The dilemma over military responses to the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) attack in Pulwama that took the lives of 40 CRPF jawans is not new. India has been there and done that. Following the attack on Parliament House on December 13, 2001, India mobilised its entire army and threatened war for an entire year, but finally called it off.
After the Mumbai strike of November 26, 2008, PM Manmohan Singh sought military options, but was told that they were not quite prepared for the possibility of a larger war that may be triggered by a retaliatory strike.And now, PM Modi has declared that the security forces have been given a free hand to decide the time, place and the mode of the future course of action, adding that this was an India with a new policy and practice.
What is new, in many ways, is the extent of public anger and the somewhat blatant efforts to make political use of the event. Modi’s statements indicate that a strike is a question of when, not if.An important factor that restrained India in 1992 (following the Bombay blasts) or in 2001 and 2008 is absent. The US played a major role in preventing an Indian retaliation, in the main out of concerns over Pakistan. Now, to go by the message being conveyed by the incendiary US national security adviser John Bolton is ‘go ahead’.
So, what will the new policy and action be?
First, the Prime Minister needs to understand that such things cannot be left to the security forces. Military action is, as Clausewitz put it, a continuation of politics by other means. In today’s post-nuclear era, when all-out war is not desirable, it is important to use the military instrument with great care, along with ‘a mix of diplomatic, economic and informational implements’.
More than ever, the present situation demands a careful mix of various means and strong political guidance and control. Just how this works was evident in the Indian response to the Kargil incursions. PM Vajpayee ordered the Army and later the Air Force in, but kept a tight control on them, ensuring a major Indian military and diplomatic victory. Not only were the Pakistani intruders pushed back, but also the international community internalised the notion of the sanctity of the Line of Control that divides the Indian and Pakistani forces in J&K.
A lesser-known fact is that the Indian Navy took up aggressive positions in the Arabian Sea and threatened to blockade Karachi in the event of a larger war.
In the long term, many options are there, including a stepped-up covert war and even an economic one. India could up the ante in Afghanistan, or for that matter in the UN Security Council. But Modi also has electoral compulsions for quick and kinetic action.
Air strikes are the easiest. An IAF aircraft can launch a Popeye air-to-surface missile with a 340-kg warhead from Indian airspace and it can travel 70 km or so to a target across the LoC. India has longer range options with the air-launched version of the Brahmos missile that can travel 400 km with a 200-kg warhead.
The second option is an overland ‘surgical strike’. Again, to be effective, it must be sufficiently violent. The so-called surgical strikes of September 26, 2016, were not, because Pakistan was able to pretend they never occurred. More important, Rawalpindi was clearly not deterred because its cross-border attacks on India did not stop. Indeed, one took place two months later on Nagrota, the HQ of 16 Corps.
The problem is targets. In the surgical strikes, India took out a couple of huts being used as launchpads and killed their occupants. But using a 200-300 kg warhead for that would be overkill. It is not clear whether we have exact coordinates of larger facilities used by the Jaish. If we do target them, we would have to be sure that they are, indeed, Jaish targets, and then the IAF would have to ensure accuracy, because in the crowded South Asian terrain, a small error could lead to hundreds of non-combatants being killed.
Since the terrorists operate in small groups and stay in scattered facilities, identifying and targeting larger facilities inland and retrieving a commando group without getting entangled with the dense Pakistan army positions would be a daunting task.
Both these options are made with the presumption that India would seek to differentiate between the Pakistan army and the terrorists. Were India be willing to strike at Pakistani military facilities, we would be into an entirely different ball game. Make no mistake, the Pakistan army will retaliate against any deliberate targeting of its facilities.
If New Delhi decides to play that game it could well also order a blockade of Pakistani air and maritime space. India does not have to be able to enforce this directly, but the threat of being sunk or shot down would be sufficient for air and maritime traffic to be severely disrupted. But this would unleash a different dynamic and affect third countries, thus complicating the outcome.
Whatever the choices are, it is imperative that the Modi government ensure that they are tightly controlled and managed by the political authorities. The Army may have the freedom to decide the nature, time and place of the action, but the responsibility for the outcome will rest on the shoulders of those who wield the instrumentality.
Tribune February 19, 2019