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.
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    1. V
      Vijay
      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.
      Reply
      1. S
        SK
        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.
        Reply
        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.
          Reply
          1. d
            dv1936
            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.
            Reply
            1. T
              Tellitasitis
              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.
              Reply
              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?
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                1. D
                  David
                  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.
                  Reply
                  1. D
                    David
                    Jan 11, 2016 at 2:15 am
                    And what do we do with Jehadis and terrorists. Fed them kababs and biryani. Right!
                    Reply
                    1. D
                      David
                      Jan 11, 2016 at 2:19 am
                      This is routine standard American advice. Indian lives don't matter to them. Keep talking endlessly till the last one of us is dead.
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                      1. D
                        David
                        Jan 11, 2016 at 5:24 am
                        You are suggesting a sweet deal while our nation suffers enormously and patriots die.
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                        1. M
                          madhu fan
                          Jan 11, 2016 at 6:15 am
                          so... 1. india should ignore these 'spoilers' and keep talking because a few (or many) indian lives dont actually matter 2. but there is no real use in talking to stani civilian govt (we should still do it anyway) 3. stan cannot really carry out a serious attack on india, but india cannot seriously retaliate either (why ever not?) 4. also what 'bold' indian agenda are you talking about? its all very confusing...what do you really want to say paul?
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                          1. R
                            rohitchandavarker
                            Jan 11, 2016 at 7:03 am
                            The essential discrepancy in viewing the Pathankot attack is the outlook of most observers. India has to bracket the attack as an act of aggression and war and treat the same with utmost seriousness. Past attacks, too, need to be seen in this light. The distinction sought to be made as these acts being committed by 'non state actors' is hogwash. There is no discernible separation of the ISI and army's strategy with that of the jihadis. These rabid anti terror foot soldiers have been created, nurtured, funded, spawned, molly coddled and guarded by the same stan army and ISI for perpetuating its doctrine of using terror as an instrument of state policy. This policy is deeply entrenched in stan's foreign policy doctrine towards not only India but also Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Iran (Jundullah) and China( fomenting trouble in Xinjiang through Uighurs). Hence, one has to change their perspectives and strategies accordingly. The supposed 'spoilers' are highly trained much like special forces in other countries, armed with sophisticated weaponry and undertake daring covert operations into enemy territory. So how much difference can one find between the US Navy Seals and these expendable foot soldiers. Rather the propensity to inflict damage is much more in case of these fidayeen as one cannot expect US Seals to go on a suicide mission with an aim to maximise casualties and damage ets. India, therefore, must disregard international homilies and patronising advice from unaffected Governments and pay back in the same coin by launching low intensity attacks with zero loss of Indian blood while inflicting long term damage to the stani state. Meanwhile talks can go on as they present India with a fig leaf on moderation and satisfy international opinion. Talks without identifiable outcomes is ideal foil for India to raisethe costs on Rawalpindi as a weapon of effective deterrence. The stani army is embroiled in multiple crises throughout the country and India can utilise multiple levers to subdue the military's machinations towards India.
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                            1. S
                              SP
                              Jan 11, 2016 at 1:28 pm
                              US, Russia or China they all take hard line, but advise India to talk peace.
                              Reply
                              1. S
                                Sumesh
                                Jan 11, 2016 at 7:11 pm
                                Agree 100%. stan is a tribe being ruled in reality by a r0gue army. India must learn to stab them deep.. And stab Punjabi Sunni Muslims. They have many vulnarbilities. Let the circus of talks go on...
                                Reply
                                1. S
                                  SK
                                  Jan 11, 2016 at 6:50 pm
                                  Spoiler attackers are not heavily armed, and they don't attack an air force base to destroy the prized weapons. The professor probably is an agent of the US secret services, and is just trying to lull us into believing that everything is as expected. But it is not, friends don't send heavily armed personnel with the intent to destroy you.
                                  Reply
                                  1. S
                                    swamt
                                    Jan 11, 2016 at 4:04 am
                                    We can feed them with idly vada and dal. Humanising effect!!! Let's not stoop to food level. Americans will be same...gun, killing a rights for them, advise on danger of violence to the world. Modiji has just started new mode.. Do the unexpected on good will. But stop talks as protest...
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                                      Thrinethran T
                                      Jan 11, 2016 at 8:16 pm
                                      We don't see any Indian strategy at all; just reaction cycles of anger, belligerence and bonhomie.
                                      Reply
                                      1. V
                                        Vinod Vinayak
                                        Jan 11, 2016 at 9:22 am
                                        Mr. Paul Staniland, either u r plain stupid or dangerous hired gun writing for criminals. if this same kind of attack would have happened on the american interests, than what would have been your outpouring is anybody's guess. muslims invaded egypt in december of 639 and within 15 yrs all of egypt became islamic country. the muslim invasion of persia started in 642 and ended in 651, and within 20 yrs all of persia became islamic country. the Zoroastrians have to take shelter in India and they are still protected here. we Indians have been seen much more barbaric invasive behaviour in the last 1300 yrs by the muslims and still are more civilized then most of the world. the present islamic terrorist that is attacking India and the other western world is the creation of uk and us. us used islamic terrorist in chchenya to destroy Russia but was not successful. us has lost the war in iraq and afganistan. muslim terrorists have reached us soil. the outcome will be worthwhile to watch.
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                                        1. I
                                          Indian
                                          Jan 11, 2016 at 3:21 am
                                          Yes Mr Paul. Life of FEW NATIVES should not matter. Evidently, Mr Paul does not want response from India to test US relations with PAK.
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