Pakistani leadership has a propensity to play mind games using the nuclear option even at the early period of the escalatory spiral.
There is an inevitability about the effect of a major trigger in the national security environment such as the Pulwama car bomb attack. It always commences an escalation spiral between India and Pakistan which could go all the way to an all-out war. Only if there is a war on such scale can nuclear red lines come into play.
However, Pakistani leadership has a propensity to play mind games using the nuclear option even at the early period of the escalatory spiral. There are far too many imponderables in the spiral but more importantly, there is also a lack of informed understanding about some of the issues involved here.
Television anchors and even some analysts have been quick to incorrectly surmise that in the past there was a lack of combined political and military will to retaliate against triggers caused willfully by terrorists under the sponsorship of Pakistan’s Deep State.
While not taking away anything from the bold decision of the current Indian government to employ surgical precision air strikes against terrorist facilities after the Pulwama outrage, with all the risk involved in a military action which could have also gone wrong, it is also true that in the past the circumstances were different.
Many lessons were learnt through these years and the same are today being applied at the strategic and operational level with cumulative experience. The present Indian government itself has gained much experience through three incidents between 2016 and 2019.
In 1999 the NDA government responded strongly and decisively to the Kargil intrusion, taking the engagement to its culmination through a combined military-diplomatic campaign. The trigger caused by the 13 Dec 2001 attack on India’s Parliament, the symbol of its democracy, sufficiently irked the government and the people to lead the government to escalate its response many notches higher.
It ordered general mobilisation and deployed the Army at the borders for almost a year awaiting launch. It wasn’t the lack of political will or military reluctance but the unique circumstance of the early presence of the US armed forces in the Af Pak region to fight the Taliban and the Al Qaida that forced the Indian leadership to abjure from military engagement in retribution against the Pakistan support for the terror attack on Parliament.
The 26/11 Mumbai attack caused immense casualties and hit India’s self-esteem too. While the government considered all options for a response right up to the stage of the potential war, there was comparatively much lesser public pressure due to lack of social media and poor internet penetration at that time.
The decibels on India’s electronic visual media were then of a lower order in comparison to today’s cacophony which passes as strategic debate. It was also just after the unsuccessful backroom diplomacy between the two nations in pursuance of the Four Point Formula of Parvez Musharaf; the temperature of the security environment had considerably cooled and the ceasefire was contributing majorly to confidence building. Under the circumstances, it was perhaps a difficult call.
The Pathankot attack was the current government’s first major challenge in the strategic sub-conventional domain. While the situation in Kashmir was none too stable, PM Modi’s attempts at transforming the process of relations between India and Pakistan had created positive vibes. In fact, the PM’s visit to Lahore on Christmas 2015 had contributed to the improving trust as much had the NSA’s talks with his Pakistani counterpart.
Thus when Pathankot happened within seven days of the Lahore visit it was more of a shock to the political leadership on both sides. Joint investigation and evidence gathering started early to offset any possibility of the terror act being exploited to trigger an escalatory spiral. The patience, of course, was running thin and something more was expected early enough.
The Uri terror attack on 18 Sept 2016 was against an army formation headquarters on our side of the Line of Control but led to the death of 20 soldiers; sufficient trigger for a response was perceived by decision makers who then started to feel that without sufficiency of counter threats the Deep State would continue to feel emboldened to repeat its strikes.
There is an erroneous perception among many, that the post-Uri surgical strikes were designed to deter Pakistan and the terrorists. In fact, it was only messaging that India was attempting and the risk involved was comparatively low. The messaging was to convey that India had the political will and military capability to strike each time Pakistan chose to up the ante through a terror attack in India.
The 2016 trans-LoC surgical strikes gave the Indian government the necessary experience and confidence but repeating them would always be difficult due to greater Pakistani vigilance and consequent loss of surprise.
Thus what we witnessed after 14 Feb 2019 when the Pulwama outrage occurred were a couple of important things. First, the progressive cumulative experience gained over 20 years and especially the lessons learnt in the last three years greatly helped in analysing and calibrating the national response. The escalatory ladder was climbed some notches higher by opting for air power.
The options hereafter for India are many but careful calibration with the diplomatic domain will enhance the strategic effect of the decisions. This being a hybrid conflict situation strategic leaders cannot ignore the various domains in play, the psychological being one of the more important among those. That has been Pakistan’s forte but it’s good to see some effective steps in this domain on the Indian side too.
We have not seen the end of escalation in the current crisis. Each action, statement or decision to act turns the screw of coercion taking escalation to a higher level. De-escalation can similarly be achieved without losing the strategic advantage gained. The Pakistan decision to release Wg Cdr Abhinandan is a de-escalation move but its effect will need to be examined in the light of Indian strategy and objectives laid out. Sticking to that strategy to achieve the terminal result is the key to this game.