Forty-eight hours after the 26/11 attacks, Mumbai still burning, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh chaired a meeting of grim-faced security officials to consider the most important decision leaders can make. The evidence that the Lashkar-e-Taiba was involved, National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan pointed out, was irrefutable. India, he argued, had to punish the perpetrators — or open itself up to further assault, time and again.
Fali Homi Major, the then Air Force chief, told the prime minister he was prepared to strike inside Pakistan — but could not do so because the intelligence services could not provide adequate digital data on Lashkar camps. Army vice-chief Milan Naidu insisted on waiting for his boss, then out of the country, to return — and when General Deepak Kapoor was consulted, he flatly said the army could not wage a surgical strike.
“They did nothing,” said the man who is now India’s Prime Minister, in a campaign speech centred on 26/11, “Indians died and they did — nothing”. “Talk to Pakistan in Pakistan’s language,” he said, “because it won’t learn lessons until then”.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi now has the opportunity to deliver the message he advocated — but he’s still searching for the right words. Inside hours of Sunday’s terrorist attack in Uri, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval called top military and intelligence officials to prepare options for inflicting retaliation on jihadist groups in Pakistan. Those options will be refined, discussed, torn up, and redrawn many times in coming days; many, if not most, we will never learn of.
Logic, though, tells us that the prime minister’s advisors have five basic options on the table. The first is the old-fashioned one: Retaliate along the Line of Control, using eye-for-a-tooth rules that both the Indian and Pakistani armies understand well.
The Pakistan army posts that help infiltration — ideally, the same ones that aided Sunday’s attack — will be identified, and obliterated, using missiles or special forces. This is the option the army prefers, knowing that it serves its main purpose — deterrence — with the least risk of escalation.
India has, indeed, sometimes staged unpublicised retaliatory actions across the LoC — for example, destroying Pakistani forward posts after the kidnapping and beheading of its soldiers in raids by that country’s special forces in 2011 and 2013.
The Indian Army is also alleged to have avenged the torture and killing of Captain Saurabh Kalia, and five soldiers — sepoys Bhanwar Lal Bagaria, Arjun Ram, Bhika Ram, Moola Ram and Naresh Singh — during the Kargil war, by executing seven Pakistani soldiers captured in a raid on the Nadala enclave, on the Neelam river.
From the point of view of the political leadership, though, this is the least attractive option, for the simple reason that it cannot be bragged about. Talk about raids, and the other side will be compelled to retaliate. Fighting along the LoC will hurt Pakistan — but it will hurt India even more, since it will let jihadists slip through counter-infiltration defences with relative ease, as they used to before a ceasefire went into force in 2002.
The second option — the one most attractive to politicians — are air or missile strikes on jihadist targets across the LoC, which are highly visible but stop short of outright conflict. In the years since 26/11, India’s ability to conduct such strikes has been significantly enhanced.
However, the tactic isn’t always successful. In August 1998, the US fired missiles into Afghanistan, seeking to avenge bombings which killed 224 people. In all, 75 missiles, each priced at $1.5 million, killed six minor jihadists.
Even worse, Pakistan could hit back, targeting Indian industrial infrastructure, which is much more expensive than tent-and-donkey cart training camps. India could, of course, hit back yet again — but this course is fraught. Every step up what is called the escalation ladder — the set of steps that lead from a sub-conventional conflict, like terrorism, all the way up to outright confrontation — has to be carefully thought through when nuclear weapons are involved.
Like Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee before him, Prime Minister Modi has a third choice — to use coercion, but stop short of full throttle escalation. In 2001, after terrorists attacked Parliament, India mobilised troops. Pakistan was forced to respond in kind. Its nuclear weapons stopped India from attacking, its smaller economy suffered disproportionately. The stratagem is time-tested. In 1953, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru mobilised troops in Punjab to deter a Pakistani attack into Kashmir.
The Vajpayee strategy worked, forcing Pakistan to dramatically scale down the jihad in Jammu and Kashmir. But it was hideously expensive, in money and lives — and for a prime minister who is relentlessly focused on economic growth, this is a
Fourth, Prime Minister Modi could try covert means, like bomb-for-bomb strikes in Pakistan, or targeted assassination of jihadist leaders. The problem is, jihadists India targets will hit back — and as Indian citizens die, there will be a public outcry. If the government had invested in growing India’s police and intelligence capacities to absorb the backlash, this might be less of a concern — but Central support for police modernisation has actually been slashed.
Finally, there’s the fifth option: Do nothing. This sounds callous — but it isn’t as worthless an idea as it seems. In the grand scheme of things, securing Kashmir’s internal security, and maintaining counter-infiltration defences, are what are important to India — not vengeance.
Both those ends, it could be argued, might be best served by soaking in the terrible blow India received at Uri — and focusing on the main task, which is stilling the street violence, and degrading the ranks of jihadists who have infiltrated into the state under its cover.
Lawrence Freedman, in his magisterial work on strategy, defines it thus: “Identifying objectives; and about the resources and methods for meeting such objectives”. Prime Minister Modi’s real problem is that while India knows its objectives — deterring Pakistan — it lacks the resources to do so.
For this, successive governments, including this one, are to blame. The modernisation of India’s military has been painfully slow, denying it the ability to stage precision operations. The Central government has cut funding for police modernisation, and the intelligence services are short-staffed — denying it the capacity to soak up retaliatory blows.
Leadership in difficult times should be a cold-blooded business. Prime Minister Modi’s decision should be driven by a clinical apprisal of what can be achieved — not what India wishes might be won.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Prime Minister’s Uri choice’)