In his book Choices — Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy, former National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon writes that the reason India did not take the route of military retaliation against Pakistan after 26/11 was that there was more to be gained from not falling to that temptation.
In the first place, an Indian military attack on Pakistan would have pushed back the terrorist attack on Mumbai from Pakistani soil, forcing the world to focus on the spectre of war between two nuclear-armed nations; second, it would have united civilian Pakistan behind the Army, whose national image had descended several notches in the newly democratic atmosphere suffused with popular anger over Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.
A war with India was exactly what Pakistan wanted to buttress its internal standing. By not playing into the Pakistan Army’s hands, Menon says, India managed to bring international attention to the India-focused terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan — before 26/11, the US was worried only about getting Osama bin Laden and Pakistan-based Taliban groups that were targeting it.
But Menon also noted that should there be another attack from Pakistan, with or without visible backing from the Pakistani state, it would be “virtually impossible” for any government of India to make the same choice again, mainly because of Pakistan’s stubborn refusal to act against the perpetrators of 26/11. “The circumstances of November 2008 no longer exist and are unlikely to be replicated in the future,” he warned.
No visible gain from strikes
Last week’s suicide vehicle-borne IED attack on the CRPF convoy in Kashmir that killed 40 jawans has had an impact on the national psyche almost identical to that of the Mumbai attacks. And as Menon forewarned, the national circumstances are very different than they were 10 years ago — with the BJP in power under a leader who banks on an image of being “strong”, and with elections just weeks away, there are compulsive internal arguments for the government to choose military retaliation. Additionally, India no longer feels obliged not to undermine Pakistan’s civilian government — Prime Minister Imran Khan and his ministers repeatedly declare that the government and Pakistan Army are on the same page.
Yet, even in the changed circumstances of India, Pakistan and the world, it is not clear that India’s top decision-makers are confident that military retaliation will achieve anything of demonstrable benefit for India, even if it does not end up in a full-blown conflict. While escalation could backfire, and damage the government politically, a military option with visible results that can be declared as a success by the political leadership of the country would have to go beyond what India already did after Jaish-e-Mohammad’s attack on the Uri brigade headquarters in September 2016.
The much-publicised surgical strike across the Line of Control, which won the Modi government brownie points among his supporters, yielded no change in the Pakistan Army’s behaviour. Success or failure in a military operation can be gauged only by the strategic objective it sets and meets. Revenge is not a strategic objective. Can India pull off a US-style aerial attack on the Jaish headquarters in Bahawalpur or the LeT headquarters in Muridke? As the US discovered from its drone attacks on Taliban leaders, such attacks, even if successful, would hardly spell an end to the terror infrastructure inside Pakistan. In fact, it could make Pakistan’s support for such groups stronger. Worse, such strikes are sure to cause civilian casualties.
How far does coercion work?
India has been at this juncture several times in the past, and over the last 18 years, short of an all-out war, has tried just about every kind of coercive mechanism in its efforts to induce behaviour change in Pakistan. But the changes, if at all, have been temporary.
In 2001-2002, after Jaish’s attack on Parliament, India mobilised half a million troops to its western border, the largest such build-up since 1971. India seriously considered an air-strike on Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, but Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was persuaded to call it off by the US in light of a speech on January 12, 2002, by the then military ruler General Pervez Musharraf, in which he called the attack on Parliament a terrorist act and promised to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan. But the Indian and Pakistani armies continued to eyeball each other well into 2002, and India came close to a strike again in May that year, after fidyaeen attackers killed 34 people, mostly family members of soldiers at the Kaluchak Army camp. Again India held off under assurances from the international community.
According to media reports in 2017, at the end of July 2002 India had also launched air-strikes against Pakistani bunkers at the LoC in the Kel area of Kupwara, the first such operation by the Air Force after the Kargil war.
At the end of December 2001, India had withdrawn its High Commissioner to Pakistan, Vijay Nambiar, and asked the Pakistan High Commission in Delhi to cut down the number of officials and staff at the mission by 50%, and banned Pakistan International Airlines from Indian airspace. Pakistan responded by cutting the Indian diplomatic presence in Islamabad by half, and banning Indian flights from Pakistani airspace. In May 2002, India asked Pakistan High Commissioner Ashraf Jehangir Qazi to leave.
India also considered withdrawing the MFN (most favoured nation) status — which is the step it has taken now — and abrogating the Indus Waters Treaty, deciding against both as unsound, and in the long run bad for India’s interests as these could become precedent-setters and used against India internationally.
But along with coercive diplomacy, back-channel negotiations were on throughout the whole period to normalise relations. Full-scale diplomatic relations resumed a year later, in May 2003, when India appointed Menon as the High Commissioner to Pakistan and Aziz Ahmad Khan arrived in Delhi as Pakistan’s High Commissioner. The joint declaration of January 2004 that flowed from the landmark Vajpayee-Musharraf summit is seen by some as the result of India’s strong stand at the time of the Parliament attack.
Since then, India has used non-engagement as its main weapon.
In July 2006, after the Lashkar-e-Toiba struck Mumbai with seven coordinated train bombs killing 209 people, India said it would “pause” the then ongoing composite dialogue with Pakistan for the time being. Indian officials said off the record then that there was no point in taking extreme steps and then walking back to the table. Rather, it was better to keep all options open while making Pakistan “sweat”. For Islamabad, diplomatic victory is to bring India to the talks table, and New Delhi sensed that to keep Pakistan guessing on this front would be punishment enough. The composite dialogue resumed only after the October 2006 Musharraf-Manmohan Singh Havana summit on the sidelines of the NAM meet.
After the 26/11 Mumbai attacks in 2008, India pushed the pause button once again on the composite dialogue, and after that, efforts by the two sides to restart talks have failed repeatedly on what the talks should be about. India’s position is that talks can be held only to discuss cross-border terror; Pakistan says talks should include Kashmir as well. Pakistan’s early insistence that the two countries should go back to the 2004-08 composite dialogue was rebuffed by India, which saw in it a design by Islamabad to show that a line had been drawn under Mumbai. India’s efforts to isolate Pakistan at the time bore some fruit — the Lashkar-e-Toiba and Hafiz Saeed were designated under UNSC 1267. But beyond this, the world did not stop doing business with Pakistan, seen as crucial to the West’s war in Afghanistan.
In 2015-2016, India called off plans to hold talks about talks, agreed upon at the Modi-Sharif meeting in Lahore, after the January 2016 Pathankot attack. The decision to call off planned foreign minister-level talks after Imran Khan became Prime Minister also hewed to the set pattern. Though the “surgical strike” after the Uri attack, announced to the nation, was billed as a muscular response, it brought no improvement.
Now, as India considers its choices in the wake of the latest attack in Kashmir, there is déjà vu about the options, and the limitations of each. As former High Commissioner to Pakistan Sharat Sabharwal has pointed out, revoking the MFN status has symbolic value only. It will hardly hurt the Pakistan state as the country’s exports to India are 2% of its global exports.
Calling off the Kartarpur Corridor talks, scheduled in March, could be another option. But India has not even talked about this yet, underlining the difficulties on this front.