One more attack, another round of testosterone-filled news TV shows, Social Media chatter and ostensibly sober analysis/reportage (hard to discern between the two most of the times!). But déjà vu remains the dominant narrative. Whether the "hard power" realists (Praveen Swami), or the "south asia" idealists (Sidharth Vardarajan) – the group think of the strategic literati coalesces around the known conclusions.
- Primarily, and this is the strategic overhang, Pakistan’s nuclear threshold is extremely low, and they have a declared “First Use” policy. This renders any military operation moot.
- India lacks the overwhelming military superiority to punish Pakistan.
- India lacks (or has wound up, depending on the version) covert capabilities within Pakistan to mount targeted punishments within.
- “Limited operations” are an oxymoron, as India lacks the capability to dominate every step of the escalation ladder.
- India’s inter-agency planning is absent, rendering us incapable of/unable to carry out any meaningful intervention.
Effectively therefore, “grin and bear” is the only viable policy option!
Its Group Think perhaps, but the level of consensus and lack of imagination is breathtaking. It follows the dictum of creating options with tools that one wishes to have rather than tools that one does have. As Donald Rumsfeld said, “you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time”.
First, the big variable in the equation, of a low Pakistani nuclear threshold. The assumption attributes a level of irrationality to the Pakistani Army that is unreal. The Pak general staff, as well as the larger officer corps comprise the socio-economic elite in Pakistan. Their control over levers of power and economy (Fauji Foundation and its affiliates form the largest commercial enterprise in the country) give them a lifestyle unprecedented outside of military dictatorships. As Christine Fair notes in her book, Fighting to the End, the enmity/antipathy towards India is what maintains this resource-grip of the military. The key question therefore is, why would a rational officer corps risk its enormous privileges through suicidal actions? Outcomes of a nuclear exchange is a scenario that is tough to war-game, and generally without precedent and history.
Further, time and again, the Pak Army officer corps has shown remarkable flexibility at self-preservation at the cost of ideology. Whether turning its back on the Taliban after 9/11, Musharraf’s famous “no need for us to be Islamic soldiers” speech after the Parliament attack, or indeed abandoning East Pakistani defences to a small light infantry force without air/naval cover and virtually no armour in 1971 – the pragmatism of the Punjabi officer corps has shone through.
Ergo, the assumption that nuke-tipped Nasr missiles will start flying in the moment India undertakes any operation is alarmist fantasy rather than rational probability. Once accounted for as such, the menu of options available to India expands.
Once we get over the “low nuclear threshold hump”, the next question is really whether our objective is to break down Pakistani state's will for terror support, or demonstrate to them (and India's domestic constituency) that “enough is enough”. Its an important distinction, as the former requires a level of plausible deniability in public (so that the Pakistani establishment retains some room for an eventual compromise). The latter on the other by definition needs to be loud, public and with enough optics to send the message through.
Fortunately, there is room for us to exercise both.
On the second (public response) front, Pakistan is a state that is vulnerable at multiple points, most notably water. Abrogation of the Indus Water Treaty, an option sometimes talked about, none as eloquently as Brahma Chellaney. Starting to turn the tap off, literally, results in multiple pressure points on Pakistan. The tautological impact is a cascading effect on the economy of the Punjabi rural heartland. Importantly, this is not just the politico-economic centre of Pakistan, but also the primary recruitment pool for the Pak Army. The Punjabi peasant communities dominate the rank and file, and much of the officer corps as well.
Abrogation of IWT is not an optical military threat, hence doesn’t give a visible military objective (let alone justification) to the Pak Army to initiate military operations on. At the same time, it hits the Pak Army close to its home, quite literally. At the same time, it is a big bold initiative to signal a retaliation (for public consumption).
In a nutshell, it generates a public demonstration of India's intent, and the immediate ostensible challenge to be countered would be diplomatic (as Pakistan takes the matter to the international community).
That brings us to the last, but not the least, factor, of trying to bend the will of the Pakistani state. Here, past experiences are relevant, notably from arguably our most successful counter-insurgency campaign ever, in Punjab. Two tactical innovations from that campaign would be useful to recollect.
One, during the mid ‘80s, at the peak of the Khalistan insurgency, RAW set up a covert unit (CIT-X) dedicated to inflicting tit-for-tat damage in Pakistan. Written about in some detail by B Raman (including in his book, Kaoboys of RAW), the modus operandi was simple. For every terror incident in India, this unit would carry out retaliatory attacks in Lahore, Multan and Karachi. It increased the cost to the ISI significantly, and Pak support to the Khalistani groups gradually rolled down. According to Raman, it was a major factor in India’s success in crushing the Khalistan movement.
There are enormous possibilities of renewing this model. The key terror leaders, the likes of Hafiz Sayeed, are perhaps beyond the reach of India's current capabilities. However, individual Pak Army/ISI officers, and their personal properties/business interests are not. Pak Army as an institution, and officers personally, command vast commercial interests in Pakistan, as well as around the world in Dubai, UK and US. These are public, vulnerable and open to subversion.
Two, when KPS Gill took over the leadership of the Punjab Police, the biggest challenge for the force was the safety of the families of policemen, typically in the rural heartland. The force devised an ingenious counter - families of known, Pakistan-based Khalistani terrorists started getting picked up by the Police. It had an immediate, dramatic impact. Attacks on policemen's families stopped, and many of the terrorists came back to India to negotiate a deal with the government.
Can this model be examined with respect to key perpetrators of Islamist terror (and their supporters) based in Pakistan? Terror networks and Pak Army have large networks of friends, families and interests spread all over the world. If reaching them within Pakistan is an issue, reaching them outside Pakistan should not be as big a challenge?
In the medium term, given the nature of the Pakistani state, the only real motivation for members of the same to bend to India's wish will be when they are hurt at the personal level.
Net net, there is a lot that we can draw upon, from our own experiential kit of counter insurgency. Key would be use perhaps a little bit more imagination out of the confines of Group Think!