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.
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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.