War is a strange game, the only winning move for India is not to play
The timing, execution, and claim of responsibility of the Pulwama attack has all the marks of an operation sanctioned at the highest strategic level. Establishing that command centre is the key to a targeted response. To understand this better, we need to rewind to the Uri attack.
Post 26/11, renewed focus improved the internal security situation in India. Depth Attacks like 26/11 or the 1993 bombings dried up, essentially because such attacks have long preparation cycles and need local support, provided by sleeper cells or hardcore sympathisers. The steps taken to improve internal security, especially intelligence, yielded results.
That forced Pakistan to change tactics and it started conducting Shallow Attacks. These involved launching a small team of three to four, semi-trained fidayeen across the border under heavy covering fire. These assault teams were either shepherded or guided by Pakistani regulars. Once launched, these teams were tasked to infiltrate a few kilometres across the LC and strike border targets in a suicidal standoff against the security forces.
These skirmishes are textbook strategy in asymmetric warfare, where guerillas harass the state into using disproportionate force. There is virtually no antidote to this, because the cure itself is the disease. The tension between locals and troops ratchets, leading to inevitable overuse of force and further alienation. Denying free movement of state forces is strategic signalling by the guerrillas, that it is they who call the shots, not the government. The only response that any government can have is to actually step up area dominance patrols etc, which, in turn, exposes it to more such attacks and alienation.
Uri was different. Most of the casualties ensued because of a fire set off by a phosphorus grenade, not targeted firing. These grenades are used for illumination, or smoke, and are highly incendiary. The soldiers sleeping inside the tents were charred to death. The calculus of body counts went dramatically higher than expected from Pakistan’s perspective. Ironically, this operation must have caused some heads to roll on the Pakistani side as well, because it provoked a relatively sharper response from India in the form of the multiple raids conducted by the Indian army which were popularised as surgical strikes.
Pulwama was a deliberate strike planned to provoke at the highest level by the only two players who have the agenda and wherewithal to initiate this move.
The first is China. Over the last decade, China has exponentially strengthened itself economically and militarily within Asia. Its unabashed hegemony in the region and cartographic aggression are signs of its expansionist strategy. Rather than an outright confrontation with India, China has used Sun Zu’s strategy of geographical, economic and military encirclement, surrounding India with naval bases, logistic roads and island airbases. The strategic purpose of such encirclement is not war. Instead, it is to remove the option of war from the table.
The response to the Uri attacks (or the famed surgical strikes) has that issue. It can’t be done again and definitely not now when the Pakistani army would be at its peak alert.
But internal pressure to retaliate will be too high and now that the army has been handed the mandate, the forces will have to respond. And that is what China is hoping for. Though there is no such thing as a limited war, even if India were to embark on a limited military or air interdiction operation, it will be letting off steam rather than achieving any meaningful attrition or punitive effect. Even a limited war in the north and western sector, and a defensive posture in the eastern sector will set back our economy by decades. In the worst case, we will lose more than just our economy. This is a massive return of investment strategy for China.
There is a massive power struggle on within Pakistan. While outwardly it has always struggled between the military and political centre of gravities, deep within it is far more complex. There are major power struggles within the military, the ISI and the fundamentalist factions. While the new political and military establishment are approaching rapprochement, the deep state is feeling left out. Pulwama could be their riposte to demonstrate that they are able to bring their heft into play at a national level in Pakistan. It is the irony of globalised terrorism that Jaish-e-Mohammed is holding the Pakistani state to ransom by attacking India.
India should measure the situation before responding because war is a very strange game. The only winning move is not to play.
Raghu Raman is former CEO of Natgrid
The views expressed are personal