Militarily engaging a nuclear Pakistan might bring war to the country’s mainland: are we prepared to pay that price?
While the jury is still out on whether the Pakistani state had a direct role in the September 18 attack on an army camp in Uri, the fact that any of the terrorist groups that might conceivably be involved are all based out of Pakistan has revived the demand among sections of the Indian strategic community for military reprisal against targets across the Line of Control (LoC).
Key functionaries of the Narendra Modi government and ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have fuelled ‘popular’ demands about giving a “fitting response” to Pakistan by declaring that “the days of strategic restraint are over” and that “those behind this despicable attack will not go unpunished”. These promises, made within hours of the incident, fed expectations of an imminent military strike against Pakistan.
The futility of military options
The reason why the Modi government continues to be undecided about a military response to Pakistan and may even now be dialling down its rhetoric is precisely because there are no sure-shot, or even reasonably good, military solutions readily available to it.
Let’s break down each of the ‘popular’ military options that India has against Pakistan and see how feasible they are.
The first option is a nocturnal raid by Indian para commandos across the Line of Control (LoC) to take out terror camps in PoK.
This, it is believed, would successfully destroy terror camps and thereby draw adequate retaliatory effect. The Indian military does have the material and personnel for this and has been training for such eventualities. There are, however, a number of difficulties with this option. For one, any camps in striking range would likely have been shut down and the terrorists moved out by the time Indian commandos get there, in which case they would return empty-handed. Two, some of these camps may well be based out of civilian installations such as schools and madrasas, attacking which may lead to civilian casualties. Three, Pakistani forces could engage the incoming commandos, leading to casualties for the Indian side. This engagement could either stop with limited casualties for both sides or escalate further with more military missions by both sides. If it ceases there, no aim would be met; if it doesn’t, it escalates which was not the intended purpose.
The second option is initiating firing across the LoC using heavy weapons, which are already present there and often used by the troops on the LoC and Jammu international border.
In fact, such firing has already begun at a small scale in the Uri sector where the infiltration took place. Smerch missiles, with 70 kms range, and available in the army’s arsenal could increase the range of damage. There is, however, no stealth in this strategy, leading to immediate retaliation from the Pakistani side. Secondly, this seemingly low-risk strategy could potentially lead to a major border standoff without any military or retaliatory benefit. This could also enhance infiltration since diversionary firing has traditionally assisted infiltrators. More tragically, villages in the Jammu border sector and those living ahead of the fence in the LoC sector would be under heavy fire, leading to casualties and evacuation which will put an additional layer of political pressure on the government. The continuous firing by both sides in the Jammu sector from September 2014 till mid-2015, for instance, was ruinous for the inhabitants in the region.
The third option is to carry out short, sharp punitive strikes by the Indian Air Force with Mirage-2000, Jaguar and Sukhoi-30MKI fighter jets using laser-guided missiles targeting key terrorist infrastructure across the LoC.
This option also comes with its own inherent complications. For one, it is uncertain whether such precise intelligence and surveillance capabilities are available with the Indian military. Two, as with the first option, camps and launch pads would likely have been vacated by the time strike plans are made. Three, this could potentially lead to collateral damage given the lack of precise intelligence. Four, this will most certainly invite retaliation from Pakistan which does possess the capability to do so. Standoff missile attacks combined with collateral damage could potentially lead to unintended escalation. Finally, IAF jets crossing over into the Pakistan airspace to carry out strikes could be shot down by Pakistani anti-aircraft guns or PAF interceptors. This could trigger a string of undesirable events.
The fourth option suggested by a number of people is carrying out covert assassinations inside Pakistan to take out leaders of terror outfits such as LeT’s Hafeez Sayeed and JeM chief Masood Azhar.
This is perhaps the best low-cost option available even as this is not without a number of risks associated with it. First of all, given that the Indian covert presence in Pakistan was drastically reduced long time ago, where is the intelligence for this going to come from? Secondly, terror leaders are usually well protected by the Pakistani intelligence agencies and their cadres, so it would not be easy for an Indian hit-team to get close to them. Moreover, will a few covert killings satisfy the “hit-them-hard brigade” that seems to form much of BJP’s support base? And would they materially deter the terror groups or spur them towards further acts of violence?
The fifth option is the much-talked about Cold Start strategy which – though not officially admitted to be in existence – envisages quick, shallow and salami slice style conventional strikes along the border with Pakistan in order to capture territory “without crossing Pakistan’s nuclear threshold” so as to bargain for meeting India’s war aims.
First, it’s too late to carry out the Cold Start and the fact that the UNGA is in session would complicate it. Secondly, just as India would use a coordinated army-IAF operation to capture Pakistani territory most likely in PoK, Pakistan could also capture territory in a different sector anywhere along the over 3,300 kilometre border that the two countries share, including in the plains of Punjab, resulting in mutual territorial loss for both sides.
Most importantly, if the Pakistani army is unable to push back the advancing Indian forces before it reaches the Pakistani heartland, the desperate use of a few tactical nuclear weapons can’t be ruled out. If low-yield nuclear weapons are used against Indian forces, even if on Pakistani soil, New Delhi is bound by its nuclear doctrine to retaliate ‘massively’ with nuclear weapons. Would the use of a massive amount of nuclear weapons in response to a TNW strike be the wise thing to do (which will necessarily invite Pakistani nuclear retaliation on Indian soil, leading to massive damage)? It is unclear whether New Delhi possesses TNWs to give a ‘proportionate response’ to any Pakistani TNW use even though the former did test low yield devices in 1998. If New Delhi doesn’t offer a nuclear response to Pakistan’s use of TNWs, the credibility of its nuclear posture would greatly diminish.
Most war games (played between senior India and Pakistani strategists in controlled track-II environs in neutral locations) have shown that Pakistan is unlikely to use TNWs unless its heartland is threatened. This could mean that Pakistan’s early nuclear talk is a bluff. But has New Delhi done the homework to call that bluff?
Yet another option, the sixth, suggested by some Indians including a former army chief is to “raise our own Fidayeen”. This is the most bizarre of all options: who would be willing to be recruited as cannon fodder for such a force and where would you train and indoctrinate them? This suggestion is a sure-shot highway to hell for India.
The seventh ‘out of the box’ option often fancied by Indian strategists is stopping the flow of river waters into Pakistan by abrogating the Indus Waters Treaty. There are two serious problems with this option. One, where will India store the huge amounts of water once the flow is stopped – if at all that is possible? Two, given that the Indus Water treaty was negotiated by the World Bank, violating it would land India on the wrong side of the international community.
Warmongering is easy, war is not
The fact is that New Delhi has an ad hoc approach to war preparedness: the lessons of Kargil, as identified in the Kargil committee report, have hardly been learnt. Operation Parakram, carried out under the watch of an earlier BJP-led government, was a failure from the point of view of achieving strategic goals or war aims: the only outcome of the 2001-2002 war preparations was that 1,874 Indian soldiers were either killed or injured in accidents during the deployment. The larger question we must ask then is not what India will do militarily this time but whether the BJP government has made the country’s defence preparedness any better.
New Delhi should, therefore, make a realistic assessment of its military capability and defence preparedness as well as the unavoidable costs associated with war before taking any decision to militarily respond to Pakistan. Those clamouring for a military option against Pakistan should remember that none of the wars India fought in the past has been on its mainland. They were short, limited, and fought on someone else’s territory or at best fought on the country’s borders. Those wars, for most mainlanders, were fought in faraway lands. Militarily engaging a nuclear Pakistan might bring war to the country’s mainland: are we prepared to pay that price?
Happymon Jacob teaches international relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University