The past three decades have seen the relations between India and Pakistan become increasingly vitriolic over the Kashmir issue. The Deep State within Pakistan continues to adopt new stratagems – Pulwama being the latest. Whilst India’s response was in more than equal measure, the ultimate way forward for the Indian establishment is to adopt a balanced approach in Kashmir, a mix of hard and soft options
For the sub-continent it was a month of sheer challenge. An outrageous terrorist related event in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) led to a spiral of escalation which could have culminated in a full scale war between India and Pakistan with unclear objectives. The escalation tested India’s resolve in the face of yet another trigger in the 30 year old proxy war in J&K. While most people followed the events avidly and were reasonably familiar with response options there was considerable expression of uninformed and emotional opinion on national media. Some of it was connected to the electoral season ahead but most appeared to be out of sheer ignorance.
To get a measure of why Pulwama occurred a few issues of the background are required to be reiterated.
The Zia Doctrine of 1977 made it extremely clear; the Pakistan Army would not fight India at the conventional battlefield. Why fight a superior army the conventional way which would also be the attritional way? It would be 'manoeuvre' that would dictate its concept. Manoeuvre meant smart warfare, exploiting the adversary’s (India’s) weaknesses, chief among which being demographic fault lines. These fault lines are ethnic, religious, caste based, linguistic et all, of which India boasts its concept of Unity in Diversity. Pakistan acquiring nuclear weapon capability would set aside military and economic asymmetry with India and a strong diplomatic focus would receive Islamic empathy from around the world. The advantage of the geo-strategic location of Pakistan would do the rest in its favour.
From 1989 Pakistan has avidly followed this doctrine with some add on. It is in no hurry, confident that it can instigate a people’s struggle by proxy through limited infusion of military wherewithal, lots of finances, an ideology which helps to break the populace from the positive trends of India’s pluralist outlook and link to Pakistan’s more puritanical Islam, and a simmering military environment which must not be allowed to go over the top nor go down under.
Stamina is the key and Pakistan’s Deep State believes it is exasperating India and making its public restive, which it feels will ultimately work in Pakistan’s favour.
With all the above in place whenever the situation appears slipping the doctrine has been tweaked a bit. A spectacular act helps recapture military and psychological space and gives impetus to alienation within Kashmir when the response in India goes anti-Kashmiri; an age old ploy. Over time, as exasperation sets in among the Indian people the response becomes more virulent transcending the call for action against terrorists and stepping into domain of revenge against the people. In long drawn proxy hybrid campaigns that is exactly what the sponsor looks for. It’s 30 years now that the proxy war has been in place and frustration levels in India are reaching the intended crescendo. That is why Pakistani Generals in private appear gung ho with the idea that it’s all happening just as they intended; India in their perception is a victim of its own responses and will remain so.
The Pulwama terror attack
The trigger to Pulwama lay in the military success achieved by India through two years of Operation All Out; the space thus dwindling for Pakistan and the terrorists. Although admittedly, on another plane the terrorist losses of 2018 (253 in all) had been made up by them largely through local recruitment in South Kashmir and some infiltration into North Kashmir. Notwithstanding, the Deep State wanted to message the population and the Indian establishment about the capability it maintained to alter the situation. The Jaish e Muhammad (JeM), once proscribed within Pakistan for its attempts to assassinate former President Parvez Musharraf, has developed a new avatar and has attempted to become the lead terror organization in Pakistan, bringing in local recruits also into its fold in Kashmir. Keeping itself relevant and in fact enhancing its reputation remains a key JeM objective.
Two questions arise. First, whether the Deep State would have war-gamed the action it aimed with the Pulwama action and its impact on the subcontinent or did it miscalculate. It knew that this trigger would be an action risking escalation. However, it perhaps surmised that besides upping the ante with an act higher on the escalation ladder than the surgical strikes of 2016, India would, or even could do little else. For India to launch an all-out conventional war something much more drastic had to be done. In other words, the Deep State would probably have assessed a face saving response by India under a manageable escalation. The new normal for the Deep State therefore has come to be – trigger a cycle of terror-await and absorb manageable Indian retribution – escalation - de-escalation – await next opportunity.
Second, should the security establishment in Kashmir and the Centre have expected a car bomb or big IED. If so, was this an intelligence failure? There was some kind of alert which had been issued by intelligence agencies in mid Feb 2019 but not an actionable one. The focus of intelligence agencies was on terrorist information and since the trend of IEDs and car bombs had long died down there was no ongoing intelligence build up for it except a generic warning of an impending return. My analysis through the last two years revealed to me that IEDs, car bombs and explosives strapped suicide bombers had been extensively used in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan with no real counter measure developed against them by regular forces. Lessons learnt from these would surely tempt the Deep State to return these assets to the Valley for effect. Our intelligence perhaps was far too focused on terrorist neutralization which had been going on effectively through Operation All Out. The degree of difficulty in unravelling a network involved in the fabrication of a large car borne bomb was indeed a challenge as was the possibility of identification of a single suicide bomber who was prepared to die with the explosives laden car. It now magnifies the future task of intelligence to prevent a series of IEDs as was witnessed in the Nineties and the early millennium.
The Indian Response
The loss of 40 lives of security personnel at Pulwama placed immense pressure on the Indian Government. With the precedent of having conducted surgical strikes 30 months ago, another robust response was expected. Restraint was not an option. Social media pressure too played its role which was something quite different to 26/11 terror attacks at Mumbai when social media penetration in India was minimal. The options were escalatory in nature and were many. The surgical strikes of Sep 2016 had afforded Pakistan the capability of denial; the desire this time was to prevent that. Deeper ground based strikes beyond the LoC carried the danger of loss of lives or capture of own personnel besides the problem of predictability. Missile strikes against identified terrorist facilities were a possibility which would give Pakistan lesser options of response due to absence of matching targets in India. Air strikes were the third option, with surgical precision targets comprising only terrorist facilities. A sub option here was to strike a Pakistan military facility or infrastructure. This sub option may not have initiated a conventional all-out war but would definitely have taken escalation to a very high level. Analysts generally stopped short at the third option of air strikes or went beyond to all out conventional war as an option. However, in between there was an important 'only J&K option'. In 2001 stung by very high volumes of infiltration into both the Valley and PirPanjal South the Indian Government reportedly gave sanction to the conduct of conventional offensive operations across the LoC to capture and integrate a number of crucial Pakistani posts which played a role in infiltration of terrorists. It is reported that these operations were called off due to the terror strike on the twin towers on 9/11. Would this option have been a plausible one post Pulwama? It appears unlikely judged against the considerations that the Indian Government surely had in mind; among them being proportionality, higher escalation risk, necessity for calibration and display of 'appropriate' resolve.
The surgical air strike was the most appropriate choice under the circumstances. However, the packet selected in terms of delivery was risky but bold. 12 aircraft in unison no doubt had a major impact but this aspect was insufficiently played up in the information game thereafter. In the initial assessment I did not feel the need for India to present any evidence of the strike at Balakot. Pakistan had already admitted that IAF aircraft had penetrated its air space. It attempted to trivialize it by stating that the aircraft had been chased away and forced to shed their munitions inconsequentially. This should have immediately led to an information blitz by us to smother Pakistan's Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) campaign which aimed at attempting to add more substance to the trivialization of our claims. Unfortunately, information operations remain the bane of our system. The desire to bring information and play it into the progression of events may definitely have existed this time but lack of experience and expertise in this remained a handicap. As time elapsed none in India were in any doubt about the authenticity of the IAF strike; weak political attempts at some point scoring were also inconsequential. What were significant were the doubts and apprehensions being cast by foreign media and armed forces. That post-strike damage assessment (PSDA) is an essential element of strike operations and forms a part of the information domain is an accepted teaching in the armed forces. Then why it was not factored in for Balakot is the question being raised by those who are assessing India's military capabilities.
It may be interesting to analyse whether the Balakot surgical air strike was a greater political risk than a military risk. While success would deliver political dividend, a failure through loss of a couple of aircraft and capture of our pilots would have been catastrophic for the ruling political dispensation forcing further response and escalation. The political risk was extremely high and therefore the decision was undoubtedly extremely bold.
Pakistan had the option of restraint by playing down the success of the strike. However, it had already publicly announced that there would be response to any Indian military action and could not stand down on that. Given its very tenuous economic situation Pakistan did not wish escalation and looked for a face saver. A demonstration of a shallow air strike without causing damage at the target end could meet the need if it was then played up through information operations. The problem was the intended objective; there being no terrorist infrastructure on Indian soil what could Pakistan target. It would be a major risk to hit Indian military border facilities and paint these as supportive of terror groups in Pakistan. The F-16 drama was played out to assuage perception that the Pakistan defence establishment had once again let down the nation. There was much rhetoric including a full attempt at psychological operations through the convening of the National Command Authority which takes decisions on nuclear response. India was, however, quite clear about the bluff being called but such stand offs admittedly can be dangerous if they happen once too often.
While de-escalation was imperative after the international community's pressure, what Pulwama and Balakot have changed is India's resolve to retaliate. Any future triggers of a similar nature will see the situation progressing from a higher rung of the escalatory ladder. Thus, shallow surgical strikes across the LoC and even single target surgical air strikes may be passé in future and fresh options with higher escalation potential may ensue.
There has been some criticism about the inability of India's response putting an end to Pakistan's cross border sponsored proxy war. It would be erroneous to perceive that such strikes can have a deterrent effect on Pakistan. These are actions which communicate will and capability to calibrate higher. Should India jump to a much higher rung of the escalatory ladder directly? It's all a question of risk management. To achieve clearer aims political and military objectives must be outlined. In higher escalation that remains the main challenge.
Without elaboration it needs to be flagged that India’s conventional war waging capability, the one area in which it has always had decided advantage over Pakistan, has eroded sufficiently for a downscaling of the combat effectiveness ratio. This is largely due to two reasons. The first being the lack of adequate budget support to maintain the combat effectiveness ratio; this has been the state over many years and not restricted to any particular political dispensation. The second reason is the inability to overcome the bureaucratic procedures for acquisition of weapons and equipment, including optimum levels of ammunition. Despite brave attempts at streamlining the defence procurement procedure and establishing a fledgling private defence industry the entire process appears to have languished and needs to energize on priority. Why the nationalistic NDA does not do this remains an element of doubt and does its image no credit.
The Foreign Factor
The role of diplomacy in the post Pulwama situation cannot be overemphasized. India did its bit effectively but Pakistan’s geostrategic position and nuisance potential if it is unstable tends to prevent the big powers from clearly supporting India diplomatically. Nevertheless, the US and western powers were supportive to a large degree as were smaller countries. It is the unclear status of Afghanistan and thus the peripheral region around it, which causes nations to step cautiously.
China has put its entire eggs into the Pakistani basket and considers this its investment for the expansion of its future economic empire. The West Indian Ocean region is a crucial area for China’s strategic interests. It will therefore not allow India a major diplomatic victory through complete international isolation of Pakistan. The support to Pakistan on Masood Azhar, the JeM chief, in the UN Security Council was a transactional issue in earlier years. It became a critical point this time in pursuit of this policy by China. Until more clarity emerges in South West Asia and the region of the New Great Game; China will not give India any flexibility or leeway to score diplomatic victory.
The absence of any major support from Russia had actually been befuddling analysts. However, the reason for this remains the same as for China. Until the vulnerable underbelly of Russia witnesses movement towards greater clarity Russia will ‘suffer’ the Deep State and keep its cards close to the chest; India’s Rs 39,000 crore S-400 deal notwithstanding. The US too has major stakes in South West Asia. Notwithstanding the emerging Indo US strategic partnership, the US has had to effect a slight roll back on Pakistan from the policy President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were trying to follow, of placing Pakistan on a higher level of accountability as far as its attitude towards terrorism was concerned. Due to current significance of Pakistan in the US parleys with the Taliban, Pakistan has regained a part of its lost stature. That gives it the confidence to pursue a more active anti India policy.
Future Internal Environment in Kashmir
Kashmir awaits a new summer, its marvellous spring is already upon us. It does not have much to look forward to. There is going to be an extended season of electoral activity since the parliamentary and assembly elections are being held separately. With Governor's rule in place, there cannot be a more appropriate time for the Indian establishment, to remain proactive, that is if someone cares to carefully examine. If Pakistan attempts to do anything big in the coming period it would be counterproductive for it because defending its actions once too often may not meet even China's approval. The US has already warned Pakistan in this regard. With opportunity galore due to political activity at grass root level arising from elections, for India's policy planners the political factor can help drive a new narrative if it is smartly done. The security forces and the administration should not be constrained and must continue with their mission without feeling shackled. The muscular policy against terrorists, over ground workers (OGWs), finance networks, stone throwers and separatists must also remain on track. However, a balancing policy of outreach and engagement must drive the discourse. Simultaneously the efforts towards de-radicalisation and counter-radicalisation must become meaningful and robust, employing segments of the Indian Muslim clergy who must come to the assistance of the national cause. It is insufficient for the seminary Dar-Ul-Uloom Deoband to issue very infrequent advisories cautioning Muslims that terror and Islam do not sync or that tolerance must remain central to all faiths.
I do strongly believe that everyone who matters in India's security establishment knows very well that the ultimate solution to resolving Kashmir internally is to follow a balanced policy favouring employment of both hard and soft power. Everyone knows how to follow the hard power route, it's the soft power which is a challenge. Muscular nationalism of the NDA prevents it from realising this most obvious solution. The former UPA constituents lack the sense of commitment having lost great opportunities which came their way in the past. It's for the strategic community to visit previous successful soft power models even as hard power remains in vigorous pursuit. The community must then appropriately stress upon the ways of engagement which bring stability over time. No one should have unrealistic expectations of success; that will come only with sincere pursuit of the balanced approach.
As to Pakistan, it must get the lesson straight that its good fortunes with the international security environment cannot give it cover to afford future terror acts against India. The next response from India may be far heavier than its expectation or assessment and it could be driven by as much or more irrationality than that Pakistan follows in its security policies.
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