Opinion | Pulwama: India’s response should be informed by history
The Indian armed forces will present their options to the political leaders on how to respond to Pulwama attack. In order to appreciate and assess those options, we need to look back in history. Let us start with instances when India achieved a military success against Pakistan.
1965: After Pakistan failed to instigate Kashmiris into rebellion against the Indian state, its armoured divisions made a massive thrust in order to isolate Srinagar from the rest of India. Having received a drubbing against China in 1962, Indian forces and leadership, Pakistan assumed, would have little fight in them. The then Indian prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, had other plans. He decided to open another front in Punjab. The generals in Pakistan were clearly not prepared for this. Besides the surprise element, Shastri’s move also indicated to Pakistan that India was willing to escalate the conflict.
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1971: The official Indian line is that despite the massive influx of refugees — close to 10 million by December — from East Pakistan, it was Pakistan that began the war on December 3 by attacking Indian airfields in Punjab. But now there is enough historical evidence to prove that this is not true. The refugee problem was growing and the international pressure was clearly inadequate to force a rethink in Pakistan. India’s escalatory tactics involved supporting the guerrilla forces of Bangladesh followed by direct involvement of Indian forces in offensives inside East Pakistan. Finally, India launched the full-scale war on December 4.
1999: The Kargil war came close on the heels of both India and Pakistan going nuclear. India faced a massive task of removing Pakistani intruders who were threatening the lines of communication into northern Kashmir. Despite the enormity of the task, India did not cross the line of control (LoC) — an eventuality widely attributed to nuclear deterrence. While this restraint has been overstudied, the decision to use the services of the Indian Air Force (IAF) has not received the same attention. The use of air power at such daunting heights did create some challenges for the IAF, but it demoralised Pakistani forces and speeded up evacuation operations.
2016: Much has been made of the Narendra Modi’s government decision to publicly announce the surgical strikes that followed the attack in Uri which killed 19 Indian soldiers. To be sure, there was an element of playing to the domestic gallery in that decision. However, the public announcement was good for two reasons. One, there is nothing wrong in telling the Indian people that their government is not entirely helpless against Pakistan-sponsored terrorist attacks. Two, the announcement was a clear indication to the Pakistani army that India is ready for escalation and left the ball in Rawalpindi’s court.
The surgical strikes also carried an element of surprise. It wasn’t clear how India would respond to the Uri attack, or even whether India would respond at all. The inaction after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks was still fresh in the memory. Where India failed was to follow up these strikes with similar moves involving surprise and exhibit a willingness to escalate in responding to attacks that followed in Nagrota and elsewhere. A one-off surgical strike is too little to bring about a behaviour change in Pakistan’s generals.
Now, let us turn the gaze to those instances when India failed against Pakistan.
2001-02: The terrorist attack on the Parliament in New Delhi was followed by a massive mobilisation of Indian troops along the LoC and the international border. India also pressed Pakistan to surrender 20 terrorists to India. The coercive strategy failed. While the mobilisation was meant to signal escalation, it took so much time that the surprise element was entirely gone. India’s tardiness allowed Pakistan to counter-mobilise and provided the room for international mediators to weigh in.
2008: The 26/11 attacks in Mumbai were an opportunity to rectify the mistakes of 2001-02. However, India allowed itself to be deterred by Pakistan’s nuclear bombs. International support was with India and a limited conventional attack would have called out Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. But India decided to not go down that route.
As the Modi government mulls its retaliatory options against the dastardly attack in Pulwama, it needs to look back in history and make a note of what works and what doesn’t. Whenever India has enjoyed a degree of military success against Pakistan, it has had to do with two common attributes: an element of surprise and a willingness to escalate. Unfortunately, surgical strikes no longer carry the surprise element. After 2016, the Pakistani army will be prepared for it. Also, unlike last time, there would most probably be no terrorist launch pads to be found in areas close to the LoC.
Since the Pulwama attack is bigger than Uri but much less ambitious than Kargil, one would expect an Indian military response, if any, to be between the two strata of surgical strikes and the use of air power. This is a narrow window, and then there are the low-yield battlefield nuclear weapons that Pakistan regularly flaunts. It is increasingly becoming difficult for India to impose costs on Pakistan that will instil some level of deterrence while, at the same time, not breaching any nuclear red lines. Any significant response will either breach those red lines or demolish the Pakistani nuclear bluster for good. Once the immediate needs have been taken care of, India should think of a long-term strategy. Everything from covert operations to counterforce strikes should be on the table.