Editor's note: The following article appeared in this weekend's edition of Firstpost Print.
On 14 February, a suicide bomber hit a bus carrying CRPF personnel from Jammu to Srinagar with an explosive-laden vehicle. In one of the deadliest attacks in Kashmir, 40 CRPF men were martyred. As pictures emerged of the carnage, Indians reacted initially with horror and then anger and outrage. Within minutes of the blast, the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a Pakistan-based jihadi group, claimed responsibility for the strike. This was a departure from past high-profile attacks where terror groups have generally been silent about their involvement.
The Indian political leadership has promised retribution and the Prime Minister has stated that the army has been given a free hand. Expectations among the people are high, particularly after the successful surgical strike of 2016 that was the topic of endless discussions and a highly popular movie. However, this is serious business and the political and armed forces’ leadership must carefully weigh and consider the military options, unencumbered by public chatter.
The surgical strikes of 2016 and the extremely heated Line of Control with massive exchanges of gunfire have apparently not had a significant enough impact on the Pakistan-based terror groups to curb their activity. Therefore, as we mull over our military options, should we focus on terror camps as the primary target? But will the killing of a few jihadis prevent terror attacks when there is no shortage of radicalised Pakistani youth waiting to join the ranks? Should India then plan a decapitation strike on the leadership of JeM and the Lashkar-e-Taiba? This would require precise intelligence and a more long-term effort than what public impatience demands.
Should our military options be directed more specifically at the Pakistan army? The ISI and Pakistan military leadership is the real driving force behind terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir and unless they feel real pain, they will have no reason or incentive to change their ways. However, many questions are raised on whether India can actually bring adequate military pressure to bear on a nuclear-armed neighbour without escalating to an unacceptable level. In my view, the dangers of any military action by India escalating to an all-out war are over-stated. Certainly, escalation has its own dynamic and is not always controllable, but we need to view it realistically in the India-Pakistan context. If our past conflicts, including the last confrontation in Kargil, are any guide, both countries can responsibly restrict themselves up to a certain level of violence.
The discussion between our political and military leaders must, therefore, centre on how much escalation we are willing to accept. Two alternatives suggest themselves. The first is a single high-profile action against the Pakistan army to prove our point, assuage popular sentiment, and provide a face-saving excuse to the rogue neighbour to back down. We saw this in 2016 when Pakistan denied that the surgical strikes even happened. However, we must also be prepared for a response. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has said: “If you think, you would launch any attack on Pakistan and we would not think of retaliating, Pakistan will retaliate.” The second alternative is sustained low-level military action to keep the Pakistan army under continuous pressure. Pakistan can shrug off a quick tactical loss but will have to introspect deeply when faced with a long-drawn conflict that remains below the threshold of an all-out war and does not permit it to flash the nuclear card. In my view, this is perhaps the better alternative, but may not be politically suitable at present.
However, starting with the premise that we are unwilling to go beyond a certain limit of escalation is also a tacit acceptance of the limits of pure military coercion in the India-Pakistan geopolitical landscape. And these limits raise doubts about our ability to change the attitudes and behaviour of the Pakistani deep state. Does it follow that we should not consider the military option as a viable response to the Pulwama attack? There are no clear answers to this question. The fact that use of force could have only a limited strategic advantage has never prevented the political leadership from pursuing the military path, particularly when the political imperatives for action are strong. A major consideration before the leadership today is whether it can deter the Pakistan military from continuing with its policy of bleeding India through a thousand cuts.
The strategy of deterrence has three main components — capability, credibility, and communication. A strong and capable military force, a credible declaration of intent to use force to deter an adversary, and clear messaging of intentions. The American and Israeli states have been able to deter many potential aggressors because they demonstrate both a strong military capability and the political will to use that force. If India shows a lack of resolve, its credibility will suffer.
The government will have to debate the options open and the long-term implications of the path that it chooses. It is obvious that diplomacy and international isolation of Pakistan will be key ingredients of India’s strategic policy. However, diplomatic negotiations, though extremely important, are conducted in safe environs and carry little risk of escalation. The use of military force, on the other hand, is highly threatening and dangerous, but it is also the ultimate weapon of deterrence. The real challenge before the political leadership will be the manner in which they calibrate the employment of this weapon.
The author is a former Northern Army commander
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