An Assessment of Strategic Options post Uri Attack
The Uri attack in September 2016 resulted in some 19 deaths to soldiers, most of which were in a possibly accidental fire as part of the melee rather than direct terror action. “Four suicide terrorists had blazed their way through our base at Uri, very close to the LoC, and caused heavy casualties. During the firefight, a cookhouse also caught fire, which increased the death toll (Satish Dua, India’s Bravehearts, p.1).” This point is important to bear in mind to keep the incident in perspective and not allow emotions to cloud strategic judgment. This is emphasized at the outset here since the attack is being played up in the media by interested political forces, including those supportive of the government, and diplomatically in the usual India-Pakistan joust in the UN General Assembly, making for pressure to ‘do something’ on the government, and therefore, needs cautioning against.
The military options are across the conflict spectrum and the armed forces are available for execution of any chosen by the government. Starting from the minimal end, the options are discussed below:
Status quo. Continue as of now with an active Line of Control (LC) and administering punishment across it by firepower. This has been tried before and has not worked as the Uri attack might show.
Surgical strikes as hitherto. Surgical strikes have been conducted across the LC on a case by case basis and can be employed to target both Pakistan (Pak) army, sponsors, and the terror proxies as necessary. These can either be kept confidential as hitherto or in a shift publicized. The latter enables deniability and is cognizant of jus ad bellum, while the latter – being different - conveys a public message to the Pak military, government and public.
Surgical strikes upgunned. Surgical strikes can be conducted across a wider space and compressed in time. These will be unmistakable and retributive. Since they will be difficult to conceal, advantage can be taken by publicizing them. In terms of jus ad bellum, they can be argued to be in response to a series of terror attacks, including on Pathankot, at a time and place of own choosing and in line with Charter allowed self defence in response to armed attacks by proxies from the sponsor state. Any shortcomings in the operational execution or result can be papered over with information operations, internally and externally.
Cold Start (CS) lite. The CS doctrine has been firmed up since 2004. In this option, selected limited options across the front can be launched. This will keep the conflict limited – depending on Pak reaction – and liable to early termination, with the political message of Indian weariness with terror conveyed militarily. It may entail some additional preparatory mobilization, so as to deter Pak from an escalatory counter.
CS. This can be as per the CS doctrine, operational across the entire front. This has escalatory potential, but is cognizant of Pak nuclear redlines if any. Its advantage over CS lite is that we would have sufficient forces across for escalation control rather be subject to being defeated piecemeal as in CS lite. This amounts to an armed attack of the order of a war and therefore it debatable in international law whether the provocation argument of self defence can carry the day. Moral high ground is important to retain diplomatically. It has escalatory potential in that strategy is a two player game and Pak reaction cannot be determined prior. Catering for the worst case by our own preparedness and mobilization would make for a self fulfilling outcome in making Pak mistake our preparation for a larger attack and react accordingly at a higher threshold of violence, which if unleashed might jeopardize our limited aims necessitating our throwing in more than what we originally planned: thereby upping escalation and drawing closer to nuclear redlines, thus.
Mobilisation a’la Parakram II. As at Operation (Op) Parakram, the military could mobilize in a display of coercive diplomacy and use diplomatic channels to exert pressure for Pak to deliver on a more credible Islamabad Declaration II (that it will not use its territory for terror). This has been tried and found wanting earlier. It has the advantage of assuaging public mood that ‘something should be done’. If diplomatically we carry the day, it has the potential to relegate Pak image as a power, that backed down in face of Indian aggressiveness.
Conventional war. The escalatory undertow of CS builds in outright war as an option. If and since escalation may occur, it may be prudent to be ‘firstest with mostest’ (Patton). The jus ad bellum aspect will be a difficult diplomatic sell. The mobilization, costs, damages and opportunity costs would require the political leadership to be clear as to what they wish. The nuclear factor will be loom large and as experience of peer militaries in Iraq and Afghanistan show, there will be an irregular side to the war that will suck in India into a quagmire. Keeping such a war limited will be difficult. India may have to accept international community mediation and external interest in the resolution of the Kashmir issue at its end.
Non military options
Intelligence operations. This has its limitations in that it takes us down an interminable road with no guarantee of success. It opens us to a like counter, making us a surveillance state. It will generate a proxy war, which will internally empower intelligence agencies, without the due protocols of control in place as exist in other democracies. As is well known, intelligence agencies promise a lot, have a commendable media outreach and deliver little. Besides, their initiative is liable to overkill. Take the East Pakistan interference by India leading up to an insecure Pak committing genocide, which implicates India to an extent in that such an over reaction by Pak could have been anticipated and tempered India’s initial decision on interference. By this precedence, there is no call to follow up on ideas such as instigating and assisting the Baloch, since it would only open up a proxy war front in which the Pak can only be expected to come down hard on the Baloch. We should not wish this for friendly ethnic groups, even if it helps keeping Pak down. Recall the manner we let the Sri Lankan Tamils down by initial support followed by assisting the Sri Lankans later in a near genocidal excision of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
Diplomatic offensive. This entails a diplomatic offensive. We rehyphenate ourselves to Pakistan by continually talking of their perfidy in Kashmir, which we have ourselves done little to address politically internally, to the utter boredom, if not amusement, of the international community. It is another matter if the small diplomat corps we have has the ability to deliver with a diplomatic offensive at all. If a diplomacy first option is chosen, India’s military restraint can be exploited to gain the moral high ground and use all international leverages to pressure Pak. The military aspect to this can include taking UN observers of UNMOGIP (not being done since 1971) to the LC and to Uri and showing them the support for terror and firing by the Pak army. The option has the underside of involving the international community, even if we wish them to side with us, and requires playing carefully as they may wish to take the Kashmir issue out of the bilateral forum in which we wish to keep it. The military implication is to stay alert lest Pak deploy terror to throw a spanner in the works and show up Kashmir as a flashpoint.
Political resolution. This entails taking the requisite political measures internally and if necessary externally in respect of Pak for conflict termination and conflict resolution. The conflict has gone on for some 25 years and has had ups and downs in intensity. As a flashpoint, the preceding paras suggest escalation in a nuclear backdrop cannot be ruled out. The nuclear factor must be respected. Doctrinally, once the kinetic part of militancy is under controlled, political measures must kick in and resolve internal conflict. Several such junctures have been ignored in Kashmir. A continuing internal security situation results in the army losing its primary focus on external defence and conventional operations, making its ability to carry out the military options discussed above less efficaciously. Using this juncture for addressing the Kashmir issue meaningfully has the underside of it being prompted by a jihadist attack, therefore, a gap in time is necessary to launch initiatives, which can be planned for now and implemented over the coming winter. Pakistan can be handled diplomatically with much to show on the political front keeping it in sync with the initiative. The military implication of this would be to stay alert but restrained. Diplomatically, a call can be taken on the appropriate use of UNMOGIP presence for observation and monitoring duties on the LC so as to prevent incentive for a terror attack.
The last option, a political resolution of the Kashmir conflict, is recommended.
The government has the parliamentary majority to undertake political initiatives of devolution, autonomy and self-governance. Not doing so and deferring it indefinitely as has been the case over quarter century, has exacted a price on the Kashmir people who are Indian citizens, which Indian governments are duty bound to respect, protect and assist. Not doing so keeps open the door to worse political options as reducing the state to a union territory, which amounts to a non-option at best, since it shall keep the conflict alive indefinitely. Keeping the conflict going, has political dividend for some political forces in terms of polarization within India, but this is at a cost to the national fabric. There are also military costs to an unending conflict, such as preventing a much needed and timely pivot militarily to the China front. It keeps alive the two front worst case scenario, which is prohibitive to address militarily in light of constraints on the defence budget from other national priorities and the compulsions within it from the pensions etc.
Consequently, our recommendation is that the government be doctrinally compliant and deploy its political capital by taking requisite political measures to end the insurgency/militancy/proxy war.
The Ceasefire Option
This is not so outlandish as it sounds, limited imagination makes it appear so. When the outreach to Nawaz Sharif took place in end 2015, it was a reasonable end state. Even so, we allowed the Pathankot attack by spoilers derail the initiative, that should really have been resilient enough to withstand such spoiler interference. (This assumes that Pathankot was not a black operation, which it was, intended to derail the peace initiative and drive a wedge between Sharif and the military – Sharif the target of the peace initiative and the army that, through the black op is depicted as derailing Sharif’s Nobel prize opportunity).
A political dominant approach to the twin India-Pak and Kashmir problems would require a ceasefire along the LC and internally in Kashmir. The India-Pak track would entail taking the comprehensive bilateral dialogue forward. Within Kashmir, it would mean an outreach to the Hurriyat and the mainstream political parties. The internal ceasefire would require to be followed up by confidence building measures, using the Hurriyat to get the militants over ground. There could be an adjunct agreement with Pak to take back the Pakistani terrorists, with a safe corridor being given over a limited timeframe through Kashmir to a few exit points for the terrorists to make their exit, where after they would remain open to Indian offensive operations outside of the ceasefire. Handling of the militants coming overground would follow the Nagaland model best practices.
The alternative of a military option has escalatory overtones. This can be mitigated, but may result in ‘mowing the lawn’ periodically indefinitely till a political resolution is sought as it must some time down line. Consequently, instead of postponing the inevitable, it is best to go in for the political solution now, not instigated or intimidated by the Uri attack but on our own volition in our self interest. This can be done after a suitable gap, in which we have exacted some retribution on the Pak army for the attack and can begin as early as the winter. This will settle the post Burhan Wani disturbances, as well as our Pak problem for the long term. It will remove the polarizing feature in our polity that political forces and formations are taking advantage of to unhinge Indian democracy. Saying this in a military paper is not unfounded since the military is not an island and in its input at the strategic level has to be mindful of the contextual and political factors. Therefore, this plainspeak.
 Note: This is an internal memo that should have been written but was not written in wake of the Uri attack and as they say, rest is history.