Monday, 4 March 2019

26 Feb

Pulwama: The counter attack

India’s response to the mid-month Pulwama terror attack in which more than two score
central reserve police troopers lost their lives was delivered twelve days later by the air force.

This was the outcome of the prime minister’s order to the military that the response be at ‘a time
and place of its choosing’.

The Air Force’s preparedness was most visible. At a previously scheduled airpower
demonstration in Pokhran, Exercise Vayu Shakti-2019, co-incidentally held immediately
following the Pulwama incident, it displayed its prowess at destruction tasks, pulling ahead of
the army as possible choice of service for executing India’s retribution.

It’s Chief, hinting at the possibilities following the recent development, said, ‘While wars are
few and far between, we have an ever present sub-conventional threat as the enemy knows he
cannot defeat us in a conventional conflict. So today we showcase our ability to punish.’ Anyone
listening could have seen what was coming in his words, ‘We are showcasing our ability to hit
hard, hit fast and hit with precision, hit during day, hit during night and hit under adverse
weather conditions through our autonomous bombing capability.’

While it was speculated that the air force would be a useful instrument to deliver the retribution,
there were apprehensions of its escalatory implications. It was apparent that the Indian response
would be harsher than hitherto and the reaction by Pakistan could well be forceful. This
spelt escalation, an avoidable proposition for a government looking at elections a couple of
months ahead and wanting to avoid any military reverses in the interim. Consequently, a less-
escalatory option from India’s menu of options for punitive operations would have been best for
the ruling party.

Each option has an escalation quotient. The military can at best furnish the political head the
menu of options. The risk to be run is a political decision to be taken by its civilian masters. The
prime minister in an interview rightly acknowledged that mere reruns of surgical strikes were
unlikely to get Pakistan to change tack. Such a perspective lends itself to a limited aims option.
Even so, for a reasonable trade-off between gains and risks, Modi needed asking after escalation

The Pakistani army spokesperson had warned that they ‘shall also dominate the escalation
ladder.’ Hoping to deter, he cautioned of an ‘escalated response’ which would ‘surprise’ India.
While India can project nonchalance in its own bit of counter messaging, it being fore-warned,
needed to be fore-armed accordingly.
1 Ali Ahmed, a former UN official, academic and infantryman, blogs on security issues at www.ali-

Escalation is inherent in conventional operations. Military strategy is a two sided contention. The
other side has agency and autonomy of choice. War gaming can help, but there is no guarantee of
knowing in advance the adversary’s playbook.

Two concepts attributed to the Prussian general of the Napoleonic era, Carl von Clausewitz, are
relevant for both sides: the fog of war and friction. The fog of war implies functioning in a
domain of suboptimal information availability for decision making under pressure-cooker
conditions and friction is that everything becomes difficult in war, like walking in water is.
Besides, Murphy’s law that anything that can go wrong will, and boxing champ Mike Tyson’s
quip that the best plan cannot outlast the first punch on the nose, bear recall.

Theorists have it that there are organizational pathologies endemic in military considerations.
The relevant one here is a penchant for offensive options, to enable the military gain, seize and
maintain the initiative. While such organizational considerations can be expected to contaminate
the Pakistani response, these are not absent in the Indian case.

The Indian military cannot settle for a draw. It needs to ensure greater damage to the Pakistani
military – both physically and optically. In the information war that will kick in to project
victory, it required to have something substantial to show – unlike during the surgical strikes.
The strategic consideration of the need on both sides for future deterrence stability also drives
escalation. Indians required a successful punitive strike. The Pakistanis cannot have the Indians
drawing a fresh line in the sand with impunity. The need though felt by both respectively, is
mutually exclusive.

Finally, the pressing escalation impulse for escalation is interestingly not from military factors
and does not lie in Pakistan. It stems from the ruling party’s electoral calculus. The ruling party
has taken political advantage of the Pulwama incident but in doing so ended up in a commitment
trap. It had to deliver on the punitive operations and to ensure their success if necessary by
climbing up the escalation ladder at the crunch.

By this yardstick, as Modi surveyed the prospective punitive operation, he needed no reminding
that his self-interest in political longevity lay, firstly, in choosing the least escalatory option and,
secondly, during its implementation to de-escalate timely.

Modi’s choice of punitive operation appears to have been vindicated by the air force. The foreign
secretary has indicated the extensive considerations that went into the choice of target, with the
planners taking care to hit a terrorist training camp way out on a jungle hilltop. The air force for
its part made a brilliant foray taking a window of opportunity when the Pakistani air force had its
guard down. The foreign secretary has finessed the limited nature of India’s operation by
choosing an interesting term – ‘non-military preemptive action’ – to describe it.

These contribute to escalation control. It now devolves on the political class to keep the lid on
the situation. The situation at the time of writing continues to be delicate. The more triumphalist
India’s right wing appears – contrary to the measured tenor of its foreign secretary – the more
likely Pakistan would settle for a harsher counter than necessary.

Pakistan for its part has observed that the action constitutes aggression and has reserved the
choice of response. It is planning to take the media to the site of the bombing and present its side
of the story that little damage occurred. In case it carries the day, this is liable to heighten the
political heat in India, with the ruling party claiming – as is by now quite usual – that those who
question its narrative are ‘anti-national’.

Though, the ball is in Pakistan’s court, it has as guide the precedence of playing coy – as it did in wake of the surgical strikes of two years back. Escalation possibilities should guide its response as well, including making the choice of ignoring the airattack as a welcome option.

The story is yet unspooling. The target, Balakote, being in mainland Pakistan and the use of air
power against it may tend to shaping Pakistan’s response. While it rode out the American’s
launching Operation Neptune Sphere it would not like to allow India a feeling of impunity for
what it terms ‘aggression’.

Strategic maturity demands that India’s counter to any such response needs to yet again be
mindful of escalation.