Imran warns of retaliation if attacked, but can Modi govt call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff to avenge Pulwama?

  • Imran Khan on Tuesday Khan responded to the India's allegations on Pakistan's involvement in the Pulwama suicide strike carried out by Jaish-e-Mohammad

  • 'If you have any actionable intelligence that a Pakistani is involved. Give it to us,' Khan said in a televised address

  • Pakistan’s worst-kept secret is that, as the chattel, minion, friend and retainer of the army, Imran’s voice must be treated as his masters’

“The only certainty that summer was moral confusion,” says Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried, his award-winning 1990 novel on the Vietnam war.

O’Brien says: “... when a nation goes to war it must have reasonable confidence in the justice and imperative of its cause. You can’t fix your mistakes. Once people are dead, you can’t make them undead.”

Pakistan’s rulers are not suffering from the burden of moral confusion after the 14 February Pulwama terror attack. So, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s barefaced lies in his six-minute speech on Tuesday should come as no surprise.

Pakistan-based terror outfit Jaish-e-Mohammad claimed responsibility — publicly — for the Pulwama attack. Jaish leader Masood Azhar has been moving freely and impressing audiences with his oratory, though he is said to be in a hospital in Pakistan now. A top JeM “commander” was killed in an Indian operation on Monday. Yet, Imran is asking what Pakistan has to do with all of this. At an international level, there is a growing clamour against Pakistan aiding and abetting terrorists. Of course, Imran is still asking: ‘Pakistan? Terrorists? Really?’

India must be thankful to Imran Khan for not demanding proof that Pulwana exists on Kashmir’s map and that 42 CRPF men were blasted to pieces there.

 Imran warns of retaliation if attacked, but can Modi govt call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff to avenge Pulwama?

Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan delivers policy statement on Pulwama attack, in Islamabad on Tuesday. PTI

But his lies are not meant for Indian consumption. His target audience comprises the Americans (who were tough on Pakistan after the suicide attack), Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (who was soft on Pakistan on a visit to that country on Monday and whose two-day India visit began on Tuesday) and the IMF (with whom Pakistan is negotiating for a $12 billion loan to bail itself out of its mammoth financial crisis).

It’s tempting to dismiss Imran’s gibberish as that of a remote-controlled puppet of Pakistan’s army. Pakistan’s worst-kept secret is that, as the chattel, minion, friend and retainer of the army, Imran’s voice must be treated as his masters’. But it’s important to hear and decipher what he utters because, through him, that’s what the all-important military bosses and the thinly-concealed handlers of terrorists want the world to know.

Nuclear sabre-rattling

What was for India’s exclusive consumption and what must be taken note of in Imran’s speech was his rattling of sabre — the nuclear sabre — though, of course, he can’t utter the N-word. He said: “... if these (threats of action against Pakistan) are real, please note one thing clearly: Pakistan will not (just) think of retaliating, it will retaliate.”  The threat of retaliation could also mean that Pakistan sees the prospect of an imminent Indian action to avenge Pulwama.

It’s not just the content, but the tone of these words that’s hard to miss. It’s more aggressive than those of the earlier prime ministers who spoke on similar lines after terror strikes on India in the past. That’s not surprising. That’s only proof, if we needed it, of the new aggressiveness of Pakistan’s military or the ‘deep state’, seeing the Americans walking out of neighbouring Afghanistan and finding a truly faithful dummy in Imran Khan.

India has no “moral confusion” of the kind the American novelist spoke of. What we have now is a huge strategic conundrum.

If India’s decision-makers are confused, it’s not only because they have no idea of how to deal with Pakistan’s proxy war, or they are worried that whatever they do in retaliation might escalate to a full-scale war, or they are fearful of the material and human costs involved, or how Pakistan’s friends such as China might react to it, or there is no certainty over who will win a war, or because they can’t say for sure whether such a war will really put an end to terrorism; but also because the rogue neighbour is nuclear-armed.

One section of Indian analysts believe that India must call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. But that’s easier said than done. So we have another section that warns against taking the nuclear threat lightly. That brings into question what India must want.

What must be on India’s agenda is not score-settling. What the country must endeavour is to devise a strategy to eliminate the threat of terror, even with armed actions that may fall short of a full-scale war.

India’s ‘Cold Start’ doctrine

It’s not as if India hasn’t thought of Pakistan’s nuclear menace. After the fiasco in mobilising a quick response to the Jaish-e-Mohammed attack on Parliament in 2001, there was talk of India having developed a so-called Cold Start war doctrine.

This involved positioning strike forces close to the border for a quick and short attack on Pakistan.

Seizing territory and then using it as a bargain to force Pakistan to stop supporting terror outfits was said to be part of that doctrine, which was first denied and then confirmed and then nothing was heard of it. This sort of a plan of action was expected to deny Pakistan justification for launching a nuclear strike against India.

Then came the response from Pakistan saying it had an answer for Cold Start. If Cold Start was expected to deter Pakistan from launching a nuclear attack, Pakistan developed Nasr, a short-range, shoot-and-scoot nuclear-capable missile. This meant that if India launched a quick attack, Pakistan could respond with a rapid  “tactical” nuclear retaliation.  Not surprisingly, the Chinese media downplayed Cold Start’s efficacy.

Global Times, the aggressive Chinese tabloid, said in a 2017 article: “Even if the Cold Start strategy sounds intimidating and there is indeed a gap between the two powers’ military might, it does not mean that New Delhi can easily win a landslide victory against Islamabad. The truth is, Pakistan has considerable strength to safeguard its sovereignty and its nuclear weapons should not be ignored.”

For India, there is indeed no military option which can be deemed risk-free and which can guarantee results, which explains the absence so far of any action against Pakistan other than eliminating the mastermind of the Pulwama attack. War is not a gamble. But not doing anything is also not an option. If India’s response involves military action — be it air strikes at select targets or scaled-up surgical strikes or something else — the only ones to know the pros and cons of these operations are those who run this country’s armed forces. Leave it to them.

Updated Date: Feb 19, 2019 21:46:24 IST