Pakistan has always fetishised the tactical element of surprise to achieve near-term ends while paying no heed to the strategic consequences as they evolve. When Pakistan ordered the Jaish-e-Mohammed to attack a convoy of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) jawans in Pulwama using a vehicle-borne suicide bomb on 14 February, it likely succeeded in its short-term objectives.
Pakistan, however, spectacularly misunderstood how the attack, which left 40 jawans dead, would reverberate throughout India and across its political classes to produce a resounding demand that Pakistan pay for this outrage. India could have responded as it did at Uri by inserting small force packets across the Line of Control (LoC) to hit shallow targets on the Pakistani side. It could have used stand-off weapons to hit targets deeper within Kashmir controlled by Pakistan without crossing the de facto border.
But India surprised everyone by dispatching 12 Mirages across the LoC to take out a Jaish camp in Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Pakistan did not expect this response. There is reason to believe that it withdrew Jaish fighters from launch pads near the LoC expecting an Uri-like attack. However, there was no evidence that the dozen fighter aircraft encountered any resistance during their sorties despite Pakistani contrarian claims. The confused menagerie of responses in Pakistan ranged from army claims that the air force chased them out and they prematurely deposited their ordinance without causing harm.
Civilians, on the other hand, demanded a “fitting response”. The cacophony was reminiscent of what followed the Abbottabad raid in which US special operators in several stealth helicopters invaded Pakistani airspace from the east, descended upon Osama bin Laden’s lair, killed him and absconded with hard drives and other evidence before the dauntless Pakistan air force rousted from its slumber.
In an equally surprising turn of events, Pakistan escalated by dispatching fighter aircraft to bomb targets on the Indian side of the LoC. How this situation unfolds in coming days, weeks and months is anyone’s guess given the unprecedented nature of this crisis in South Asia or elsewhere.
But one thing is clear: after Balakot, there will be little appetite in India to return to the status quo of strategic restraint. Unless this crisis spirals out of control and leads to a war in which Pakistan defeats India, there will be a demand to respond to subsequent Pakistan-sponsored terror attacks. Pakistan has not changed but India has and Pakistan has only itself to blame. The implications of India and Indians becoming comfortable with power projection will have an enormous impact on the region and beyond.
We have seen Pakistani miscalculations before. There are important parallels to Pakistan’s conduct of Kargil, which similarly demonstrated Islamabad’s penchant for the tactic of surprise while also highlighting its inability to anticipate long-term consequences.
In the spring of 1999, taking advantage of a seasonal retreat from holding forward positions, Pakistan executed a broad incursion across the LoC in Kashmir using three to four thousand men equipped primarily with small arms from the then-paramilitary organisation, the Northern Light Infantry.
Ostensibly, the Pakistani forces sought to make small territorial gains at tactically significant locations near the Indian town of Kargil. By May, the Indians finally became aware of the intruders and initially mistook them for so-called mujahideen. The Indian ground forces took heavy casualties dislodging them and ultimately inducted airpower to do so.
By the fourth of July, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had flown to Washington DC with his wife in the hope that President Bill Clinton could find an honourable way out. Clinton told him to withdraw forces and respect the LoC. Sharif pledged to bring the intruders back to Pakistan’s side of the LoC.
As this withdrawal was executed in July, public sentiment turned against the civilian government for selling out the brave mujahideen. The pusillanimity of the Sharif government imposed a defeat on the mujahideen that they did not deserve and gave India a victory that it did not earn. Public anger was even more apparent as the so-called mujahideen casualties mounted after the withdrawal agreement. The army manufactured this outrage to save itself and to impugn the civilian government. By October 1999, army chief General Pervez Musharraf ousted Sharif. While the Pakistan army thought it had won the day, in fact, it had lost in ways it would not come to appreciate.
Kargil had an enormous impact on Pakistani foreign relations for the first several years following the conflict. Pakistan was completely isolated because it pursued the destabilising intrusion and because it persisted in clinging to a falsehood that no one found credible: that the mujahideen did it. The United States, the G-8 and even China took positions that were concordant with India’s preferred position: that Pakistan was the aggressor and that Islamabad needed to act to restore the LoC.
Pakistan was perceived as a rogue state, veering dangerously towards becoming a bastion of radicalised Islamists increasingly similar to its neighbour under the Taliban. Whereas in 1998, India emerged as the regional pariah responsible for nuclearising the subcontinent, Pakistan squandered on the heights near Kargil the goodwill it had accumulated in the wake of the nuclear tests.
At one point, the US state department even suggested that sanctions be imposed on Pakistan if it persisted with its posture of intransigence. The absurdity of Pakistan’s cover story and Islamabad’s tenacity in maintaining it further diminished its credibility. This credibility deficit continues to complicate Pakistan’s external relations. When Pakistan-based and Pakistan-backed militants attacked the Indian Parliament in December 2001, few believed that Islamabad was innocent of the incident.
Kargil was an important turning point in Indo-Pakistani relations in several ways. One, it confirmed India’s belief that Pakistan was “a reckless, adventuristic, and risk-acceptant state, capable of behaving astrategically and irrationally”. Two, because Kargil was planned and prosecuted at the same time as the Lahore process, India concluded that it simply could not do business with Pakistan. Third, India assessed that Pakistan’s ongoing civil-military rivalry would make normalisation of ties exceedingly difficult.
Fundamentally, the Kargil conflict raised questions about the basis for substantive engagement with Islamabad. Even if it did manage to reach an agreement with Islamabad, India had little guarantee that such an accord could endure. Rather, any such agreement would be hostage to the vicissitudes of Pakistan’s ever-changing internal dynamics.
The Kargil shift
Kargil also changed how Indians understood Pakistan. It was India’s first televised war. Prior to Kargil, few people in the south or Northeast cared about what happened in distant Kashmir. The non-stop coverage of the mounting casualties as soldiers fought to retake territory helped knit a national narrative about Pakistan and its nefarious designs. India emerged from Kargil as a front-line state against Islamist terror, a mantle that it has further claimed in the aftermath of the 11 September terrorist attacks.
The Kargil conflict also prompted massive changes within defence and intelligence infrastructures, which transformed India as an adversary. Because of Kargil, India undertook a sweeping review of its defence infrastructure to explain how such an intrusion could have happened without detection and how “future Kargils” might be avoided.
The Kargil review committee and the subsequent ministerial report proposed wide-ranging reforms across the intelligence communities. India realised the imperatives of an effective strategic warning system: broad investments in better technology, a commitment to better intelligence assessment and dissemination procedures at the highest diplomatic and political levels.
To counter the problem of infiltration, India began fortifying its forward defences to mitigate the possibility of Kargil-like adventures. To mitigate these vulnerabilities, India hungrily acquired a range of technologies to augment thermal, infrared, acoustic imaging as well as image-intensification capabilities, including high-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles and space-based systems, along with their concomitant ground-based command and control and image processing facilities.
In addition, India sought out military training to better confront the challenges it faced in Jammu and Kashmir. This was apparent in the emphasis that India laid on special operations within the Indo-US army-to-army training exercises. The Indian Army also re-outfitted its special forces-specific equipment such as night-vision goggles, special rifles, assault vehicles, kayaks, masks and protective gear for operating in nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare environments. It enhanced secure communications and the ability to intercept militant communications.
To state the obvious, Kargil taught India that limited war was possible. It motivated India to rethink its entire strategy for dealing with Pakistan. It altered the bilateral relationship as well as how Indian officials portrayed Pakistan at multilateral fora. In short, because of Kargil and its sequelae, the kind of adversary that Pakistan will face in future conflicts has evolved in manifold dimensions.
Towards a Naya India?
On February 26, 2019, Pakistanis awoke to a different India. Whereas Pakistanis celebrated their surprise land grabs in Kargil, Indians had the surprise. When Pakistan retaliated a day later, Indian jets intercepted them. Pulwama seemed to have awakened a somnambulant giant. After this week, there will likely be no turning back. It took years for Pakistan to understand the gravity of Kargil and the sweeping changes it ushered in. Will Pakistan’s security managers be quicker to grasp the changes they have unleashed this time?
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