Monday, 18 February 2019


Prime Minister Narendra Modi has indicated that the military has been given a free hand in implementing the government's decision for punitive retaliation against the terror attack in which 44 central reserve police bravehearts were killed in Pulwama last week. The decision was taken at a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security in the morning following the explosion by a car laden improvised explosive device set off by a Kashmiri terrorist.

The parameters of the retaliation are not known. Testimony of the brass then has it that strategic guidelines that ought to accompany such orders have not been given by the political masters earlier in the case of the Kargil War and Operation Parakram in response to the parliament terror attack. This time round, with the National Security Council system entering into its third decade, it can be expected that the military has received its parameters as part of its marching orders.

That the military has not as yet acted on the orders suggests that it is a work in progress and the preparatory phase is underway. Learning lessons from 26/11, the military has over the past decade kept battle ready forces, albeit small, for just this eventuality. It is apparent that these forces have not been employed. It can be inferred that the military is readying for a higher order operation.

The punitive operation itself may be more measured, but the uncertainty attending its success and of Pakistani response would entail the military making wider preparations, not only to conduct the operation but to deal with the aftermath. The onus of escalation will be on Pakistan and it may resort to actions requiring an Indian counter. Pakistan is currently prepared for both reaction and response, no doubt registering the prime minister's words. The Indian military is therefore taking the necessary precautions.

The current hiatus gives the advantage of setting the diplomatic stage. The foreign ministry has been busy apprising their global interlocutors of Indian compulsions and Pakistani complicity. It enables the international community to also chip in and get Pakistan to reverse its policy. The military preparations make for urgency in this, besides strengthening the hands of diplomats.

The diplomats have already made headway, with the United States accepting India's right of self defence informing any proportionate military action it contemplates. It also gives Pakistan's other close partner, Saudi Arabia, an opportunity to rein it in, with the visiting Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), prevailing on Pakistan to shift away from its terror-friendly neighbourhood policies.

Minimally, the visit can provide Pakistan cover to step back by taking sustainable measures to the satisfaction of India against the Jaish-e-Mohammad, the architects of the Pulwama attack, and defuse the crisis. India can follow up with MBS during his Indian next stop over on details of Pakistani compliance. In such a case, diplomacy would continue at the global level to have the JeM head, Masood Azhar, put on the United Nation's terror list.

With diplomacy given a chance, India would have set the stage for a military strike, which it could launch at 'a time and place of own choosing' depending on where surprise and deception give it best dividends. There are limits to surprise since both armies have had opportunity in earlier crises to observe the other's moves.
As to time limits to any such strike, it would depend on readiness of both sides. Pakistani readiness levels tend to heighten as the preparatory phase rolls out. However, Indian forces may be hard put to maintain readiness levels to outlast the Pakistanis.

Besides the political reason of polls in the offing, the punitive strikes would likely be sooner than later. The 'surgical strikes' provide a clue as to when military operations may be launched. While the Uri terror attack was in mid September 2016, the counter went in later that month. This enabled India to prepare the ground at the United Nation's General Assembly session that took place in the interim.

While last time the Pakistanis seem to have stood down their guard, this time round they will likely hold it up for longer. Intelligence reports indicating that Pakistan did not vacate some 50 of 60 posts it usually vacates during winter indicates that they appear to have anticipated the situation. Its military cannot for a second time allow an Indian operation to go unchallenged.

This implies that the contemplated military operation would be liable to escalation, not only by a Pakistani counter but also in India pressing the accelerator either to get out of a jam or to come out on top. The Indian preparations would be catering for this, including a stealthy occupation of defences across the international border by core teams and possibly a graduated mobilization as the operation unfolds. Needless to say, Pakistan will match step.

The strategic directions referred to at the beginning of the article require to essentially deal with such escalatory possibilities. There is no indication so far that the political masters have given their mind on this to the military. In fact, what is available from the media compels one to apprehend the opposite.

The prime minister has said that the military has been delegated the responsibility to conduct the strikes. A credible strategic pundit has rightly pointed out that this amounts to abdicating its responsibility. The prime minister's announcement twice over that a military operation is imminent appears to have put the onus on the military, enabling the political master to distance himself from any adverse fallout of the operations.

In the case of the surgical strikes too, though Prime Minister Modi in an interview claimed responsibility, the parameters he alluded to alongside do not lend confidence that the political head is fully aware of what military operations entail as fallout. He said that he had required troops participating to head back from the operation irrespective of its success or otherwise without incurring casualties by day-break. These are unrealistic parameters for military operations. In the event, it is no wonder Pakistan denied the surgical strikes ever took place.

As outlined here, there is no guarantee of a successful outcome. The political master needs to be put on notice timely that the head on the block is his in case of the counter getting out of hand. The buck cannot be passed on to the military, even if it manages to do a professional job of it and rescues the political master from such fate.

In a democratic set up the political aims are to be indicated by the political leadership, along with any strictures. A joint civilian-military cogitation then ensues under the leadership of the national security advisor and the outcome - strategic and military objectives - vetted and approved by the political leadership in another sitting of the CCS. This may be underway and the ownership of the military operations may be taken up by the political leadership at some stage here on.

The extent to which the political leadership is willing to countenance escalation must be made known to the military. The manner in which the right wing has orchestrated nationalist hysteria since the attack needs no spelling out. This can only come back to boomerang on the political leadership when and if faced with military set back. Impending elections will make the likely impact on elections of the decisions taken as the overriding factor and not what is best in the interests of national security.

The doyen of strategists, the Prussian Carl von Clausewitz had said that the first consideration in contemplating entering into military conflict is to have no illusions over what military perpetrated violence entails. Military conflict is two sided. In South Asia, there is no missing the nuclear overhang.

Therefore, Prime Minister Modi needs reminding that he has his task cut out, even though hopefully such common sense has been communicated to him by his national security adviser. That the Pulwama incident happened at all suggests that this cannot be left to the national security establishment. It failed to deter Pakistan, though it upped the military ante in Kashmir over the past four years without a complementary peace track. It can fail yet again as it moves from deterrence to compellence. It needs reminding timely of Clausewitz's first principle recounted here, so that it does not fail the nation yet again.