Spoiler’s Limits

Pathankot-style attacks are less likely today to change the India-Pak equation.

Written by Paul Staniland | Published:January 11, 2016 12:02 am
CAPTION- Security personnel checking at road near the IAF base which was attacked by militants in Pathankot on Sunday, January 3 2016. EXPRESS PHOTO BY RANA SIMRANJIT SINGH CAPTION-Security personnel checking at road near the IAF base which was attacked by militants in Pathankot. (Express photo by: Rana Simranjit Singh)

The attack on the Pathankot IAF base is part of a long string of “spoiler” attacks aimed at undermining India-Pakistan relations. Pakistani militants with deep connections to the Pakistan army, such Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad, have regularly struck after signs of a thaw. In the wake of Narendra Modi’s visit to Lahore, this kind of attack was all too predictable. Yet, despite understandable public outcry and past success, these spoiler attacks will be increasingly ineffective for the Pakistani military and its non-state allies. This is because research shows that successful “spoiling” rests on conditions that don’t currently exist in India.

Spoiling can undermine talks in two ways. First, spoiler strategies can block normalisation when they provide new information about the power or resolve of the “spoiling” actor. Attacks make a government aware of the importance of a previously marginal actor clearly not controlled by its negotiating partner. The classic example is Hamas’s terror campaign in the 1990s, which made the Israeli public unwilling to trust its Palestinian negotiating counterparts.

This doesn’t apply to Pathankot or similar future attacks. We already know Pakistan army-backed militants are able to slip across the border and launch deadly but low-level attacks. Unfortunately, there’s nothing strategically new here, no matter how dramatic these attacks are. They pose a dangerous problem, but manageable. Though improved border control and internal security aren’t rhetorically stirring solutions, such reforms can eliminate future attacks. Rather than an existential threat to India, such assaults show the limits of Pakistani militants’ and the Pakistan army’s power projection: They do nothing to change the balance of power. Because they are now so predictable, this strategy of militancy is a wasting asset that can deliver little of real strategic importance.

Second, spoilers can be effective when they create wedges between “hawks” and “doves” and strengthen the hawks in one of the negotiating partners. This domestic shift can destroy normalisation efforts. This is clearly a goal of Pathankot-like attacks, aiming to create domestic polarisation in India. Pakistan’s military thrives on presenting Pakistan as facing a siege from a Hindu majoritarian India.

This form of spoiling is likely to be much less effective now. Congress governments were often vulnerable to the BJP accusing them of being soft on national security. It’s far more difficult to credibly criticise Modi and Ajit Doval from the right. Like Richard Nixon going to China, Modi has unusual domestic advantages in holding critics at bay. By far the biggest political vulnerability Modi faces is from regional parties. Though they will act opportunistically around foreign policy, their brands are not built around it. There’s no national party that can make a politically potent case against Modi as being too soft on Pakistan. His domestic room to manoeuvre would be the envy of past PMs.

Pathankot-style attacks cannot accomplish much if Modi, Doval and Sushma Swaraj have the political will to move forward. Pathankot teaches us nothing new about Pakistan’s military and non-state groups, nor does it change Modi’s strengths and weaknesses. There are more escalatory options, such as a repeat of 26/11, but they are risky and difficult. Border defence, intelligence and internal security reforms are the best defence against these “urban spectacular” threats. Future attacks can be prevented or contained without undermining the Modi-Sharif engagement.

Just as India is limited in its ability to retaliate, so is Pakistan’s military limited in its ability to inflict harm. Strikes like Pathankot are desperate bids to escape the inescapable facts of geopolitics in South Asia. They do nothing to change India’s long-run structural advantages. The unsolvable problem for Pakistan’s military is India’s economic and demographic growth and its growing geopolitical role. Even consistent terrorist attacks cannot slow this ever-growing asymmetry in power.

Talks with Pakistan’s civilians are unlikely to change much. The army remains the key power. But India shouldn’t give a veto over rapprochement efforts to the army or its militant allies. Control over the talks is precisely what these actors want. Instead of being reactive, Indian policymakers should take advantage of spoiling’s limited effectiveness to boldly move forward with their own agenda.

The writer is assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

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  1. S
    Satendra kumar
    Jan 11, 2016 at 7:06 am
    The Islamic state should bring this terrorist to law of justice punished them according to laws of Islam.
    1. V
      Jan 11, 2016 at 1:48 am
      Makes enormous sense. Well argued. The Modi govt should make the moves to improve border security and contain such threats.
      1. S
        Jan 11, 2016 at 5:02 am
        Those days of having this kind of advice from US after the terrorist attack from stan are over. Let us talk but keep hitting stan where it hurts. Baloch people need help and let us give them arms and training, they would do wonders.
        1. C
          Col S
          Jan 11, 2016 at 4:58 am
          Such attacks , FAILED handling and debates to JUSTIFY taslks LEADS COUNTRY to SLEEP. Wake up call GOES / IGNORED. Country PTIDE and DIGNITY hurt and CASPABILITY questioned. Country without or NO STRATEGY? Big Shame.
          1. d
            Jan 11, 2016 at 6:33 pm
            An absolutely irrelevant nonsense. The author should read history going back one thousand years to understand the issues involved. Jinnah's philosophy of direct action is in action.
            1. T
              Jan 11, 2016 at 3:42 pm
              The author perhaps wants to lull India into believing that these so-called 'spoiler' attacks don't count and you can go back to sleep. Beware of yankee academics who provide a spin for every event! India has a problem in stan and it must think deep about neutralising its now effective low-cost war.
              1. K
                Ketan Parekh
                Jan 11, 2016 at 3:09 am
                Why dont we send a few well trained people to macre their civilians. Then we will see how much will do they have to keep talking to us. Fair enough?
                1. D
                  Jan 10, 2016 at 11:45 pm
                  Utter nonsense, this writer wants us to suffer and be kind to stan in return. When we talk peace with stan they think we are weak and s. Only peaceful people understand peace. Period. We need action, the Indian mes are longing for it. Mr. Modi they elected you, thinking you are different. Do surgical strikes, war, retaliate but do something. Talk is no solution. Indian lives don't matter to any Americans. This is their routine advice.
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