The real difference between the Modi government and its predecessors is its willingness to accept the higher risk of war and international pressure that surgical strikes may bring. But is it the case that with higher risk come greater rewards?
While the surgical strikes across the Line of Control in Kashmir launched by the Narendra Modi government have justifiably been hailed as a change in Indian tactics towards Pakistan, there has been relatively little debate about the goals such a change in tactics can possibly achieve. Military force is a very valuable – even if blunt – instrument in a country’s repository of options and ideally should be used only in fulfilment of a broader political goal. In this context, it is surprising to see how little public debate has focused on what such strikes can – and cannot – achieve.
Clausewitz’s adage “War is a continuation of diplomacy by other means” provides much insight into understanding the usefulness of current Indian tactical choices. While some understand his statement to mean that a country chooses war when other options are exhausted, a close reading of Clausewitz suggests almost the opposite. In fact, he argued that war should always be guided by political goals and adopting the use of military force as an option only because other alternatives were not effective is essentially the opposite of what good strategy ought to be. Otherwise, war becomes an end in itself, or will be employed in fulfilment of an end that is not a political goal – making it difficult to control its employment and conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the value of the tactic.
The idea of surgical strikes itself is not new. It has been mooted by Indian strategists since 1990, and particularly after 9/11 with the United States conducting such strikes in Afghanistan, and later in Yemen and Pakistan. In fact, Gen. Bikram Singh, former chief of Indian army, recently suggested that Indian armed forces have conducted such surgical strikes inside Pakistan earlier as well (though not in this scale), but the information was not made public.
What is really new in the current context is the overt acceptance by the political leadership of the responsibility for such strikes. During the Kargil War and the 2001-02 ‘Twin Peaks crisis’, Indian decision makers concluded that any military gains by such strikes were outweighed by costs India would have to pay in terms of losing international support and sympathy (because the foremost concern among the international “community” was to avoid nuclear war rather than stop terrorism in Kashmir). The Modi government is now testing the waters to see how the international community reacts to these surgical strikes.
Isolating Pakistan is a low bar
Even with substantive military aid flowing from the US to Pakistan since 2001, Islamabad has become an international pariah. Isolating the country is useful for India but is a pretty low bar considering that Pakistan has isolated itself since the Kargil War (and particularly after 9/11), and China is its only all-weather ally. When the US finally withdraws from Afghanistan, it is expected to drop Pakistan like a hot potato, as it did in 1990s. But India needs to be careful and not overstate international support for its position.
Even to this day, avoiding a nuclear war is the primary concern of other states including the US. The Indian media seems to have badly misinterpreted the State Department’s comments on the matter. India made the same mistake both during Kargil and the 2001/02 crises by assuming that there was more support from the world for Indian military options than existed at the time. Further, if history has any lessons, international isolation has rarely changed a country’s foreign policy objective when it really cares for the goal. India effectively isolated Pakistan during the Kargil War and during the 2001-02 crisis, but that did not change Pakistan’s attitude toward Kashmir in the medium- or long-term. Pakistan is not likely to give up on Kashmir because of international isolation, particularly because Pakistan can easily “stop” supporting terrorism for a short period and can easily turn it back on when the pressure lessens.
The real difference between the Modi government and its predecessors is its willingness to accept the higher risk of war and international pressure that surgical strikes may bring. But is it the case that with higher risk come greater rewards? The strategic objective for India is to make Pakistan reduce or renounce supporting terrorism in Kashmir (and other places in India). How surgical strikes – not necessarily on their own but may be in combination with other options – affect the likelihood of that outcome is the framework through which any cost-benefit analysis of this option has to be undertaken.
Controlling the escalation ladder is one but not the only issue. In fact, during a series of crises in the last 25 years, India and Pakistan have managed escalation (meaning avoided nuclear war) even at the risk of accepting crushing defeats. Pakistan accepted a humiliating withdrawal at the end of the Kargil War without escalation. India, after the terrorist attack on parliament in 2001, mobilised its army on the border, threatened Pakistan with war, but withdrew without achieving much. After the November 2008 attack on Mumbai, India did not even attempt to use coercive diplomacy against Pakistan. While the Modi government has suggested it is willing to accept more risks, it was striking that the Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) Lt. General Ranbir Singh, in announcing the strikes, explicitly stated that India does “not have any plans to continue” the strikes but that “the Indian armed forces are fully prepared to deal with any contingency which may arise.” Thus, from this perspective, the onus of escalation lies with Pakistan. If true, this raises questions as to whether India considers these strikes as an end rather than the beginning of a broader series of attacks to force Pakistan to stop supporting terrorism and insurgency in Kashmir.
Strikes have only marginal value
The strikes, according to Indian official reports, were targeted at terrorist launch pads. According to Indian officials, these are temporary camps where terrorists gather before they infiltrate into India, and not “training camps.” The military value of striking launch pads is primarily in neutralising terrorists before they can commit harm, and the deterrent effect the strikes can have on future incursions. For the terrorists and Pakistan, the usefulness of such camps is limited. In fact, Pakistan has many operational recruitment, training and launching camps. A January 2016 report in the newspaper The New Indian Express reported that there are 160 such camps operating in Pakistan.
The punishment value of these strikes is marginal. For Pakistan, these terrorists are easily dispensable (the operations also killed two Pakistani soldiers, which will hurt Pakistan more). During the Kargil War, Pakistan did not even want to collect the bodies of terrorists it had sent across the border. Similarly, the deterrent value of a single day of surgical strikes is questionable. India has regularly stopped and killed terrorists on the border, as Modi himself acknowledged in a recent speech, but that has not stopped Pakistan sending more terrorists into India. If India plans to continue surgical strikes, it is unlikely to gain tactical surprise in the future, making such actions more complicated and potentially costlier.
More importantly, the recent history of surgical strikes – American strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan – and even Israeli strikes in Gaza (which are more raids than strikes) suggest that such incursions provide tactical gains but little substantive strategic benefits particularly over the long term. As Robert Grenier, former director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center suggested in the context of the use of drone warfare, “We have helped to bring about the situation that we most fear” arguing that drone attacks quite likely motivated many to resort to terrorism.
The launch pads that India destroyed can easily be rebuilt. Pakistan has borne even greater costs in the past (like the 1971 defeat) and is most likely going to build more such launch pads and will attempt to send more terrorists into India. Since Pakistan is not like Afghanistan or the Gaza Strip, and has a reasonably strong defensive capacity, any such Indian incursions in the future are likely going to be costlier; not impossible but costlier. Thus, Pakistan can and is likely to reconstruct training camps and launch pads – may be just a little deeper inside Pakistani territory to make it more difficult for Indians to attack – and any Indian offensive is more likely to be costlier and more difficult to succeed. In simple terms, Pakistan can mobilise more terrorists and send them to die than the number of soldiers India can risk across the border (even considering a well-trained soldier is likely to neutralise many terrorists).
This is not to suggest the tactical strikes have no utility. It has been and is a cathartic exercise for the domestic audience. India, being perceived as spineless in the face of an insurgency promoted by a nuclear-armed Pakistan, has to commit an act of retaliatory aggression or “preemptive defence” attacks to assuage its citizens and sympathisers.
In reality, these surgical strikes perform psychotherapy for Indians at large, including the armed forces themselves. After the November 2015 Paris attacks, France, under its socialist president, François Hollande, conducted air strikes on suspected Islamic State targets in Syria, particularly on Raqqa. It was a therapeutic experience for the French. In reality, it killed some people (terrorists and otherwise), but hardly affected the capabilities of the Islamic State in any serious manner, and quite likely, increased its motivation to strike France. ISIS struck again in July 2016 at Nice. This is not to suggest that French “retaliatory” attacks on its targets were the only motivation for ISIS attacks on France, but without a doubt these increased ISIS’s motivation to target France.
While the therapeutic usefulness of punishing the opponent is not to be undervalued, there is always the question of the day after. When the next major attack originating from Pakistan strikes India – or, for example, if Pakistan deliberately allows the suspected Uri attack handlers to make a speech on Pakistani soil needling India – can India react similarly? If terrorist attacks continue, what is the value of tactical strikes? The mighty US is fighting the longest war in its history against a ragtag group of terrorists and insurgents in Afghanistan. Like the wars against Vietnam and Iraq (2003-2011), the US is on a path to lose the war in Afghanistan – without losing a single (at least major) battle. France has even stopped the pretension of being able to militarily do anything independently to stop the ISIS. The Israelis have almost given up the hope of being able to gain peace (or even a political solution) through strength and have resigned themselves to sporadic terrorist attacks on their soil. India, most likely after a series of (few or many) surgical strikes, will be in similar strategic situation before the surgical strikes began – but with a few more casualties on either side. It is very important to have an appreciation of what the military can – and cannot – do. It is strategic “restraint” when a country can pursue a policy that is militarily and politically useful and cost effective, but does not do so for normative reasons. Indian strategic “restraint” in the past couple of decades has always been an appreciation of strategic reality.
Thus, for surgical strikes to have any long-term military (and political) utility, India will have to escalate. India can use drones (though not strictly an escalation, it may reduce the risk of Indian casualties), but unlike Afghanistan, Pakistan is likely to defend its air space. Further, drones would be pretty risky if India has to strike deeper into Pakistani territory. In fact, even faced with a technologically inferior enemy, Israeli forces rarely use only drones or only air power, but resort to ground troops. Therefore, as the story of not just Israel but the American war in Afghanistan suggests, any operations intending to have long-term military advantage in neutralising terrorists and insurgents will have to involve ground troops inside that territory – and that means, across the border for India. As I suggest, the recent of history of surgical strikes should make one cautious about using the tactic (or even ground troops) if strategic benefits are the objectives.
Thus, Indian surgical strikes across the border are tactical operations without much strategic impact. Its success is primarily in satisfying television anchors – and through them, the public. The therapeutic value of such strikes may remain until the next Pakistani attack, whereupon the same people hailing the current surgical strikes are bound to rediscover an ineffective – if not spineless – India. Revenge, in this context, is more about catharsis than punishment – much less the fulfilment of a strategic objective.
Vaidya Gundlupet is a research scholar focusing on international security issues and has a special interest in South Asian security.