What should be the goal of an Indian military cross-border excursion? Many observers, myself among them, do not believe that India presently has the requisite military capability to carry out any strike into Pakistan that would hurt the Pakistani military or degrade the infrastructure of its jihadist allies, while simultaneously staying below Islamabad's nuclear threshold. There are yet others who argue that such options simply do not exist because any conceivable strike would either be of limited strategic use or would risk escalation of the crisis past the nuclear limit. Or both. However, it is important to be clear about the aims of a cross-border mission before we discuss utility or capability.
One kind of cross-border strike is a precise attack from the air. Presumably, stealth helicopters or fighter aircraft would slip into enemy airspace, unleash their deadly payload of precision-guided munitions, and return before anyone is any the wiser. Critics say that India lacks the material capability as well as training to carry out such missions. However, such high standards for these sorts of operations are achieved only in Hollywood or on games consoles: As ample examples illustrate, real life is a lot messier. In perhaps the most famous and significant case of an airstrike gone awry, in May 1999, the United States air force mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. More recently, according to the United Nations, over 1,250 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan in just the past seven years.
The possibility of collateral damage or a failed strike — when the targets have already fled — is always there. Faulty intelligence, bad data, or a fast-evolving situation on the ground is usually to blame. Robert Farley, a professor at the University of Kentucky who studies the American military, explains, "One of the core aspects of air power theory is this idea that with enough reconnaissance, with enough data with enough data crunching, we can paint an extremely hyper-accurate picture of the battlefield that is going to not only eliminate accidental strikes, but it’s going to make it so we can strike directly and precisely." The situational awareness in reality is never that good, admitted Scott F Murray, a retired US air force colonel who coordinated the US air campaign in West Asia and Afghanistan. While India needs to hone its skills in surgical airstrikes, the benchmark can never be an ideal that has rarely been achieved.
A second option is the targeted assassination or abduction of key figures. Although Israeli operations such as the the one bringing Adolf Eichmann to trial or the series of assassinations carried out in revenge for the massacre of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972 come to mind, there are also equally public and painful failures such as the botched job in Lillehammer in 1973 or the failed attempt on Khaled Meshaal in 1997. These operations require global assets and a long-term focus that the Indian political class has simply not been seen to possess.
Yet what is the long-term utility of being able to conduct such operations? As we have seen after every successful US or Israeli counter-terrorism mission, fallen leaders are quickly replaced. For a time, the organisation may lose steam; occasionally, a lack of agreement on a suitable successor may cause a group to splinter, but this makes it even more difficult to keep track of the various new factions. Rarely, if ever, have such operations succeeded in stopping terrorism and yet terror cell leaders constitute high value targets. The elimination of Hafiz Saeed, Dawood Ibrahim, or any other senior terrorist figure may be a national morale booster and morally satisfying but will scarcely dissuade Pakistan from conducting further acts of terrorism against India.
The value of a cross-border strike is not in its potential to resolve conflict — any such expectation is delusional. Rather, it is the assurance of a punitive response, even one that is held back to a time and place of Delhi's choosing. From a rationalist, state-level perspective, this cycle of strike and counter-strike seems insane. Yet India is not fighting a State but an idea: As Husain Haqqani has argued in his recent book, India vs Pakistan: Why Can't We Just Be Friends?, the root of the conflict between the two South Asian states is not nationalism but religion. Contrary to popular opinion, Islam did not enter the scene during the rule of Zia ul-Haq but as early as Ayub Khan, who used to pepper his anti-India speeches with Islamic references. Even before Independence, the Urdu poet Asghar Sodai coined the famous phrase (1944) that would go on to become a rallying cry for all sorts of groups in Pakistan to this day: پاکستان کا مطلب کیا لاالہ الا اللہ. Unlike states, ideas are more amorphous and resilient to force.
A model that is popularly looked up to in India is Israel. The swift, daring, and decisive actions of not just its intelligence services but also its military are the stuff of legend. However, the real lessons for India come from the pattern of fighting the Israeli Defence Forces have adopted over last 20 years and not its early days. Lieutenant-Colonel Ron Tira (res) of the Israeli Air Force describes the IDF's strategy in its last six major engagements as one of attrition in which the aim was to "cause the opponent more damage (quantitatively and qualitatively) than the opponent caused Israel in the same timespan." The fear of punitive retaliation would, it was hoped, delay the next conflict and restrain the enemy's ambitions.
The possibility of collateral damage or a failed strike — when the targets have already fled — is always there
This is exactly the strategy Israel previously avoided — against larger, better equipped, and better trained forces of nation-states, the tiny IDF would be no match in the long haul. Against asymmetric forces, however, this strategy allows for resource and risk management. The limited aims and slow tempo of such campaigns allows both sides time for diplomatic signalling and stock-taking. The strategy works, Tira explains, because "Israel faced weak sub-state enemies whose main capabilities lie in inflicting damage, but who do not threaten to defeat the IDF or to capture Israeli territory. In each campaign, the interests defended by the IDF were of secondary importance. In this context, Israel could afford to sustain damage from the opponent, knowing that the opponent at the same time was suffering more substantial damage, without removing the threat or substantially degrading the opponent’s ability to make war."
The South Asian situation is not identical: Pakistan actively cultivates terrorist networks in a far more direct manner than Arab support comes for the Palestinian disaffected. More importantly, Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons. Yet limited strikes by India, at times without even awaiting a provocation, will force Islamabad to distance itself from or publicly embrace its illegitimate children. It is feared that such action could well raise the heat on the border but the limited nature of these attacks would give Islamabad no credible reason to resort to nuclear blackmail. And why must nuclear anxiety be borne by one side alone and not shared?
Indian leaders must understand the nature of the threat they face and adopt a strategy that is more in tune with the demands of the situation. It may not be as satisfying as precise and decisive strikes or give closure but it is an old art of war.
The fantasy of a silver bullet serves no one.