Saturday, 9 March 2019

Balakot: Divining India’s strategy from its messaging

Kashmir Times op ed 9 March

In April last year, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval stepped down from his minister of state level perch to take over chairpersonship of the defence planning committee, the headship of which ought to have been with the permanent chairman of the chiefs of staff committee or chief of defence staff-equivalent member of the brass. Since this government has no better record in national security than its predecessors – howsoever much it has tried to distance itself from its predecessor in public perception – it has not created that appointment.

One of the tasks of the defence planning committee was to conduct a strategic review, the outcome of which was to be a document on the government’s strategic doctrine. It was obvious even then that since grand strategy-making is at a higher level than defence, the defence planning committee was a misnomer. Sensing this a few months on into the year, in October, Ajit Doval reportedly displaced the cabinet secretary as head of the strategic policy group: a pillar in the national security system India gave itself late last century. The move was justified as necessary for the strategic review. The cabinet secretary, being a generalist bureaucrat, was perhaps unqualified for the task.

Earlier strategic reviews were periodically done by the national security advisory board and shared confidentially with the government. Since that body has non-official membership and is in an advisory capacity, its output did not amount to the official strategic review. In this government’s tenure, it has just a handful of members, as against its score plus membership at its inception and prime. Even then, its output was inconsequential, such as the draft nuclear strategy derided by the Vajpayee government’s busy-body in defence matters, Jaswant Singh. Perhaps this government does not need the input from official sources, since it has sufficient resources in private think tanks affiliated to Doval - conflict of interest notwithstanding - and in its ideological fountainhead based out of Nagpur.

Even so, the promised strategic review has not seen light of day. Its absence brings to fore yet another failure necessary to highlight lest the ongoing chest thumping on national security passes without contest. It is a failure with ramification since success or otherwise cannot be squared off against aims owned up to in a strategic review.

Five years into this self-confessedly national security-minded government, its strategy can only be read from its moves in national security. The latest has been the Pulwama-Balakot-Naushera episode, of which its showing in the Balakot segment is claimed as trumping the score notched up by Pakistan at Pulwama and Naushera.

Apologists, bhakts, institution-ensconced strategists and assorted experts are acclaiming Modi’s take on the Balakot decision, that it was a landmark one worth repeating, put inimitably in his words to the electorate: ‘andar ghus ke maarenge’! The decision is worth careful strategic analysis. That sobriety is not possible to undertake under studio conditions explains the acclaim.

The aerial strike on Balakot has been credited with the aim of exacting a cost on the perpetrator outfit of the car-borne terror attack at Pulwama, the Jaish e Mohammad. The messaging through choice of target in mainland Pakistan – Balakot being in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province – is that India will not allow terrorists targeting India with mega-terror attacks sanctuary anywhere in Pakistan.

Experts have it that this would require reinforcing periodically with punitive operations. No one is under any illusion that it would end the insurgency or Pakistani support. It may deter high-end terrorist strikes, but cannot rule these out. In any case, the aim is to impose costs and end impunity, with the added benefit of releasing public pressures and political point-scoring.

This is not a new idea. A former northern army commander in his book on counter insurgency had advocated punitive operations. He is credited with plugging for and planning Operation Kabaddi, an operation aborted due to the impact of 9/11 that coincidentally unfolded in the region around then. The intention is to keep counter insurgency and anti-terrorism manageable within Kashmir by deterring Pakistan from upping-the-ante, such as by resort to car bombs, mines and anti-air missiles. India does not want a crossing of its threshold of tolerance, impacting its ability to sustain indefinitely in Kashmir. An ability to be atop things enables home-front support continuing alongside and prevents calls there-from for more risky strategies. Punitive operations provided offensive - preventive and pre-emptive - options other than the usual defensive – protective, reactive and responsive – options. These options were not conflict resolution relevant – the use of force route to end conflict in Kashmir - as much as a conflict management adjunct.

The particular offensive option chosen by Modi must be taken down a notch or two lest the accompanying hype mislead that it is rather a grand decision. It is an advance on ‘surgical strikes’, which India had been conducting in any case even prior to Modi’s advent in national politics. As such, Modi’s expanded version of surgical strikes proved a failure at Pulwama; forcing him a step up the ladder. The failure was an outcome of the restrictions on the operation, testifying to Modi’s incomprehension of the military instrument and his unwillingness to take a political risk.

Even so, the Balakot strike can potentially impact high-end terrorism, such as the Pulwama terror incident, but it will not deter the Jaish. The group is already using it in its advertisement for infusing of fresh young blood into Kashmir soon. The Pakistan army is unlikely to feel overly obligated to control the group on three counts. Firstly, Pakistan is not incentivized through talks to hold back, and, secondly, the ongoing Operation All Out stands to wipe out local militants over the campaigning season unless they receive a dose of material support once infiltration routes open up. Lastly, it would not like to bear the brunt of its ‘good’ terrorists turning guns on it for seeming pusillanimity over Pakistan’s jugular vein, Kashmir.

Incidents such as the one at Uri can recur in case an incident is compounded with bad luck. At Uri, most Indian fatalities were in a fire engulfing a tent. The response was credible in wresting the initiative from three terrorists at the price of six soldiers. In short, the incident did not merit the surgical strikes. Therefore, the surgical strikes were a result of a commitment trap the government had set itself in going to town over the cross border strikes in Myanmar earlier.

What emerges is that a government with Modi at helm would be only too willing to extract political mileage, but would be wary of a political price. This explains the great lengths it has gone to distance itself from the aerial strikes. Prior to the strikes it had publicly delegated the response to the military, whereas the escalatory potential clearly merited political ownership of any decision between options. The distancing was to create a moat around itself if things went wrong in face of fog of war, friction and plain bad luck. The second is its subsequent conduct of hiding behind the military when confronted with legitimate questions; questions prompted incidentally by its haste to politically capitalize on the strike. That it is unmindful of the using the military as a pawn, needs calling out here.

The surgical strike option having been exhausted prematurely in response to the Uri terror attack and the aerial strikes having only served to set up a hot summer in Kashmir, the next step that looms involves taking on the sponsors of the Jaish, the Pakistan army. The Pakistani military in its Naushera counter-strike has broadcast that it will prefer to precipitate matters.

This suggests the vacuity in the strategic thinking that calls for India to emulate Israel – most recently voiced by a former army chief who sullied the stature of a service chief by settling to being a junior minister in charge of firefighting duties such as organizing evacuation of Indians from troubled shores abroad. He forgets Pakistan is not Gaza and Lebanon just yet. India’s strikes could push it onwards in that direction. That would place India as a frontline state as it would bring the instability that plagues West Asia and AfPak to the Indus.

What the business of a frontline state has meant for Pakistan is well known. The result for India could not be any different. In the interim, the region will find out what successive punitive operations against a nuclear armed state – presumably tottering from the strikes – could eventuate in. This is the underside of India’s strategic engagement with its partners, the latest round of which were the well-advertised ‘Dolton-Boval’ conversations after Pulwama.

It cannot be that Balakot was to compel Pakistan to go after the Jaish and its proxy instruments. The Balakot-Naushera exchange indicates Pakistan will disallow India the luxury of impunity as enjoyed by the United States (US). It is also amply clear that even the US has not quite succeeded in compellence against either state actors, Syria, Iran and Pakistan, or non-state actors as the Taliban. The next India-Pakistan episode will be the real thing. Balakot spells as much.

Strategy is to attain an aim. A continuing of insurgency – or proxy war if you will – makes for fertile ground for high-end terror. Punitive operations can keep high-end terrorism off the terror repertoire but are a risky, high-cost strategy. A strategy to roll-back the fertile ground and insure against high-end terror can only be talks-centric. A democratic change of government is the necessary - though insufficient - initial step. A written strategic doctrine must follow to inform India’s Pakistan and Kashmir strategies, currently adrift from political opportunism and institutional haemorrhaging.