensed with?

To answer this question, let’s assess what the surgical strikes achieved, from the lens of the three affected parties — the domestic Indian audience, the Pakistani military—jihadi complex, and the Pakistani civilian leadership.

For many Indians, a consciously coordinated action involving various parts of the administrative machinery — military, diplomatic, and political — was a signal that India will now respond to terrorism at strategic or operational levels, and not merely at a tactical level. Given that the earlier response — a carefully calibrated “strategic restraint” policy had failed to attenuate the attacks from Pakistan, a more forceful quid-pro-quo alternative became a cause of hope for some, and of aggressive chest-thumping for others. After the Nagrota attacks, some groups in this domestic constituency will demand similar strikes, with an aim of institutionalising this strategy.

Second, the Pakistani military—jihadi complex (MJC) was taken by surprise — it was anticipating a tactical response, but not a coordinated operational response. Moreover, the publicly declared cross-LoC Indian raids largely received a thumbs-up from the international community, weakening the complex’s narrative.  Within the complex, the jihadi node was specifically targetted. However, the shallow raids didn’t dent the terrorists’ capacity in any significant manner — there are no terrorist camps at such small distances from the LoC, merely a few launch pads to help terrorist squads in their transit. The operation also did not cause any major loss to the Pakistani army and hence it chose to deny the incident rather than escalate immediately. Overall, the surgical strikes served a signalling purpose against the MJC, rather than a concrete blow to its capacities; it flustered the MJC but hasn’t deterred it. It proved to the MJC that India is capable of maintaining a dynamic conventional threshold and that India is not just limited to the option of tactical retaliation.

Third, the Pakistani civilian leadership was able to utilise the surgical strikes against the dominance of the MJC. Unsurprisingly, a news report claiming that the civilian government has directed the military leadership to act against militants came out immediately after India’s raids. Meanwhile, the civilian leadership kept championing the anti-India rhetoric — such posturing continues to remain popular in Pakistan, regardless of who is in the driving seat. The army’s carefully cultivated image as the ultimate protector of Pakistan’s ideological and geographical frontiers took a dent, and the civilian leadership cashed in on the opportunity.

What will be the impact of another cross-border raid on the three affected parties?
Projected as a strong rejoinder to Pakistan’s use of terrorism, the Indian government will be able to garner domestic support from many quarters to a repeat strike. However, the border states of Punjab and J&K will have to bear the brunt of any further escalation, threatening livelihoods and economic prospects in these states.

The MJC and the Pakistani civilian establishment will now be better prepared in anticipation of another Indian strike. So, it will be very difficult for India to inflict any damage using the same level of deployment. Other options of this nature include using artillery against bunkers from a vantage point while avoiding collateral damage, or the use of air to surface strikes or using short-range cruise missiles to strike terrorist hideouts. But each of these alternatives is likely to result in significant escalation on both sides.

Having introduced an uncertainty in its response, it is perhaps better for India to reduce the vulnerability of its military establishments. Recommendations of the Lt Gen Philip Campose Committee, constituted after the Pathankot attacks, need to be implemented. There is clear indication that the MJC has altered its strategy over the last two years, focusing on high-value Indian military establishments rather than cause large-scale civilian damages. The sub-conventional warfare level, where terrorists operate, has clearly narrowed across the world. A conventional response to a terrorist attack having mass civilian casualties will now be seen as a necessity to curb terror. The surgical strikes have helped reinforced this viewpoint. A variant of the strikes can be used to target high-value terrorist infrastructure if Pakistan returns to its policy of causing mass casualties.

For now, it is better that India focuses on its defences. Ultimately, India is better off putting both — a grand rapprochement or a full-scale war — on the back burner, while expending available capacity to launch economic reforms, rendering Pakistan irrelevant.

Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas) is a Research Fellow at the Takshashila Institution.

Comments { 0 }

Book Review: Not War, Not Peace?

by Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

[An edited version of this review first appeared in The Business Standard Newspaper on 4th October 2016]

A lucid and comprehensive account of India’s strategic predicament in countering Pakistan-backed terrorism

Not War, Not Peace? — Motivating Pakistan to Prevent Cross-Border Terrorism
Authors: George Perkovich and Toby Dalton
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Pages: 297
Price: INR 695

‘Prescient’ would be an underwhelming adjective to describe a book that claims to be “the first comprehensive assessment of the violent and non-violent options available to India for compelling Pakistan to take concrete steps towards curbing terrorism originating from its homeland”. The timing of this publication can perhaps be compared only to the timing of Virat Kohli’s strokeplay.

In this book, the authors George Perkovich and Toby Dalton (both from the DC based think tank — Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) provide some much-needed clarity to questions such as: how should India respond to Pakistan’s usage of sub-conventional warfare? and what are the costs and benefits for each of India’s options?

As a piece of analytical writing, the book avoids the trap of a recency bias—excessive jingoism calling for retribution in response to terrorist attacks such as Uri can lead to an error in decision-making, hurting India in the long run. Instead, the authors identify four objectives for any response by the Indian side to an act of terror: one, satisfying the domestic political—psychological need to punish the perpetrators; two, motivating Pakistani authorities to prevent the next attack; three, deterring Pakistani authorities from escalating the conflict in reaction to India’s punitive moves; and four, ending the conflict in ways that doesn’t leave India worse off than it would have been, had it responded with less destructive means.

With these objectives as the backdrop, the authors describe five strategies: a proactive strategy not very different from the surgical strikes deployed in the aftermath of the Uri attacks, limited airborne strike on terrorist targets in Pakistan, covert operations to take out terrorists and their infrastructure, a change in India’s nuclear force posture allowing India to punish Pakistan in ways currently unfeasible, and finally, non-violent methods involving alliances with other states to inflict costs on Pakistan.

The book proceeds in a structured manner: each chapter picks up one strategy and then assesses what the likely next steps on the escalation ladder could be. Authors also identify the benefits and costs of each stage of escalation. To borrow a computer programming terminology, the book picks up an option and passes it through several “nested, if then else loops” systematically.

Some other highlights of the book. One, the book is severely damning of the “tendency in India, verging on standard operating procedure to announce or publicly discuss operational concepts or weapon systems before they actually exist.” We have seen glimpses of this tendency recently as well: whether it was the case of the PM raising Balochistan in the Independence Day speech, the case of a possible review of the Indus Water Treaty or DRDO’s claims on programmes such as ballistic missile defence systems. Premature sabre-rattling without credible capacity only motivates the irreconcilable entities in Pakistan, while India is caught off-guard when these forces retaliate.

Two, the book incriminates the below par performance of India’s military-industrial complex, saying that this lacuna constrains many of India’s military options. Three, the two authors’ assessment of the US role in Pakistan is also noteworthy. They accurately cite that even today, the US remains Pakistan’s biggest export market and a substantially large provider of economic and military aid. Getting the US to stop supporting Pakistan, financially and militarily, still remains an unfulfilled task.

A few sections in the book however, are based on long disproved assumptions. For instance, the first chapter derives that India’s position with respect to Pakistan is undermined, at least partly, due to a lack of “strategic culture”. The proof for this claim are statements by retired and serving defence officers, who place the blame on political leaderships through the years. In any case, this strategic culture fallacy doesn’t hold water. Just because India’s strategic aims were not Alexander-like in nature does not imply that there was no strategic culture. In fact, India’s strategic aim for long has been the consolidation of markets and states in the subcontinent. The chapter does make a redeeming point: the lack of a “defence economics” practice in India. Questions such as — how much and on what basis should be spent on its defence? Would the armed forces agree to a reduction in manpower in favour of better hardware? — still remained unasked and unanswered.

The authors are excessively charitable towards Pakistan when they criticise Pakistan for its “unwillingness or inability to prevent cross border terrorism against India”. After all, Pakistan has been directly involved in several cases of cross-border terrorism. The “rogue actor” model, often used to bury this unsettling fact can’t explain the following: how is it that there is a high substitutability of labour between the army and the jihadi groups, and between jihadi groups themselves? And what explains the fact that any efforts of peace talks between Pakistan and India are promptly followed by acts of violence, terror and intimidation from and within Pakistan?

Pakistan is not one geopolitical entity, but two. The first is a putative state; currently represented by a civilian government. The second entity is not just the military, as it is generally held. Instead, it is the the military—jihadi complex (MJC): a dynamic syndicate of military, militant, radical Islamist and political-economic structures that pursues a set of domestic and foreign policies to ensure its own survival and relative dominance. Policies towards Pakistan will continue to be ineffective unless these two Pakistans are explicated and internalised.

The book also claims that “today and in the foreseeable future, the choice Indian leaders will face is between doing nothing and doing too much.” Perhaps, there is a space for a third option: Ignore Pakistan while building up defences, resolving the political issues in Jammu & Kashmir, and shaping international morality against states that support terrorism as a policy.

Finally, Not War, Not Peace is a must-read for anyone interested in the India—Pakistan protracted conflict. Long-time Pakistan watchers will enjoy the exhaustive nature of the analyses while new readers will find the language easy enough to grasp. One final regret: such a comprehensive and lucid assessment of India’s options was written first by experts in the US, and not in India.   

Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas) is a Research Fellow at the Takshashila Institution.

Comments { 1 }