By Ajai Sahni*
In the wake of the Uri attack on September 18, 2016, in which 20 Indian soldiers lost their lives, strident demands for retaliation had been matched by arguments that, as one prominent commentator expressed it, “action limited to PoK (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir)… may not be sufficient to compel the Pakistanis to shut down their jihad factory.”
In just four days since the ‘surgical strikes’ there have been at least six intense ceasefire violations by Pakistan, one infiltration bid across the Line of Control (LoC) in Mendhar tehsil (revenue unit) of Poonch District and another across the International Border (IB) in Gurdaspur, Punjab, and two lesser terrorist attacks, in which one civilian lost his life, to be capped by the attack at Baramulla on the joint camp of the 46th Bn, Rashtriya Rifles (RR), and 40th Bn, Border Security Force (BSF). In the last of these, one BSF trooper has been killed and another injured, while two terrorists have also been killed. Search operations to locate and neutralize the remaining terrorists involved in the Baramulla incident are still ongoing at the time of writing.
The very day after India’s multiple and simultaneous “surgical strikes” against terrorist launch pads in PoK, there was an alleged ‘infiltration bid’, reportedly at Behigam at Shopian (likely referring to an incident of exchange of fire at Behi Bagh in Kulgam), to which one writer reacted by observing:
Today a group of militants attempted to cross over in Shopian area. This is apple country and a hotbed of militancy. It shows that the attack of Indian Army earlier had no effect on the jihadis.
These observations, both before and after the ‘surgical strikes’ expose strategic unintelligibility and the astonishing expectations that afflict much of what passes for the ‘strategic community’ in India. The idea that a single strike ‘surgical’ or otherwise, or any other single initiative – military or non-military, and including dialogue and any surprise agreement with Pakistan – is going to magically bring the over 25-year long (and much longer by some calculations) Pakistan-backed jihad in India to an abrupt and final end, reflects an incoherence that borders on folly.
And while these voices have presently and substantially been marginalized, advocates of uninterrupted dialogue as a ‘solution’ to the ‘problem of Kashmir’, despite the experience of at least the past 25 years of jihad, and nearly 70 years of Pakistan’s relentless hostility, fall into another category of comparable folly.
While both perspectives have currently been pushed into the margins of strident media debates in the wake of the surgical strikes, they are important, as they reflect the long-established ‘default setting’ of the Indian establishment. As the triumphalism of the surgical strikes recedes, and as Islamabad suitably adjusts its postures and projections, they will tend, inevitably, to reassert themselves. It is, consequently, crucial to understand the common thread between these two apparently contradictory positions.
Much of the discourse on counter-terrorism in India has often been dismissed by the opposite side as reflecting either ‘pessimism’ or ‘optimism’, and the two exemplars above fall, respectively, into these categories. But both these are not categories of strategic assessment; they are mindsets or belief systems, and both tend to policy paralysis. The pessimist dismisses all initiatives on the grounds that the situation cannot be improved; the optimist insists that things will necessarily improve, so it is best to choose the path of least resistance, lest we upset the applecart. It is these opposing attitudes, not any coherent, reality based strategic calculus, that have been decisive in India’s responses to the challenge of Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorism over the past decades.
This mould has now been shattered, not only by the scale of the surgical strikes (which was likely unprecedented, though such cross LoC operations themselves are not), but more importantly, by their openness, and their official and global projection, and also by the visible and dramatic shift in posture and policy that preceded these. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statements on rights’ violations in Balochistan, on the occasion of India’s Independence Day; the calm and authoritative response to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s crass harangue at the United Nations General Assembly, delivered by Eenam Gambhir, the junior-most diplomat at India’s Permanent Mission at the UN in New York; the reiteration of this message by Sushma Swaraj, India’s Minister of External Affairs, almost as an aside, in a speech that focused principally on critical human issues of the environment, poverty, inequality and development; the mobilisation of regional support at the UN, expressed in direct criticism of Islamabad as the fountainhead of terrorism in South Asia, by both Afghanistan and Bangladesh; and the eventual boycott of the SAARC Summit at Islamabad by four member-states, in addition to India – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sri Lanka; all these were part of the swelling theme that created the global context of the surgical strikes.
For decades now, Pakistan has manipulated international opinions and perceptions with an aggressive diplomatic campaign, and Islamabad believed nothing could change this. Sharif’s speech at the UN General Assembly was evidently based on precisely such an assessment, relying on all the established tropes of the Pakistani state, including denial, counter-accusations and implicit threats, including the threat of nuclear catastrophe. Far from working, as they had, so often in the past, these devices only sharpened the focus of global responses, with every major country in the world, including many traditional Pakistan supporters among the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC), rejecting the Pakistani position. Indeed, even China – the “all weather friend” who was soon to veto the effort at the UN Security Council to pronounce Jaish-e-Muhammad chief Azahar Masood a UN designated terrorist – chose to sit on the fence, exhorting India and Pakistan to resolve their differences through “dialogues”.
As Islamabad’s rhetoric escalated to include nuclear threats in the wake of the surgical strikes, moreover, a sharp message, delivered publicly by Mark Toner, US State Department spokesman, cautioned Pakistan to “exercise restraint” in talking about the use of nuclear weapons, observing, “I would just say nuclear-capable states have a very clear responsibility to exercise restraint regarding nuclear weapons and missile capabilities… And that’s my message publicly and that’s certainly our message directly to the Pakistani authorities.”
Worse, at this juncture, Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton warned that Islamist terrorists could get access to nuclear weapons from Pakistan. Significantly, her adversary at the other end of the political spectrum, Donald Trump has, in the past, referred repeatedly to Pakistan as a primary source of Islamist terrorism, and to the need to “deal with” the issue of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
Pakistan has threatened the use of its ‘tactical’ nuclear devices on many occasions, but it must be abundantly clear now, in the prevailing global scenario, that this will be a simple act of suicide, not only because of India’s retaliatory action, but also the inevitable and overwhelming response of Western nations.
There are tremendous opportunities for India in the new regional and global context, but these could easily be squandered in the absence of coherent and sustained strategic initiatives, with the will to stay the course as long as needed to finally neutralize Islamabad’s campaigns of terrorism. While the seeds of such strategy are making their appearance in the Government’s actions and pronouncements, the necessary coherence remains substantially lacking.
The success of the surgical strike and the dramatically altered international context in India’s favour has generated a new confidence and unwanted loquacity in India. There is much talk of a range of new “strategic paradigms”, including, among others, the idea of “offensive defence” alluded to by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval before he assumed his present avatar; and talk of something called the “pre-emptive escalation dominance model”, among others. But these are just slogans unless they are translated into a consistent and enduring gameplan to be implemented over the years and possibly decades, backed by a necessary and condign augmentation of capacities.
There is some evidence of the will to pursue such a gameplan, but its content is far from crystallization. Over the past weeks since the Uri attack, there has certainly been an inexorable widening of the spectrum of policies under consideration. Unfortunately, most of the options being evaluated have been plucked out of the strident media debate calling for everything from nuclear war, limited war and punitive strikes, and a random range of non-military initiatives prominently including squeezing the river waters flowing into Pakistan from India, “point to point competition” on exports, withdrawal of the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to Pakistan, and banning of commercial over flights to Pakistani carriers. Very few of the most voluble advocates on Television appear to have any depth of understanding of these various proposals and appear to have picked these up from random and occasional readings or from seminars and conferences where these ideas may have been mentioned. These avenues of response have never before been part of the official spectrum and have largely been explored on a tiny margin of the better informed among security commentators who proliferate on mass media. Even among these, few have written or spoken about protracted war strategies and there constituent elements of compellence before the present and abrupt glut of this idea. Nor is there any clear understanding within Government of these constituent elements or their broader context.
Nevertheless, and crucially, the introduction of a new vocabulary within a given, in the present case long stagnant, discourse, itself constitutes the creation of a new reality. However, proposals and assessments of the expanding spectrum of strategic alternatives need to be driven quietly and firmly underground, and cannot remain the subject of cacophonous Television debates. Unfortunately, that would conflict directly with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s domestic agenda, which would naturally be focused on crucial elections in the imminent future, and hence to proclivities to a jingoistic debate on the many harms that can be inflicted on Pakistan. As always, the strategic and the political appear in direct conflict.
There has, in the past days, also been an overwhelming focus on what Pakistan will do. This is difficult to answer in specific terms, but the broad contours of Pakistan’s option are well known, and have been ‘gamed’ into the Indian Armed Forces’ perspectives. The crucial question, however, is what will India do from this point on. Despite the shift in perspective at Raisina Hill, the fundamental realities and equations of power remain largely unchanged. While there is great enthusiasm at present, the momentum can easily be lost, or the hand, as easily, overplayed.
If sufficient pressure is generated, moreover, Pakistan is liable to quickly shift positions and appear to seek accommodation – preliminary indicators of such an ‘adjustment’ are already visible. This has been an old ploy, even as the instrumentalities of terrorism are kept in reserve. Pakistan’s proficiency in deception and systemic disinformation must be factored into India’s responses. Islamabad has mastered the art of being a minimal satisfier, and the avoidance of direct confrontation has been the hallmark of its strategy of terrorism in both Afghanistan and India. But this is a game two can play.
However, as Pakistan projects a more ‘reasonable’ mien, pressures in New Delhi – and perhaps internationally – will grow to revert to the more comfortable paradigm of ‘talks’. There is no need to believe that these are necessarily excluded from the policy spectrum – but just as Pakistan does not dismantle its infrastructure of terrorism when it comes to the negotiating table, there would be no need for India to suspend its strategic continuum every time tactical talks are initiated.
Between India and Pakistan, over the past at least three decades and more, there has been a situation best described as neither war, nor peace. This is the paradigm that must be mastered by New Delhi.
Pakistan is trapped on the wrong side of history; and history appears, now, to be positioning its inexorable correctives. For far too long, New Delhi has been paralysed by constant worry about Islamabad’s next move. It is now time to allow Pakistan to worry about what India will do next.
* Ajai Sahni
Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, ICM & SATP