Month after surgical strikes: Appraisal of India's new strategy of dealing with Pakistan

Exactly a month ago, Indian special forces crossed the Line of Control (LoC) to prevent imminent infiltration of Pakistan-sponsored terrorists into Indian territory. While this was certainly not the first time such an action was undertaken, the government’s decision to publicise this attack and, therefore, signal to Pakistan that it no longer buys the logic of inexorable escalation that was supposed to follow any Indian breach of the LoC – however limited – certainly establishes New Delhi’s intention to forge a new course in its dealings with Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

This is as good as any occasion gets to record what the strikes have established – and what they haven’t.

The Prime Minister is unpredictable – and that strengthens India’s hand

Consider this. Following the Uri attack on 18 September, the BJP’s core constituency was all but baying for blood. So when it was the Prime Minister’s turn to speak at the Kozhikode conclave on 23 September, it was natural for many to expect him to hint at a military response to come.

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

This was not the case. Instead Modi spoke of a thousand-year war against poverty that both countries were urged to fight and win, and made a direct appeal to the people of Pakistan, reminding them of the common thread of history that united the two countries. It looked to all but a few sanguine PM-watchers that the military option was closed – and Delhi was back to the ‘more-of-same’ policy.

Wrong. It is now clear that soon after the Uri attack, the government had decided on a military response, albeit on a limited scale, and with precise counter-terrorism objectives in mind. By highlighting the common challenges both the countries faced – and by invoking the bonds between them – Modi softened the blow to come, and cleverly delinked the people of Pakistan from the military regime there. By keeping both his domestic base as well as Rawalpindi guessing, Modi has lived up to the maxim that, in strategy, surprise is paramount.

Pakistan, beyond bluster, is a traditional power which knows when to back off

An article of faith, evangelised mostly by Washington DC scholars and think-tankers, has been that any Indian military response to Pakistan-sponsored terrorism would be ineffective and/or escalatory – do too little and it wouldn’t matter; do too much, and a general war will follow under a nuclear overhang. India didn’t seem to have good force-based deterrence or compellence options in front of it, these mandarins suggested. (It is deliciously coincidental that two of the most prominent American voices who have argued along these lines were actually in Delhi a couple of days before the 29 September strikes making these very arguments.)

At the heart of this perceived lack of options is another deep-rooted perception of Pakistan as a non-unitary, irrational actor where no single entity possessed a monopoly on the use of force, and where the state fails to coldly calculate the costs versus benefits of escalation. To a large extent, Pakistani players have cultivated this image for themselves. Henry Kissinger once said (ironically enough, during a visit to Peshawar in the early 1960s): “A madman who is holding a hand grenade in his hand has a very great bargaining advantage.” Pakistan became the quintessential madman in the eyes of many American – and Indian – decision makers and analysts.

By denying that the surgical strikes even took place, Pakistan chose to de-escalate. By choosing to de-escalate, Rawalpindi, beyond the facade of an ideologically-driven revisionist power, demonstrated that it is quite attuned to rational cost-benefit calculations behind retaliation. The madman is quite adept at poker, it seems.

So much for escalation, but was the strike effective? While a single cross-LoC action with very limited objectives is unlikely to change Pakistan’s behaviour completely, Cyril Almeida’s Dawn column – and the attendant kerfuffle in Rawalpindi – does attest to the fact that it did, in conjunction with Pakistan’s growing isolation in the international stage, nudge the Sharif government in the direction of a rethink vis-a-vis Pakistan’s addition to the employment of proxies. The strikes were a first step in, what analyst
Manoj Joshi called, India’s emerging strategy of compellence.

Strategic restraint is dead. Long live strategic restraint!

Senior BJP leader Ram Madhav, hours after the Uri attack, warned Pakistan that the era of “strategic restraint is over.” But do the surgical strikes really mean that it is so?

Yes and no. Yes, to the extent that ‘strategic restraint’ was nothing but a sophisticated-sounding euphemism for India’s default “do-nothing” option of the past, perhaps motivated by self-deterrence in face of certain escalation terminating in nuclear war. In other words, if ‘strategic restraint’ is a matter of necessity and not choice – a restraint forced on India rather than adopted by India – then the strikes indeed mark the end of an era.

No, to the extent that restraint, as a strategy, often compliments resolve. Together, resolve – when it comes to necessary application of force – and restraint – which directs limited force towards clear-cut achievement of political objectives – are both needed for successful deterrence, a point brilliantly made by the Nobel-winning game theorist Roger Myerson. In fact, restraining resolve often enhances deterrence, as Myerson showed. The 29 September strikes demonstrated both. It was restrained both in the choice of forces employed (land-based, and not air-power based), scope (shallow penetration of territory India claims to be its own) as well its diplomatic billing (counter-terrorism operation aimed at neutralising imminent infiltration rather than taking the fight to the Pakistani conventional army).

29 September, 2016 – in other words – would be marked as a day when India adopted restraint as a strategy to compliment strategic resolve. The effective marriage of the two would determine the contours of India’s Pakistan strategy in the years to come.

The author is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and a national security columnist for Firstpost. Views expressed here are personal. He tweets @AbhijnanRej.


Published Date: Oct 28, 2016 08:28 pm | Updated Date: Oct 30, 2016 11:34 am