Countering Pak: Modi must move up from mere retaliation to effective strategy

The escalating tensions along the India-Pakistan border in Jammu & Kashmir, where large civilian populations are now being targeted by Pakistan in response to the BSF’s new strategy of hitting back harder than before, and the recent media controversy over the Pakistani boat that went down in flames in the Arabian Sea after being confronted by the Coast Guard, are symptoms of India’s inability to develop a clear counter-strategy to Pakistan’s ability to inflict both terror and costs.

If the increased instances of firing along the LoC and International Border are likely to embarrass us when President Barack Obama is with us on R-Day (which was on reason why Pakistan is ratcheting up the border heat), the boat episode has ended up thrilling the Pakistanis for the simple reason that we are internally split into two camps, politically and as a people. With the BJP thumping its chest on the issue, the Congress is in a mood to question government claims; with newspaper reports raising doubts over whether the boat actually carried potential 26/11 type terrorists or just contraband, the country is wondering whether it should applaud or sulk. Nothing warms the cockles of our enemies across the border more than the realisation that we are deeply divided even over our improved surveillance and interception capabilities.

 Countering Pak: Modi must move up from mere retaliation to effective strategy

It is time Prime Minister Narendra Modi moved up from tactics to real strategy. PTI

The lack of a well-thought-out and coherent strategy to deal with Pakistan’s provocations along the border and its ability to keep shoving terrorists to create mayhem here is obvious from the following:

One, we have announced that we will give it back to Pakistan if it provokes us. As Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said the other day, he had told the security forces that “when something happens, retaliate with double the force.” While this is certainly better than the previous attitude of pusillanimity and meek response, retaliation is not a strategy. Moreover, if retaliation results is more provocations and massive counter-retaliation (as seems to be the case on the J&K border right now), there can be no exit from escalation. The last thing we can afford is a strategy that does not allow us to control the end-game and mindlessly slip into war.

Two, after the Pakistani boat went down in the wee hours of 1 January, the BJP was quick to claim that the government had managed to prevent what could have been a 26/11 incursion on Indian soil. While this kind of story-telling may go well with Narendra Modi’s tough guy image, two fundamental issues were lost sight of: in any security related issue, it is the government that must control the messaging, not political parties. Once the BJP claimed success, the Congress was quick to question it, and so was the media. Secondly, the BJP’s TV spokespersons then compounded the error by verbally blasting the Congress and sections of the media that had questioned its version of the boat episode as “anti-national”.

As security and terrorism expert Ajai Sahni wrote in The Economic Times today (7 January), “An operation that could rightly have been projected as a significant success and demonstration of the country’s improving technical intelligence and response capabilities has, instead, become a raging controversy and embarrassment for the government, in an atmosphere of jingoism and desperation to secure political mileage and credit far beyond anything justified by the facts.”

Even though the chances are that the Pakistani boat did carry bad characters and not just contraband (read here), by making unverifiable claims, the BJP’s chest-thumpers ended up compromising the government’s position. Moreover, does it matter whether the intruding boat carried terrorists or just drugs? Once intercepted by the Coast Guard, and the boat’s occupants decided to set it on fire rather than allow the former to board, the matter is over. A fugitive who kills himself when the police stop him has no claim on public sympathy.

The government has managed to pull of a PR failure from an operational success. An effective counter-terror strategy will always have to include an effective communications strategy with the public. This is clearly missing. Accusing detractors of being unpatriotic is not the solution. It will, in fact, end up delegitimising government actions.

Three, our policy of no talks with Pakistan till it abandons terror is of limited use. Home Minister Rajnath Singh said yesterday (6 January) that “Only Pakistan can decide (whether to have peace talks)... talks have to be fruitful. (We) can’t have talks just for the sake of talks.” This is a terrible strategy. If Pakistan is going to decide when and whether to hold peace talks, and we are going to append our own conditions for the talks, it means the entire initiative is with Pakistan. No strategy should leave the initiative entirely with the enemy. This way we will just be responding aimlessly to provocations and sudden positive overtures without understanding why we are going through the motions.

Unlike what Rajnath Singh, or, for that matter, what Modi himself may believe, talks should never be abandoned. In fact, the best time to hold talks is when there is a terror strike, for, in this case, we can focus exclusively on the issue at hand and demand action from Pakistan. If we break off talks just when Pakistan has sent some jihadis over for suicide attacks, it means we will resume talks at a time of their choosing, when the atrocity is long forgotten. Pakistan will claim it was always for dialogue, and it was India that kept breaking them off. They will claim to be peaceful guys, and seek to label us as war-mongers. A world unaware of the nuances will wonder what is wrong with us. Optics matter, and we cannot afford to lose the world’s sympathetic gaze whenever it chooses to look at this side of Planet Earth.

This is not to say the emerging Modi-Ajit Doval doctrine on how to respond to Pakistan is wrong-headed. Far from it. By retaliating hard, we have at least established that our responses cannot be taken for granted. A key element in any strategy should be to leave the enemy with some doubt on how we will respond.

But retaliation, as we stated before, cannot be the whole of strategy – if there is one. It faces the risk of escalation into something no one wants.

India’s signal failure in the past has been its inability to understand what it is up against and what it needs to do beyond being reactive. We need a comprehensive strategy against Pakistan which must include the following:

#1: A recognition that the Pakistani army is the Pakistani state. So any talks – whenever held - will have to include them.

#2: Talks must always continue no matter what the provocation. At times of extreme provocation, there must be more talks so that the focus of the world is on the atrocity, and not the general state of India-Pakistan relations. Jaw-jaw, as has been said, is better than war-war.

#3: A very high intelligence and counter-terror capability must be complemented with strong internal policing strengths and an effective communication strategy when things happen.

#4: Effective diplomacy and the use of third party pressure on Pakistan have to be integral to any strategy to counter Pakistan: the only three countries with leverage in Pakistan are the US, China and, possibly Saudi Arabia. Whatever we do, we need to check how these three influencers of Pakistani policy will react and how they will communicate our concerns to our enemy and the world.

#5: We need a security doctrine that is all-encompassing – and which is more widely discussed and debated. Any strategy against Pakistan or China should have strong intellectual inputs from experts with special knowledge on these countries and how they will respond to what we do.

#6:  Effective peace can only be achieved with effective war-making capabilities, whether the war is an open war or a low-intensity one like what Pakistan is waging against us.

As Ajai Sahni noted in an earlier blog: “Nations that fail to evolve effective war-fighting capabilities - conventional or sub-conventional - are often found to be the very nations that have failed in the fundamental and essential task of studying history; or those that have perverted their study of history with dissimulation, falsehood or delusion. This is substantially the case with India's war against terrorism, where the invention of a range of pseudo-histories (terrorism in Punjab was defeated by 'the people' and not by counter-terrorist action by the forces); of false sociologies ('root causes of terrorism'); and of pseudo-solutions (development, negotiations, autonomy, political accommodation of terrorists) has blinded the policy establishment to the imperatives of counter-terrorism strategy and tactics and, indeed, to the lessons of India's past counter-terrorism successes.”

The Khalistani terrorism was ended by KPS Gill’s effective counter-terror strategy, not candle-light vigilantes. The Andhra Pradesh Naxal menace was ended by purposive strategy, including the use of a specialised anti-guerilla force called Greyhounds. It did not happen by holding peace talks with the comrades. Peace talks follow defeat on the field, and not the other way round.

Pakistani terrorism also needs sound strategy. Says Sahni: “The absence of strategy and the incoherence of tactics has long afflicted India, as the country finds itself responding continuously and insufficiently to provocations by its neighbours…With over 25 years of Pakistan-sponsored Islamist terrorist activity on Indian soil, the country is still to correctly define the problem that confronts it, or to craft an appropriate 'strategic architecture' and to derive policies and practices that are in conformity with such an overarching design.

Time Modi and Doval moved up from tactics to real strategy.

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Updated Date: Jan 07, 2015 14:19:49 IST