The idea originally was to write about a very sinister development in Kashmir that is staring us in the face and yet isn’t really being accorded the importance it deserves. But as happens so often, the immediate and urgent supersedes the important. The terror attack on the army base in Uri – 17 soldiers have died and it is feared that the figure may go up since some of the wounded are reportedly in a critical condition – is being described as ‘a watershed moment’. But if at all it is anything, it is a moment of truth for the government, for the Indian state and for the Indian people.
The Uri attack has caused not just outrage, but also raised an outcry for visiting retribution on the terrorists and their handlers – the Islamic State of Pakistan. The mood is dangerously ugly and there will be enormous pressure on the government to not just talk tough but also act tough. Not only is the reputation of the government at stake, its political credibility too is at stake. What this means is that more than the whys and whereofs of the Uri attack, it is the what nows that are more important. Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi has assured the country that ‘the attack won’t go unpunished’, he doesn’t have too many options available to him to punish the planners and perpetrators of the Uri terror attack.
The reason for the limited menu of options is simple: despite over three decades of Pakistani export of terrorism to India, these options just haven’t been built up. Offensive options are built over years, even decades. This requires policy consistency, which is sadly absent in India because policies change as fast as seasons change. Part of the problem is that every prime minister in India comes to office with a conviction that he will be the one to break the India-Pakistan logjam. As a result, every new government in India goes back to the drawing board and starts from square one. What is worse, there have also been PMs who have wittingly or unwittingly dismantled whatever little capabilities had been built to punish Pakistan and pay it back in the same coin. Even now, there is no certainty that any steps taken by the current government to build both overt and covert capabilities will survive, be sustained and even strengthened, by its successors.
Before exploring the offensive options available as of now, there is a crying need to review the existing defensive options. The LoC fencing and the anti-infiltration equipment is already ten years old. Over these years, the fencing did serve the purpose of putting brakes on the infiltration of Pakistani terrorists. But it needs to be refurbished because the bad guys seemed to have figured out how to work around the fencing and sneak in. Also, some of the standard operating procedures and security protocols need to be re-examined, as also the security grids that had been put in place in the past. And all this needs to be done not in a few years or even over a few months but in a matter of weeks.
Of the available offensive options against Pakistan, there are some that can be exercised immediately – cross-border raids, airstrikes, artillery shelling, covert operations against military targets etc.; some others – economic actions, diplomatic pressure, using water as a weapon (not just abrogating the Indus Waters Treaty but also developing Afghanistan’s hydel potential by building dams on the Kabul and other rivers) that will show results only in the medium term (2-5 years); still others that will unfold over the long term (10 years) – building up and supporting centrifugal political movements inside Pakistan.
Each of these options will have repercussions, not just military but also political, diplomatic and economic – which will need to be taken into account before exercising them. After all, it would be highly irresponsible for the top policy makers to exercise any of the options under the belief that the Pakistanis will lie down and play dead. This could well happen but India cannot proceed on the assumption that this is exactly what will happen. In other words, India will need to be ready to repel any Pakistani retaliation. What is more, if there is a Pakistani response, then it will confront India with the prospect of going up on the escalation ladder because unlike proxy war that can be calibrated, an open war, whether limited or total, cannot be.
Militarily, therefore, India will have to be prepared to go up the escalation ladder if it wants to make real its claim that the ‘time for strategic restraint’ is over. The problem in this is that while India does enjoy conventional superiority over Pakistan, this superiority isn’t so overwhelming as to force Pakistan to lump any Indian punitive action. Ideally, India should have increased its power differential against Pakistan to a level that Pakistan would think a thousand times before any indulging in any sort of sub-conventional or even conventional adventurism against India. But the criminal neglect by successive governments of the need to build the sinews of war fighting capabilities – every single military modernisation deal, whether it is fighter aircraft, helicopters, air defence weapons, artillery guns, its an endless list, takes decades to complete – has even reduced the quality of India’s conventional superiority over Pakistan.
If, however, India’s dam of restraint has burst, and after calculating the costs and consequences of going up the escalation ladder, India decides to call the Pakistani bluff (including the nuclear one), then it must be clear about the purpose and objective of striking against terrorist/Pakistan Army camps (what’s the difference anyway between terrorists in Khaki and those in Mufti?). This is a problem area because a low level retaliation might be useful for chest thumping but is unlikely to have any deterrence value, even less so if Pakistan does a counter-strike in response to an Indian strike. If India doesn’t retaliate to a Pakistani counter-strike, then the purpose of the initial strike is lost; if India retaliates then the escalation ladder kicks in, which then raises the question as to how far either country is ready to climb this ladder before all-out war breaks out. And if there is all-out war, is that a price India (with lot more to lose because Pakistan is anyway a basket case living on other people’s money) willing to pay? Conversely, as some strategists say, while there are costs attached to responding to Uri, there are bigger costs attached to not responding. In the end, this is a political call, and one that should be taken with a lot of deliberation, more so since there are huge economic and diplomatic implications that cannot be cavalierly ignored.
Economically, war, limited or otherwise, is a horrendously expensive proposition and could end up putting the economy back by years. Diplomatically, it is a given that India will come under tremendous pressure to continue showing restraint, perhaps with some lollipops thrown in and some carrots dangled, including the old ones that Pakistan will be censured and pressured to act against the jihadist outfits responsible for the attack. Clearly, this is fiction that no one in India will buy especially since this means that the real perpetrator – the Pakistan army – will be left off the hook. As one of India’s most respected analysts, former R&AW chief Vikram Sood, puts it, ‘strategic restraint in the face of tactical aggression is self-defeating.’ Even so, the international pressure will be difficult to resist. Of course, there is the possibility that in the face of resolute action by India, the international pressure could just as easily shift to Pakistan – precisely what happened during the Kargil war.
The dilemma for the current dispensation is, therefore, no different from what its predecessors confronted: not acting or not seen to be acting will badly damage the credibility of the government and extract a very heavy political and worse, show up India as a state that cannot protect itself, much less deter a rogue state like Pakistan; on the other hand, acting against Pakistan entails its own set of risks and costs. In other words, if the government remains true to the old pattern of talking tough but doing nothing, India will lay itself open to even more terror attacks; and if it breaks the past pattern, it could end up pushing the country into an inferno. This is why it is the moment of truth for the government and the people of India.