Last summer, in the midst of his scorching march to power in New Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi voiced the rage of a nation that wanted vengeance for the lives it had lost to terror. “They did nothing,” he said, assailing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s apparently bovine response to the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks. “Indians died, and they did — nothing.”
“Talk to Pakistan in Pakistan’s language,” he went on, “because it won’t learn lessons until then.”
Last month, though, when 26/11 perpetrator Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi walked out of prison, the Prime Minister’s language was remarkably flabby: “All nations should commit,” he said, “that they will not provide shelter to terrorists but punish them”.
His government even opened the way for renewed India-Pakistan cricket matches earlier this month — the kind of thing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was mercilessly pilloried for.
Eschewing the showy violence of the rampaging elephant, Modi has gone with the other, slower, much-maligned way of war: to plod, step by step, along a perilous path, ignoring abuse and exhortation. It may dismay some of his hawkish cheerleaders — but it also shows a clear grasp of reality.
For years now, leading figures in this government — notably National Security Advisor Ajit Doval — have advocated the use of offensive covert means to degrade terrorist infrastructure. This is polite language for assassinating terrorist leaders and blowing up their assets — a strategy that, in theory, stops short of war. Like most shiny offers, though, this one too comes with hidden costs.
Terrorists, notably, are certain to retaliate against attack. Given India’s anaemic intelligence and police resources, no one can guarantee a pre-emption of a Lashkar-e-Toiba urban bombing campaign to avenge the assassination of, say, Lakhvi.
Israel, covert action advocates would argue, has shown that the backlash can be absorbed — and defeated. They are right. In 2002, Israel eliminated the head of Hamas’s military wing, Salah Mustafa Shehade. Backed by a public prepared for the wave of suicide bombings that followed, Israel’s government slowly ground down Hamas’s military capability. It isn’t clear Indian voters would show similar resolve.
The story, moreover, isn’t as simple as it seems. Shahade’s wife and nine children were killed along with him — sparking off outrage which legitimised a wave of retaliatory suicide bombings, and boosted Hamas’s standing among Palestinians.
Modi’s second option — retaliation along the Line of Control — hasn’t worked out quite as planned, either. The Modi government’s first acts included mortar-for-bullets escalation along the India-Pakistan frontier in Jammu. The idea was to inflict costs on Pakistan’s armed forces for provocation along the Line of Control. The strategy, however, didn’t deter back-to-back fidayeen attacks that took place in March — and, moreover, provoked a flood of refugees.
Even worse, from the Army’s point of view, continued firing would have made rebuilding the Line of Control fencing difficult — thus hurting a key element of India’s counter-terrorism infrastructure.
It could be argued that the aggressive posture on the Line of Control failed because it wasn’t aggressive enough: cross-border retaliation, after all, posed no real threat to well dug-in Pakistani forces. This wouldn’t have been true, hardliners argue, if Indian forces were willing to actually humiliate the Pakistan army by grabbing territory along the Line of Control — the third option.
However, it is far from clear if India’s armed forces can deliver a decisive win — making this third option risky. In a thoughtful paper published this month, the scholar Walter Ladwig III reviewed the state of both countries’ forces, concluding that in “the most likely conflict scenarios India is unlikely to achieve the strategic surprise necessary to make a limited offensive succeed”.
The use of air power against terror camps isn’t much of an option either. In August 1998, the United States fired missiles into Afghanistan, seeking to avenge bombings which killed 224 people. In all, 75 missiles, each priced at $ 1.5 million, killed six jihadists. Moreover, Pakistan could hit back, targeting Indian industrial infrastructure, which is much more expensive than tent-and-donkey-cart training camps.
The bad news is this: the current choice, maintaining the status quo, is reaching its sell-by date. The US will soon be out of Afghanistan — and will thus exercise less leverage over Pakistan. Pakistan itself is unravelling. Its India-hating army chief Raheel Sharif — who lost his brother in the 1971 war — is under seige by the jihadis, and cannot risk being seen as buckling.
In the last three years, notably, Kashmir has seen a slow uptick in Indian security forces fatalities, reversing the post-2002 trend — an ominous portent. New Delhi can only deter Pakistan, though, if its forces dominate each step of the deterrence ladder.
That means developing covert assets to make acts of terrorism prohibitively costly, to have policing and intelligence systems that will ensure jihadist retaliation has a low probability of success, and to have military means that leaves an adversary in no doubt of swift defeat.