Pulwama aftermath: From surgical strike to economic isolation, four ways India can hit back at Pakistan

If there’s anything that can be learned from media debates by "experts" in the past 24 hours is that no one has a clue on how India should react to the Pulwama terror attack. Emotion has given way to logic, as commentators looking to remake themselves as media personalities wondered why India is not attacking immediately across the Line of Control (LoC), across the International Border, or indeed attacking anything anywhere. However, in the middle of this confused response is genuine anger, and some bewilderment from the public as to why India has not got a ready response to such attacks.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has left it to the military to decide its options, even while promising that Pakistan will pay, and pay hard. That is as it should be. The prime minister gives the direction and the military has to decide how to carry it out. What is not said explicitly is that all such options will be seen through the prism of India’s objectives.

Pulwama aftermath: From surgical strike to economic isolation, four ways India can hit back at Pakistan

The site of the terror attack at Pulwama. Reuters

From first to last therefore, India’s objectives are to mollify public anger (the internal aspect), send a message to Pakistan that its depredations will no longer be tolerated (bilateral aspect), and finally, tell the world that India is a strong confident power capable of protecting its own people (the external aspect).

Within all these is one main caveat. Any action cannot endanger India’s future growth and status as an investment destination. Investors shy away from war and the costs it imposes. Nor do they like craven governments. In sum, the Indian growth story has to be sustained, and its fighting spirit projected. It’s a very very delicate balance indeed.

So here is a dose of realism as to what options India can consider within the parameters of what is possible and what is desirable. First off, a repeat of the surgical strike could be conducted with a slightly notched up strike force. That means either going in further into Pakistani territory with its attendant risks, or moving laterally across more points along the LoC. Both are entirely possible, but is unlikely to address any of the objectives above, least of all a seething public baying for blood.

A second option is a full on air strike against 'militant camps' in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. This is feasible since it is essentially a strike into your own territory, not legally part of Pakistan. A public announcement after the event that the strike was a one-off, and that India has no intention of escalating further would be necessary to prevent Pakistan from using this to its advantage. Such a strike has the advantage of, for the first time, putting PoK on notice that anyone sheltering terrorist will incur a heavy cost.

It could also pitch already hostile locals further against terrorists, and make it that much more difficult for Pakistan to operate its jihadi machinery from the vital jump-off points located in the area. The disadvantages here are two. First, is that Pakistan will most certainly portray camps that are hit as ‘civilian’ institutions ( like schools) . Second, there is a very real risk of collateral damage. Most of the larger terrorist ‘camps’ — which include transit facilities, offices and other units — are placed very deliberately close to civilian habitation. The timing here is crucial, as also real time imagery to prove terrorist presence using drones.

A third option is all out war, with hazy objectives. It could however be conjoined with the above, in terms of retaking PoK. Pakistan will naturally not oblige in keeping this as a operation limited to the LoC. Escalation is therefore inevitable. On the face of it however, such an operation is military within the bounds of possibility. The larger problem is the costs of holding on to the territory. This is likely to be sticky, apart from which it could be hugely expensive. India could portray this as a ‘reunification’ of Kashmir and ensure good governance and development delivery to clamp down on dissidence. That is like asking for a slice of the moon.

The third option is the most feasible. A covert war directed against significant terrorist leaders, particularly the Jaish head Masood Azhar, would deliver most of the desired objectives with one caveat: such an operation takes months to prepare. The public, in an election year, wants revenge now, not down the line. A compressed timeline for an operation is possible, but far more risky.

The last option is one that seems to be in operation. That is, to threaten war even while using diplomatic muscle to ‘isolate’ Pakistan. The word ‘isolate’ in this case would mean that the international community should not provide Pakistan economic or military aid until it eliminates terrorist sanctuaries. To give this teeth, it also requires a quietly articulated position that India will give preference to those not engaging with Pakistan when it buys weapons, civilian aircraft or nuclear reactors.

That is a huge clout, given the extent of the projected defence buys. It loses its glamour however when the inevitable delays due to ‘scams’ are factored in. This option requires an all of government approach, complicated signalling which could even include a governmental exercise on debating whether or not to designate Pakistan a terrorist State and will put on notice countries such as the US, Russia and even Japan.  Selectively leaked, this option could deliver on all objectives.

However, these very paraphrased options come up against one very real fact: India’s armed forces have been denied funds for years, and are barely hanging on. Poor defence management, vested interests, and a poor record of reform adds to this. They’re still in better shape than their counterparts in Pakistan, but that’s not saying much. The sum of the story is that political messaging also requires military clout to an extent where the adversary hesitates to take a retrograde step for fear of severe reprisal. Therefore, it may also be true that winning in the political space — whether in elections or otherwise — requires a strong and confident military capable of drawing up its own plans and strategies and using available resources to the best benefit. Altogether quite a large order for an ossified military and civilian bureaucracy accustomed to shifting decision making. Therefore the final lesson: pull up or put up.

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Updated Date: Feb 17, 2019 17:05:02 IST

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