Monday, 25 February 2019

Options before India to respond to the Pulwama terror attack

By now war-rooms hurriedly set up in television studios have familiarized all and sundry with India’s response options to the Pulwama terror attack in which more than two score central reserve police force troopers lost their lives.

Talking heads, while whipping up nationalist hysteria, have intoned that the nation is baying for blood. More sober strategic dons have delicately reminded the government that it must survey the risks before taking the plunge. Ruling party honchos from the Prime Minister downwards have taken to the election trail appropriating political mileage out of the nation’s sorrow over Pulwama.

The military for its part has displayed its capability in an air power demonstration in Pokhran. The army has within 100 hours of the terror attack taken out the Jaish minders of the suicide bomber. The corps commander in Srinagar, emulating the army chief, has warned Kashmiri youth that any one picking up the gun would be killed.

In Kashmir, there have been mass arrests of those liable to create pro-Pakistan trouble and additional central armed police forces have been deployed, some by air, for population control when India’s punitive operation against Pakistan, promised by the Prime Minister, unfolds.

The Prime Minister has delegated power to the military to deliver India’s answer to Pulwama. That the otherwise loquacious Army chief has been rather quiet, provides a clue that there is some military action in the offing.

The Pakistani military is also on the alert, as announced by its spokesperson. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has warned that his country would not hold back.

This has implications for Indian planning and preparation. India would require preparing for a Pakistani counter alongside its punitive operation. Commonsense suggests the less escalatory a punitive operation option the better.

Mature commentators have rightly pointed out that the decision on the choice between options is not the military’s to take. Given that each option would have an escalation quotient, it is a political decision as to the risk the nation would run to deliver a punitive blow to Pakistan.

The political decision makers would require taking into account the expected gains against the risk taken. The Prime Minister in a recent interview rightly acknowledged that mere reruns of surgical strikes are unlikely to get Pakistan to tack. He said that it would be sometime before Pakistan is brought around. This sets the frame for the decision on the gains-risk balance.

While accepting that the military has the professionalism to execute the operation, it needs to have the political decision maker’s imprimatur for the same. It would not do to have the operation signed off at the level of the national security adviser. The operation was authorized by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) at its meeting in the forenoon of the following day of the terror attack. Therefore it is the CCS that needs to give the go-ahead.

The Prime Minister’s empowering the military to respond amounts to passing on the buck. The military are merely to dutifully present the choices, express preferences between these, highlights escalatory possibilities of each and executes the choice made by the political masters.

This choice has been made problematic by the timing of the Pulwama attack. It allows the ruling party to take political advantage of the nationalist fervour provoked. The ruling party has painted itself into a corner by the hype and cannot now climb down. It knows the opposition will take advantage of any slip up in choice or execution. Facing elections, Modi would be hard put to accept responsibility for the military action going awry.

Thus, the impending punitive operation is driven by internal political considerations rather than objective strategic factors. The only silver lining is that the possibility of the military operation going wrong and impacting his reelection chances may stay Modi’s hand.

The question then is how is India to get off the high horse without losing face and the ruling party losing ground to the opposition that will no doubt call out its loud posturing thus far. This time round, there appear to be fewer logs floating past for the two sides to clamber onto and out of a crisis. There has been no substantial peace messaging from Pakistan using the conduit of the visiting Saudi crown prince. The United States not having been forthcoming in calling for restraint and intervening with its good offices as in past crises. There is a call for restraint from the UN Secretary General.

The diplomatic prong of strategy is in gear and can provide a face saving exit. The UN Security Council has called out the Jaish by name in its resolution and asked all states – in a tacit reference to Pakistan and China – to cooperate with India.

The financial action task force meeting in Paris has maintained Pakistan in the gray zone and is to revisit its case in October. France is taking up the case of blacklisting of the Jaish supremo Masood Azhar at the UN sanctions committee. India’s rescinding of the Most Favoured Nation status has kicked in. India can use these measures and internal measures taken such as pressuring the Hurriyet by removal of security cover from its members as proactive actions taken.

To satisfy his supporters wanting military action and take the wind out of the opposition’s sail, Modi can claim that military operations at the time and place of own choosing do not necessarily entail conducting them before elections. He can argue that he would be the right person to give the go ahead for these when he is reelected. In the interim, the activation of the Line of Control can serve as substitute.

This will be a useful change of tack for the government. It would preserve Modi’s reelection chances by not having these predicated on military success – an iffy proposition at the best of times. It would give the military time to prepare. It would enable surprise when Pakistanis switch off their alert status. It would preserve the region from inadvertent catastrophe. It would allow time for crisis dissolution for now.