The fraught Indo-Pak relationship came to a flashpoint on February 14 with the dastardly Pulwama terror attack, claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), resulting in a large number of casualties among CRPF personnel. The Indian response came on February 26 in the form of an airstrike with precision-guided munition against the Jaish training camp at Balakot in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. The euphoria generated by the strike, combined with posturing by our political parties in election season, has resulted in a highly polarised national discourse. Some have presented the Balakot strike as a quick-fix to our Pakistan problem. Others say India has successfully called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. The reality is more complex.
Each egregious act of terror by Pakistan has been followed by discussion on the various options available to India to counter this menace. Since the Balakot strike fell in the military domain, we need to look closely at the option of coercing Pakistan militarily to change its behaviour.
Pakistan-based terror is the consequence of the Pakistan army’s policy of maintaining an adversarial relationship with India to sustain the India bogey and their stranglehold over the Pakistani polity as the defender of its physical and ideological frontiers. Therefore, any military option would need to change the Pak army’s calculus.
No rational strategist would recommend an all out war to give a crushing blow to Pakistan’s military machine (assuming that we have the extent of conventional military superiority necessary to do so) because of its heavy costs to the economy, and the nuclear dimension.
As the weaker state, Pakistan has been resorting to nuclear brinkmanship at the first sign of trouble with India and did so following the Balakot strike by calling a meeting of its National Command Authority, in-charge of the nuclear arsenal, even though its nuclear threshold, articulated from time to time, did not warrant this step.
In February 2002, during Operation Parakram, Lt. Gen. Khalid Kidwai, head of Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division, outlined the following four actions by India, which could lead to use of nuclear weapons by Pakistan:-
- Conquest of a large part of Pakistan’s territory (including PoK).
- Destruction of a large part of Pakistan’s armed forces.
- Pushing Pakistan into political destabilisation.
- Strangling Pakistan economically.
Subsequently, Pakistan has expressed its intent to use tactical nuclear weapons in response to India’s so called Cold Start doctrine. Suggestions have been made that an attack by India against Pakistan’s nuclear installations might also trigger a nuclear response.
The Balakot strike did not come close to any of the red lines mentioned above. Therefore, the claim that it called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff is not correct. However, if Pakistanis believed that the nuclear overhang had made them immune to even limited military action by India against targets on their territory, they would have received a rude jolt.
Short of an all out war, we have options, overt and covert, in the tactical domain to impose costs on Pakistan for its acts of terror. However, such options have two limitations. First, their impact is at best temporary, till Pakistan recovers, adapts and goes back to its terror card. Secondly, Pakistan’s ability to retaliate against such action raises the risk of an escalation.
The recent airstrike fell amongst the above mentioned tactical options. However, the use of airpower to target a terror training camp on the Pakistani territory represented a major shift in our approach. It will cause some disruption to the Pakistani terror machine by creating uncertainty in the minds of their strategists and imposing some costs on them to adapt and possibly shift their terror facilities deeper inside their territory. However, its value is limited because it is no exception to the two constraints mentioned in the preceding paragraph. It is not a quick-fix to the Pakistani terror menace. Further, the Pakistani retaliation on February 27 raised the spectre of an escalation with unpredictable trajectory and uncertain outcome in relation to our goals. However, by then the countries that had stood by us after the Pulwama attack were calling for restraint by both sides and the involvement of some influential countries, reminiscent of the past Indo-Pak crises, seems to have put us on the path of de-escalation.
The extent of damage caused by the strike and the number of terrorists killed has become a major issue in view of our forthcoming elections. It would be good if the government could officially put out some credible evidence of the intended targets having been hit. Other countries have done so without compromising their technical means. However, information concerning the number of those killed can come only from a source on the ground and no government can reveal such a source. Significantly, the government has not put out any number. Only some politicians have done so and that is highly undesirable.
Moreover, since the value of the strike lies essentially in being an expression of our intent to hit terror targets in Pakistan, when required, the salience given to the extent of damage is unwarranted. This is a needless controversy, symbolic of the serious fraying of national consensus on foreign policy issues that had characterised our polity for a long time after independence and the high degree of politicisation of our Pakistan policy. These are worrying trends because politicisation of complex foreign policy issues leaves little room for rational choices and is not in our national interest.
Where do we go from here? We have been demanding from Pakistan verifiable action against the terror groups operating against us, including the JeM, and their disbanding, to put an end to terror activity. Pakistan’s response in this regard post Pulwama does not inspire much confidence. It “took over” the JeM headquarters at Bahawalpur, but called it a mosque and a madrassa. Pakistani media reports quote government sources as saying that further decisive action is envisaged against such groups in accordance with their national action plan against terrorism. We may, therefore, see some more steps on the lines of those taken post 9/11 and 26/11. However, all such steps are reversible and, in the past, have amounted to no meaningful change from our point of view. Pakistan’s security establishment has shown no sign of giving up the instrumentality of terror. The very state that perpetrates terror against us is not going to take credible action against it. Our strategic goal of eliminating Pakistan-based terror needs to be pursued with patience – by building increasing pressure on Pakistan, to the extent possible, in cooperation with other major countries, combined with deterrence.
In the immediate horizon, we should try to use international pressure on Pakistan post Pulwama to realise the more realistic goal of making them pull their hand back from terror in Kashmir (where Pakistan’s terror machine has been overactive in recent years), even if it is as a tactical move as in the past. This may help us in restoring calm in the valley and, one hopes, taking the political steps necessary to build durable peace there.
This will also open a window for diplomacy, possibly after our elections, to try to stabilise the relationship. Diplomacy is practically dead between the two countries as of now, except for formal demarches by the Foreign Offices to the respective missions. Communications to manage the post Pulwama situation have been through third parties. Let’s not forget that diplomacy has a place even in the most difficult of relationships and helps, at the very least, to manage them and keep the levels of volatility and violence low. Whenever we have not been talking to Pakistan directly, we have had to do so through third parties. Frequent involvement of third countries risks bringing back the Indo-Pak hyphenation that we worked so strenuously to jettison.
Finally, our outrage at Pulwama should not blind us to the fact that Pakistan fishes in the troubled waters of our own making in Kashmir. Force alone cannot build durable peace there. Our security forces have repeatedly restored calm, but the gains so made have not been supplemented by the political steps necessary to end the widespread sense of alienation in the valley and deny Pakistan a fertile ground for frequent intervention. The absence of such steps will repeatedly confront our security forces with a situation that can be controlled only at the cost of loss of lives amongst the local populace and their own ranks.
Sharat Sabharwal served as India’s high commissioner to Pakistan from 2009-2013. Views expressed are personal.