#UriAttack: How Should India Respond to 18/9?

Some action against Pakistan is imperative for Indian morale

ByLt Gen H S Panag
#UriAttack: How Should India Respond to 18/9?
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Despite the security lapses resulting in complete surprise, the 18/9 terrorist attack on the unit administrative base near Uri would have been a routine operation, common in the ongoing 26-year-old-proxy war — but for one feature: Arctic Tents and barracks catching fire resulting in the death of 14 soldiers.

The Uri attack has seen extensive coverage on print and television media. The nationalistic emotions (virtually amounting to jingoism) built over the last three years have led to the public – and some in the media – demanding an immediate response which impinges on the Government’s flexibility in strategic decision-making. There is a danger of public emotions and political compulsions forcing a hasty decision. As Atal Bihari Vajpayee had once said, that in a democracy one has to be mindful of public opinion.

There should be no doubt that need for action against Pakistan is an imperative for national morale. Any dithering or knee-jerk response will signal acceptance of defeat of national will and give Pakistan a major strategic advantage.

India has weathered many crises created by Pakistan’s ongoing Fourth Generation War (4GW) in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and in the hinterland of India. Governments, including the present one, have prudently refrained from taking hasty strategic decisions driven by tactical events with respect to use of force. In my view, the same should be the case now.

Despite our best diplomatic efforts, there has been no change in Pakistan’s inimical political aims vis-a-vis India and its strategy to achieve them. In fact, our restraint has been seen as a sign of weakness and emboldened Pakistan. India’s political aim with respect to Pakistan is very simple – prevent Pakistan from interfering in our internal affairs through a 4GW and if it does so, maintain good relations for common good. Since diplomacy has failed, there is no option but to resort to ‘other means’.

Nations armed with nuclear weapons do not, and I dare say, cannot fight a full-scale conventional war of annihilation or even absolute defeat of the adversary. However, space exists for a limited war – limited in aim, time and space – before international pressure and nuclear weapons come into play.

War or use of force as an instrument of policy is always in pursuit of a political aim. A war of retribution – if it does not compel the adversary to accept peace on your terms – is a war without an aim and serves no purpose.

India’s Strategic Options

Keeping the above in view as well as the strategic situation, apart from the diplomatic effort, India has three options:

  • Punitive operations below the threshold of war focussed on targets related to prosecution of 4GW by Pakistan,
  • Wage a counter 4GW in Pakistan exploiting its fault lines,
  • Wage a pre-emptive J&K-centric limited war to compel Pakistan to stop 4GW in J&K and hinterland of India.

Punitive Operations Below The Threshold of War

Such operations are always a tempting option to deter or punish an adversary waging 4GW and to assuage public emotions. These are declaratory in intent and scale to avoid escalation. However, in absence of an overwhelming technological military edge like the United States, we will have to accept quid pro quo response and even the risk of escalation. In the present situation these can be restricted to J&K in areas across the Line of Control (LOC).

We have the following options:

  • Punitive firing across the LOC to destroy Pakistani posts, headquarters, administrative bases and terrorist infrastructure using direct and indirect firing weapons without crossing the LOC. The fire of long-range artillery guns and rockets, with ranges of 35 kilometres (km) and 70 km respectively, can be accurately directed by drones. This is a significant change from the past. The disadvantage of this option is that the quid pro quo will follow. However, we do have a distinct edge in quantity and quality to cause unacceptable damage. Pakistan also has to take into account the collateral damage its firing can cause keeping in view its own strategy in J&K.
  • Special Forces (SF) and infantry raids across the LOC on similar targets as above or restricted to terrorist infrastructure. We would have to weather the quid pro quo. ‘Surprise’ is a key factor for such operations and after an incident like 18/9, the adversary remains on maximum alert, but this issue is relative.
  • Surgical strikes using precision-guided munitions delivered by aircraft, cruise missiles or drones on terrorist leadership and infrastructure. We do not have armed drones in our inventory as on date. However, we have cruise missiles and aircraft capable of air to ground beyond visual range attack, with ranges up to 300 km and 100 km respectively. Such strikes can be declaratory and restricted to J&K.

The above approach at best will only achieve the aim of immediate retribution and impose caution on Pakistan, but it is unlikely that it will achieve the political aim of preventing Pakistan from pursuing its long term strategy of perpetrating 4GW in India. It is my considered view these options must be exercised in the near future, in order to assuage public emotions and for the sake of morale of the Armed Forces. However, the operations must be restricted to J&K for international acceptability.

Theoretically operations of this nature depending upon the option chosen can be launched in 24-72 hours. We should not take too much counsel of our fears. We have adequate qualitative and quantitative edge to inflict unacceptable damage while weathering the quid pro quo response.

Counter 4GW in Pakistan

Waging a counter 4GW exploiting the adversary’s fault lines always remains a viable option and is as old as the history of warfare. This option is deniable, but can also be justified depending on repression unleashed by the adversary on its own people. Such an option hurts the adversary the most, but since it cannot be publicised, it rarely satisfies an emotional public fed by political jingoism. With turmoil in Balochistan, FATA, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baltistan, as well as the persecution of Shias, Ahmadiyas, Baltis and other minorities, Pakistan is tailormade for the 4GW. Since this subject is in the covert domain, it is beyond the scope to discuss whether India can or should exercise this option. But a cursory glance at Pakistan press shows that the India is already portrayed as the villain for all of Pakistan’s internal troubles. All it requires is organisation and funds, and the attack is directly at the Achilles heel! In my view, this is the best option and must be relentlessly pursued in collaboration with Iran and Afghanistan. It must be remembered that it is a long-term option.

Preemptive J&K-centric Limited War

The Indian parliament resolution on J&K dated 22 February 1994 makes it incumbent upon the Government to take all measures, diplomatic and military, to recover the territory of J&K under illegal occupation of Pakistan. Pakistan is using the territory under its illegal occupation to wage a proxy war  in J&K. It is only a matter of time before the ISIS entrenches itself in J&K, actively-facilitated by Pakistan. Our diplomacy must convey this to the world and create the conditions to justify a J&K-centric limited war despite the nuclear backdrop. We should adopt a strategic defensive posture in the territory outside J&K and declare the same to the world. If Pakistan escalates the war outside J&K, we should decimate its Air Force, Navy and Mechanised Forces.

Contrary to what every doubting Thomas feels, we have the capacity to do this. Nuclear brinkmanship will come into play after seven to 10 days. By that time, the Line of Control in selected areas could be pushed back 10-15 km and we would be threatening operational/strategic objectives. All launch pads that facilitate infiltration would be in our hands. This option will not only bring Pakistan to the negotiating table, but also China will force it to come to the negotiating table as the China Pakistan Economic corridor would come under threat. Peace would be on our terms.

We have the capacity for a J&K-centric cold start proactive strategy while being on strategic defensive outside J&K. The government must clearly spell out the political aims and strategic limitations, and leave the rest to the Armed Forces. Since the diplomatic conditions have to be created, no timelines need to be specified. However, taking into account the strategic situation in South Asia, such an option is best exercised just before the onset of winter.

Right Here, Right Now

The Cabinet Committee on Security should discuss the strategy and give a clear strategic direction to the Armed Forces. The directions should spell out the political aims, both short-term and long-term. The operational strategy of the Armed Forces to achieve the short-term political aims must be implemented at the earliest, but not later than seven to 10 days.

Simultaneously, with the above set in motion, preparations must be made to achieve the long-term political and military aims. Spell out an interim National Security Strategy to tell the world that you mean business. Depending upon the timelines, approve and execute the structural and organisational reforms the Armed Forces have been clamouring for. Open the coffers and make up the critical shortfalls as we did between April and October 1971. This, itself will send a message to the adversary.

Last, but not least, win the confidence of the Armed Forces who must go into battle with the confidence that their politicians and bureaucrats care for them. It would be a shame if tomorrow a bureaucrat falling off a chair and injuring himself in Delhi gets 2.5 times more disability pension than the soldiers who lose their limbs in battle.

This is time for action and not political rhetoric. Barring the Prime Minister, no one must speak on strategic matters, least of all glib ignorant spokespersons and junior ministers. Set aside all political differences and work for a political consensus on strategic matters with respect to the wily adversary.

This is your moment Mr Prime Minister, this is your hour of reckoning. Inaction at this juncture will be acceptance of defeat. History will never forgive you. You may lead India to economic prosperity and win bigger mandates, but dithering at this time will remain an indelible blot on your legacy, just as 1962 has been with respect to Prime Minister Nehru. What you do now will be your legacy.

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