In the best of times, India’s strategic capabilities and posture are a case of Rashomon (the Kurosawa classic) – different actors/observers have a different version of the facts! The recent surgical strikes carried out by Indian Army on targets in Pakistan has brought this out again in sharp relief.
The biggest debate around in newspaper columns and TV studios has been around the scale of the strikes, and the strategic/tactical utility of the same. Many analysts, certainly the international media have tended to conflate the two. Pakistan’s outright denial of any strike having taken place has provided more grist to the “much ado about nothing other than marketing” mill. It has also led to widespread clamour, including from political parties, for the government to come out with “proofs” that the strikes indeed took place. However, this misses the point completely. The latest operation has laid bare a few knotty strategic logjams for India (and opens a few plausible windows of opportunity), regardless of how “big” the operation was – and that is what the dominant impact really is.
Debunking “LoC is the Pak nuclear threshold” hypothesis
One, it throws open the long-held putative Pakistani nuclear threshold, one of crossing the LoC. Since Kargil, and Pakistan’s publicly hectored redlines articulated then (and several times thereafter), crossing the LoC has been part of an inviolable nuclear threshold for the Indian establishment. Contrary to what the Congress party alludes to (“there were multiple cross-LoC strikes during UPA regime”), or even what certain scholars opine (like Vipin Narang in a The Hindu op-ed ), In India's calculus the Pakistani nuclear threshold was cast around the LoC. It’s a position that has been axiomatic – articulated in great detail by credible sources like Jaswant Singh (in his many books), Gen VP Malik (in his book and many columns) and Brajesh Mishra (in his many interviews). It has been a hypothesis tested multiple times – Kargil certainly (when IAF planes had to take extreme and unrealistic flight trajectories to conform to “don’t cross LoC” principles), but also during Op Parakram and 26/11.
This operation has in many ways disproved that hypothesis. It breaks out of that pompously worded “strategic restraint” doctrine, which in real terms has been a tiresome “terror strike-loud talk-dossiers-diplomatic activity-pipe down” routine that masqueraded as clever strategy. It also opens up options that India could explore – pushing the envelope all along the 760 km LoC, at various depths, to hurt Pakistani Army interests and that of its terror proxies. Using the present template, each action could be carefully constructed around the military-diplomatic-political lines to maintain a handle on escalation. While not easy, it gives India options to explore ahead of inaction!
Strengthening the Pak civilian regime against the military
A long running chestnut of Indian grand strategy towards Pakistan has been the idea that while civilians want better relations, the Army has vested interests in preserving status quo of violence. The fundamental issue however, even for optimists, has been our complete lack of leverage to change the military-civilian power equations in Pakistan. India’s engagement efforts have fallen between a presumably willing Barkis (politician) and a definitely unwilling Peggoty (military)!
Calibrated cross border strikes, accompanied by diplomatic outreach supporting such actions, perhaps give the first seeds of some leverage in the equation. The equation is complex, but plausible. Limited cross-LoC actions against terror assets (people, camps, launchpads),
a) Don’t constitute an attack on Pakistani state.
b) Technically don’t constitute a violation of the border (LoC is a formalised ceasefire line, not the international border).
c) Leaves little options for proportionate response with Pak Army, besides heating up LoC or organising terror strikes.
Any of the options (in “c”) exercised only goes to increase Pakistani isolation internationally, with very little global appetite for a shooting match between India and Pak, even less for terrorist action. In effect, the burden of a portfolio of bad choices – either counterproductive action, or no action at all – is shifted to the Pak Army. This gives real opportunity for the civilian establishment to garner political space, telling the Army that their actions are only leading to greater isolation of Pakistan besides leaving the LoC vulnerable to Indian actions at a “time and place of India’s choosing”.
The Pak Army could choose to press the pedal on massive escalation, but any escalation leading to full scale war is a hugely sub-optimal outcome for a military enjoying fruits of a vast commercial enterprise.
The report in the Dawn newspaper todayabout a showdown between the civilian and military establishment may be early tea leaves, but an optically defanged/chastened Army provides the best opportunity for the civilian establishment to grab political space.
Disabuse the narrative of “lack of capabilities”
A long-running theme amongst the commentariat, including ex-servicemen, around India’s strategic choices to Pakistani-sponsored terror has been an ostensible lack of capacity/capabilities. In the morning of the day the surgical strikes happened, Adm Raja Menon wrote (yet another) expansive lament on the state of Indianmilitary capabilities, concluding - "No helicopters, no integration, no intelligence, no training and no operational concept." The fact is, India’s spent considerable amount of money upgrading the military over the last 10 years. Not all of it was efficient, not all gaps have been addressed, but the sheer scale of India’s spends dwarfs what Pakistan’s anaemic economy could have afforded, even with US funding.
This operation, put together (from what we know) a sophisticated package of capabilities – night flying choppers, satellite surveillance, drone coverage, large SF teams across multiple disparate targets. Add to it inter-agency cooperation – NTRO/RAW on specific intelligence, MEA on coordinated communication with the world – and the picture that emerges is one of a high order of competence in executing the operation in the politico-military domain.
Deterrence is about public knowledge of the quality of capabilities. The enemy is likely to think harder about adventures if he is convinced about the superior quality of our retaliation. Unfortunately, the general narrative around Indian military capabilities is around shortages, lack of inter-agency cooperation, non-functional equipment, lack of hi-tech. Never mind the fact that shortages and all, the Indian military fields a very strong force, and in this case, isn’t facing an adversary with US-level of resources but one that is a nearly bankrupt economy.
The overall optics of the operation created some cracks in that narrative. As Kargil showed to India, information warfare, controlling the narrative, is a vital part of war-fighting.