The unthinkable has happened. For the first time ever, the air forces of two nuclear-armed neighbours, India and Pakistan, have crossed national boundaries and carried out kinetic attacks on each other’s soil. Aerial combat has also resulted in casualties and losses on both sides.
Although an inevitable sequel to the February 14 Pulwama car-bomb attack by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e Mohammad (JeM), India’s air-strike inside Pakistan did carry the risk of tit-for-tat hostilities spiralling into a full-scale war with nuclear connotations. This is not an alarmist view because the current environment, on both sides of the India-Pakistan border, remains fraught for two reasons.
Pakistan has been turned into a neurotic theological state by the military and its cohort of jihadi proxies. Pakistan’s shadowy “deep state” comprising the army and its Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) directorate, has also kept alive the myth of an ever-present “existential threat” from “Hindu India”. This mythology is vital for the survival of the “deep state” and its jihadi allies. The Pakistan Prime Minister, beholden to the army for his survival, has been blowing hot and cold in the past few days and his “peace overtures” must be treated with caution.
On our side, the Pulwama attack was the last straw for the long-suffering Indian public. The loss of 40 CRPF jawans served to focus the deep anguish and humiliation that Indians have endured over the decades from Pakistan-inspired insurgencies and Pakistan-initiated terror strikes. There was unanimity across India that a strong message needed to be sent to the Pakistani instigators and abettors of jihadi terror.
The Pulwama car-bombing, occurring in the run-up to India’s 17th general election, has added a bitter edge of xenophobia and religious bigotry to an already acrimonious election campaign. Extreme caution is called for to ensure that India’s vital national interests are not subsumed by politically-motivated and competitive machismo masquerading as patriotism. Hyper-nationalism at the hustings and war-mongering in TV studios could not only damage India’s delicate social fabric but also drive the nation into an unwanted conflict.
Here it must be pointed out that phrases such as “revenge”, “retribution” and “martyrdom” are not part of our military’s lexicon and must not be foisted on the armed forces. At the same time, there is a dire need for India’s national security establishment to learn how to employ India’s military as an instrument of state policy by acquiring an understanding of concepts like “deterrence”, “compellence” and “coercion” for attaining political aims.
In this context, we must face up to the intelligence failures, lack of civil-military coordination and poor state-craft on India’s part that have allowed the ISI to torment this nation for many decades. The litany of assaults on India’s sovereignty and citizenry is long but in every case, we have been caught unprepared and wanting in terms of a consistent policy and coherent response. Three instances in our recent past demand introspection because they point to a lack of resolve and even pusillanimity on the part of the Indian state.
In December 1999, Indian Airlines flight IC-814 was hijacked to Kandahar where the hijackers demanded the release of JeM terrorists. Most democracies have a declared policy of “no negotiations with terrorists” for the simple reason that negotiations give legitimacy to terrorists and are perceived as condoning violence. In the absence of such a policy, this hijacking saw the government caving in to public pressure and capitulating abjectly to the hijackers’ demands. India has paid a dear price in lives for the release of Masood Azhar in Kandahar.
Following the December 2001 JeM attack on India’s Parliament, the public was encouraged to see the government ordering an unprecedented general mobilisation, presumably for inflicting suitable punishment on Pakistan. However, when the then army chief sought orders regarding the political objectives for “Operation Parakram”, he was told by the then prime minister, “Baad mein batayengey” (we will tell you later). Ten months later, the chief was no wiser as he demobilised a million men after a dangerous but futile face-off with Pakistan resulting in 900 army casualties.
In 2008, within hours of the seaborne terror assault on Mumbai, the nation was uplifted when a cabinet minister signalled the government’s intentions: “All options are open to us.” A day later, morale plummeted when after a cabinet meeting, the minister announced, “War is not an option.” India had, once again, exercised “strategic restraint” gaining universal applause but allowing the instigators of the 26/11 outrage to go unpunished.
Against this backdrop, we must consider if India’s timorous past postures and conduct have served to embolden its adversaries. From our unilateral undertaking of “no first use” of nuclear weapons (post-Pokhran II) to declarations that “war is not an option”, have we conveyed an unintentional guarantee of immunity to those contemplating inimical actions against us? However, two resolute actions — the launching of cross-border commando raids in September 2016 and Wednesday’s air-strikes on Pakistan-based terror hubs — have, at long last, demolished such delusions. Simultaneously, they have also shattered the myth of a “nuclear overhang”, crafted by Pakistan, to deter a robust Indian response to cross-border terrorism.
No sane South Asian wants war and if Kashmir continues to remain a casus belli, we must undertake an agonising policy re-appraisal. While the army continues to guard J&K against external intrusions, India needs to evolve a long-term strategy, “civilian” in nature, to restore peace.
There are also other measures available to discourage neighbours from interfering. At the strategic level, we need to urgently revise and introduce a degree of ambiguity in India’s nuclear doctrine. At the operational level, India must convey clarity and resolve by openly declaring: One, a “no negotiations” policy vis-a-vis terrorists and hijackers; two, its right to respond suitably to cross-border terrorist attacks at their source and three, that while the response may not be instant it will be certain.
In order to implement this policy, military units with suitable capabilities should be earmarked and kept in the requisite state of readiness at all times.
The writer is a former chief of the Indian navy
— This article first appeared in the March 4, 2019 print edition under the title ‘Lessons from a crisis’