The holes in India’s ‘hard strategy’ on Pakistan

With modernisation of the armed forces in a state of suspended animation and Make in India failing to take off, the Modi government has failed to meet expectations.

ByLt Gen H S Panag
The holes in India’s ‘hard strategy’ on Pakistan
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[The Second of Two Parts]

Nationalism and national security are an intrinsic part of the core ideology of the BJP, which assumed office in May 2014. Having berated the previous governments for “compromising” on security matters involving Pakistan and China, the new party in office was expected to adopt a “hard policy” on national security, especially with regards to Pakistan for perpetrating a proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).

Like all new governments, its opening moves were in the realm of foreign policy, beginning with a diplomatic outreach to Pakistan. Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attended Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in New Delhi, and, with it, a comprehensive dialogue was set to be resumed.

But the coming-to-power of the ideologically-driven Modi government also forced Pakistan’s military to carry out a strategic review. Insurgency in J&K had flagged almost to a point of near normalcy back then. This went against Pakistan’s core national interest. On the positive side, the US had been worn down in Afghanistan, tactical nuclear weapons had been refined and India’s conventional military edge had been neutralised both quantitatively and qualitatively. But Pakistan feared that a strong leader in Delhi could revive the peace process with the civilian government in Islamabad and also win over the people of J&K. Pakistan decided to revive insurgency both in terms of terrorist violence as well as intifada protests to force the ideology-driven Indian government to adopt a “hard strategy” and, consequentially, wipe out the gains of the previous decade. Pakistan’s military also decided to scuttle any peace initiative proposed by New Delhi. Last but not the least, it took a deliberate decision to bait India and expose its strategic limitations at forcing “compellence” and, thus, bring about strategic frustration.

All this was predictable to a fault, and a cursory strategic review by the NSA would have been able to foresee and prepare for the same. The “red lines” of the government were breached with impunity by involving the Hurriyat, stepping up Fourth Generation War (4GW), and gruesome Border Action Teams (BAT) raids on/across the Line of Control (LOC) and even terrorist operations across the International Boundary (IB)/Working Boundary in Punjab/J&K.

Before switching over from  “strategic restraint” to “strategic compellence” or, as the government puts it, “hard strategy”, it was imperative that a comprehensive strategic review was carried out. This review would have shown that our technological military edge over Pakistan had been neutralised and that our higher defence management needed to be reformed. Such a review would have also sought streamlining of the National Security Council’s functions besides the formalisation of the National Security Strategy and force development plans. The other needs of the hour were reforms in the DRDO, streamlining of defence procurement needs and the initiation of the “Make In India” scheme. Government’s interaction with the Armed Forces also needed formalisation with the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and, in due course, the tri-service theatre commands. The Armed Forces needed structural and organisational reforms and their modernisation had to be achieved to reestablish the surrendered technological-military edge over Pakistan and (at least) parity with China. Resources had to be earmarked for these reforms and timelines laid down. 

These reforms were indeed a tall order but, given the mandate and a strong leader in Narendra Modi, within the realm of possibility in a five-year timeframe. Without reforms, a strategy of compellence would in no time come to nought because of strategic constraints. The government did not focus on most of these issues and little has been done in real terms. No reforms have even been attempted let alone started in higher defence management and the armed forces. The current defence minister is the third in the saddle in three years. The CDS has not been appointed. There seems to be little or no formal interaction with the three Chiefs who seem to be functioning on standalone mode. National Security Strategy and Force Development Strategy have not been formalised. Defence Budget in real terms has diminished. In absence of reforms, modernisation of the Armed Forces remains in a state of suspended animation. That we had to post-haste approve the procurement of even assault and sniper rifles tells a sad tale. Even the creditable reforms in procurement and defence production through “Make in India” have remained mere grand statements due to poor execution. 

Yet, so much was the political hype and resultant sky-high public expectations that “strategic restraint” forced by the same compulsions was abandoned over night and we embarked on a strategy of compellence purely based on rhetoric and ideology. In the bargain, we walked into the trap laid by Pakistan and exposed our strategic limitations which, though prevailing for a decade, had been shrouded in ambiguity. Wars are fought to achieve political aims. A war of retribution based only on ideology and rhetoric is aimless.

Even after carrying out all the reforms highlighted above, nuclear weapons would place severe restrictions on the strategy of compellence. There have been irresponsible statements about calling Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. Only ignorant politicians and politically motivated Generals can make such outlandish statements. 

The broad contours of a Hybrid War based on a strategy of compellence against Pakistan are: 

  • Engage Pakistan diplomatically to work out a mutually acceptable solution within India’s constitutional framework and without change in territorial sovereignty. Simultaneously use diplomacy and soft-power offensive to isolate Pakistan and expose it as a sponsor of terrorism, leading to adverse and unacceptable diplomatic and economic cost.
  • Use economic warfare including “water wars” if necessary to choke the economy of Pakistan.
  • Manage Pakistan’s 4GW in J&K by focussing on counter infiltration, relentless pursuit of terrorists and above all winning the hearts and minds of the people.
  • Wage a counter 4GW to exploit Pakistan’s fault lines in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA.,
  • Depending upon the situation, launch relentless and continuous punitive operations in the form of air, drone or missile strikes, artillery fire assaults and Special Forces (SF) raids on and across the LOC/IB as a continuum for acts of terrorism and LOC incidents.
  • Depending upon the strategic environment, wage a proactive limited war at a time and place of our choosing to compel Pakistan to stop the 4GW in India.
  • Continuous information/cyber warfare.

This strategy must be pursued as a continuum, and not in a knee-jerk manner from crisis to crisis or incident to incident. All elements of this strategy can be exploited simultaneously or with some elements grouped together or used singularly. There are no time timelines in a Hybrid War. We should be prepared for quid pro quos and setbacks. The public and media should be prepared for such an eventuality. We should learn to give crisp formal statements at the government and Armed Forces level to prevent speculation and media wars. 

However, to execute the above strategy, we need holistic reforms with respect to national security. The establishment of a technological military edge is the sine qua non of this strategy. This implies use of high-end technology-based weapon systems in sufficient quantity which the adversary cannot match qualitatively or quantitatively. Only the US, Russia and, to some extent, China have these capabilities. We must prevail upon the US to share this technology with us. Our GDP is ten times that of Pakistan and we have the capacity to create this edge and take it beyond its reach. 

We must take the growing Pakistan-China nexus into account while executing this strategy. Nations normally avoid fighting an allied nation’s wars but given that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the flagship project of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China will be very sensitive to military operations close to the CPEC. By default, such operations may lead to China pressurising Pakistan to seek peace. Our endeavour must be to handle China with diplomatic finesse to avoid even a partial two-front war in the contiguous area because, without major reforms, we will be hard put to manage a single front let alone two fronts. 

Diplomacy was our mainstay during the “strategic restraint” period. Despite all odds, the door was always kept open for dialogue. Successive governments, irrespective of their ideology, have continuously engaged Pakistan directly and covertly. Despite claiming to follow the call of terrorism and talks not going together, even this government has been holding covert talks with Pakistan right upto the level of the NSAs. It is prudent that we continue to engage Pakistan. We may not find a solution, but we will have a framework for the same when the strategic situation changes. This engagement allowed us to bring near normalcy to the Valley between 2003 and 2013. With respect to isolation and exposure of Pakistan, our diplomacy has to be much more aggressive and innovative to prevent Pakistani diplomats from forcing a draw.

The government has refrained from exploiting our economic clout to choke Pakistan but this can be used if the need be—indirectly, by influencing international institutions, and directly, by “stealing” the export markets. Water, so vital for its agriculture economy, is an extremely sensitive issue for Pakistan. A mere thought of linking canals for Indus and Chenab, if not Jhelum, can exert pressure on Pakistan.

With respect to military control and management of the 4GW in J&K, the Indian Army has always done its job. The recent spurt in the number of terrorists and scale of violence has been dealt with appropriately and will be done so in future. 

But successive government in general and this government in particular, despite being in the ruling coalition, have failed to win over the people of the state. This government has been running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. It failed to understand that the “hard strategy” has to be restricted to Pakistan and the terrorists and must not be applied to the people. Sadly, despite six decades of experience of fighting insurgencies, even the Indian Army got carried away by the nationalistic fervour and declared that there was no distinction between the terrorists and the intifada mobs. 

Lack of political initiative and lack of trust of the people in the government is the main reason for the prolonged intifada protests which have a chemistry of their own based on the action-reaction-action cycle. So long as we allow Pakistan to hold sway over the population, so long it will retain the initiative in the proxy war. In my view, this has been the biggest failure of this government. 

Waging a counter 4GW to exploit the adversary’s faultlines  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 tailor made for 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 the Pakistani press shows how India is already portrayed as the villain responsible for all of its internal troubles. With organisation and funds, the attack can be directed straight at the Achilles heel. In my view, this is the best option and must be relentlessly pursued in collaboration with countries troubled by Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. It must be remembered that it is a long-term option.

Operations below the threshold of war on and across the LOC/IB are a tempting option to deter or punish an adversary waging 4GW and to assuage public emotions. These can be undeclared or, depending upon the situation, declaratory in intent and scale so as to avoid escalation. 

Punitive firing can be carried out 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 also be accurately directed using drones. This is a significant change from the past. However, in absence of an overwhelming technological military edge like that of the United States, we will have to accept a quid pro quo response and even the risk of an escalation. Without the technological military edge and large scale use of precision guided munitions, such measures will lead to “permanent fireworks” along the LOC. This is the case at present although the gullible public is shown videos of “destruction of enemy posts”. In reality, these videos only show the destruction of the over-ground structures used when the ceasefire is in vogue. By design or default, the villages on either side get targeted, leading to civilian casualties and destruction of property resulting in the exodus of the public.  

Special Forces and infantry raids across the LOC on similar targets as above or restricted to terrorist infrastructure can also be used. We would have to weather the quid pro quo though. The aims and objectives of such raids are tactical in nature and they must not be assumed to have a strategic effect as was assumed by the government and told to the adulatory public after the SF raids on September 29, 2016.

Surgical strikes using precision-guided munitions are delivered by aircraft, cruise missiles or drones on terrorist leadership and infrastructure. We do not have armed drones in our inventory as of now. But we do 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. Pakistan has similar capabilities and quid pro quo will follow unless we have an overwhelming technological edge.

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. These options can be exercised in order to assuage public emotions and for the sake of morale of the Armed Forces. 

It is pertinent to point out that a “hot LOC” adversely affects counter-infiltration operations as the troops involved are the same as tied down to incessant firing along the LOC. That infiltration had reduced to a trickle when the ceasefire was observed proves the point. 

The scenario of a limited war under a nuclear backdrop between India and Pakistan worries the world the most. For India, this would be an option of last resort. We have already experienced one such war (Kargil in 1999) and in it, India restricted its political aim to restoration of status quo. India did so with a declared intent, enhancing its international prestige. Nuclear brinkmanship was preempted. But can India with its international standing as a moral emerging power be seen as proactively waging a limited war? 

We did mobilise after the attack on Parliament in 2001, but did not go to war. With Pakistan in disarray, it was a great opportunity to punish it. “Coercive Diplomacy” was a mere fig leaf to cover a strategic fiasco. We could not go to war due to a combination of international pressure, political dithering, slow mobilisation and an unsure military. We again did not exercise this option after the 26/11 attack. We did not exercise this option when 4GW was at its peak. What is it that can force us to exercise this option now? A major terrorist action can trigger this option, but that trigger is under Pakistani control. So why would it oblige India? I do not visualise the situation in J&K going completely out of hand to give us a casus belli. Be that as it may, war has to be fought for political aims and not to satisfy an emotional public.

In the context of Pakistan, our political aim is simple: stop interfering in our internal affairs. To achieve this, we must capture sizeable territory in the plains, make permanent territorial gains in J&K and destroy Pakistan’s economic and critical combat potential. All this has to be done in 10-15 days and the nuclear threshold has to be kept in mind. If we want to exercise this option, we have to establish a clear technological military edge over Pakistan and our higher decision-making has to be reformed with a greater sync between the Armed Forces and the government. Major structural and organisational reforms would be required in the Armed Forces. This option is best exercised based on a premeditated decision to achieve strategic moral surprise—the adversary does not expect that you will attack—and not as an immediate response to an incident. It must be executed with a high tempo-based on material surprise—the adversary knows everything but is psychologically paralysed  due to multiplicity, simultaneity, speed and intensity. If we exercise this option without enacting reforms, it will lack finesse and is unlikely to achieve the political aims. In fact, it may lead to us ending up with a bloody nose. However, the probability of even a limited war in the current strategic environment is very low.

I have analysed all the viable options available to us along with their pros and cons based on our current capabilities. It is crystal clear that, without major reforms in respect of national security and the armed forces, we suffer from serious strategic limitations to achieve the political aims of a war. If ideology, nationalism and retribution are allowed to run away with the strategic reality we are likely to come to grief. It may be prudent to revert back to  “strategic restraint”, engage Pakistan, launch a political initiative in J&K and focus on reforms with respect to national security and the armed forces before we think of adopting a strategy of compellence.

[The First Of Two Parts] 


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