Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to authorise Tuesday’s cross-border strikes against the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) in Myanmar could prove to be a defining moment in the evolution of India’s counter-terror responses. Though this is not the country’s first transborder counter-terrorism operation, it is the only one for which a government has publicly taken responsibility. The decision to strike at bases across the border, authorised by the prime minister, was facilitated by years of patient diplomacy, which led Myanmar to assent to India’s raid. For the apparently flawless execution of the operation, credit must go to the soldiers who risked their lives, and to the commanders who have relentlessly worked to improve the special forces’ capabilities. The prime minister’s military advisors will, however, have told him that even in the best-planned special forces operations, things can — and do — go wrong. The United States special forces in Somalia were surrounded and slaughtered by militia; near-disaster hit the Osama bin Laden raid when a helicopter crashed. The risk was taken, though, and for that act of courage, the prime minister must get credit.
Less creditworthy, though, is the apparent effort to harvest political capital from the army’s success. Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s references to the prime minister’s chest measurements, and his delight in the act of “revenge”, may please juveniles on Twitter, but are not the stuff that serious government is made of. Interestingly, the army — which liaises with the Myanmar military on an everyday basis and is aware of their sensitivities — made no mention of a cross-border operation, only vaguely stating that it had carried out strikes “along the border”. Rathore, however, went public with information that the strikes had been carried out inside Myanmar with its government’s consent — potentially embarrassing a partner who, after all, is a signatory to a ceasefire with the NSCN-K.
India needs a calm, serious discussion on what can be learned from this exercise of hard power, and what the limitations to its use might be. In the short term, there is no doubt the NSCN-K will seek to strike back against Indian targets, in an effort to deter further military action. New Delhi must anticipate the possibility and ensure that its response does not derail moves towards peace within Nagaland. The government must also beware of calls for similar action against Pakistan, an adversary that has the wherewithal to escalate even localised confrontation into an expensive conflagration. India’s discovery that it can use force may be overdue, but it must now learn it is best applied only as a precision instrument.