Pakistan is rattled, and that's evidence of India's surgical strike

Arun Sahgal
Arun SahgalOct 05, 2016 | 17:14

Pakistan is rattled, and that's evidence of India's surgical strike

Questions are being raised on both the veracity and efficacy of India's cross-Line of Control (LoC), surgical strikes undertaken by Indian Special Forces (SF) on the night of September 28-29. The para forces struck at seven or eight terrorist locations across the LoC at distances ranging from 1.5 to 4 kilometres.

There are three different constituencies within the country and abroad raising these doubts. My aim is to address all of them. First is the political constituency; largely the opposition, which sees in the claims an attempted overdrive by the ruling NDA to use these strikes to garner political space on the eve of the crucial state elections, where the stakes are obviously high. Questioning the veracity of the strikes with little or no consideration to the larger national and international consequences is deemed as fair play to prevent the ruling dispensation from exploiting the success to their political advantage.

India fully conscious of associated escalation dynamics, including their impact on nuclear thresholds. Photo credit: Reuters

Then there is a very interesting constituency comprising largely Indians of foreign origin working in think tanks and other institutions abroad, who are questioning not so much the veracity but the efficacy of the strikes - possibly driven largely by the obtaining American or the British narrative in terms of deterrence, strategic stability and the escalation dynamics based essentially on the western discourse?

Questions are being raised on what has been the broader strategic logic of these strikes and their implications for the cross-border terror/proxy war? Will it change the existing narrative of Pakistan using terrorism to bleed India through thousand cuts merely on account of a single shallow strike?

Their conclusion is that it will change little implying thereby that giving up the policy of strategic restraint could, in the long run, be counter-productive. Thus in effect questioning the broader strategic rationale of the Indian action.

In my view, this is not purely an academic conviction but one driven by the broader ideological biases of the institutions to which they belong. Discourse is being driven by South Asia as a flashpoint with the worry that were the Indian retaliation to become a norm, the region could stumble into a nuclear conflagration. So fears of India resorting to punitive response without thinking through the consequences and the fears of escalation are the drivers of their concerns and narrative.

Then comes the so-called foreign correspondent class, which is basing its claims on Indian press reports, and ideological and other concerns essentially aimed at highlighting the consequences of escalation. Reporting is centered around the same logic employed by academics of Indian origin, hence the apparent resonance!

Reality versus myth

Let me take the liberty of analysing both the operational reality of the strikes and their broader strategic consequences. At the outset, it is important to disabuse all constituencies that Indian security is not sanguine about the implications of military response and its escalation dynamics.

Now, for years India has developed a punitive response strategy and is fully conscious of associated escalation dynamics, including their impact on nuclear thresholds.

There is no doubt cross-border "incursions" are par for the course and have been happening all along. The Indian Army's action this time is different, whose import is important to understand. First, it needs to be realised that these were politically mandated and their full responsibility lay on the political leadership of the day. Hence, importantly, political hesitancy and vacillation were substituted by clear guidelines to the armed forces. Second, and a factor that has not been adequately highlighted, is this was an integrated and synergised political, intelligence and military operation.

Three critical steps were taken prior to the launch of the offensive. First, intelligence was gained through combined aerospace and terrestrial means in which satellites and drones played an important part. This highlights the credibility of Indian Intelligence and their Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capability, which we lacked earlier. Should it be a reason for worry for Pakistan that sub-metric resolution was obtained and round-the-clock surveillance maintained?

Second, and more importantly, detailed operational preparations were in place. When the strikes took place, the Indian navy was operating in Gulf of Gujarat, in a state of operational preparedness. Similarly, the Air Force, which had recently conducted an exercise, was asked to continue with the maintenance of its operational readiness with sensors and radars. This essentially implies that the armed forces were prepared to deal with any contingency in the event of Pakistan escalating the situation or the operation going horribly wrong.

There should thus be no doubt that Indian action was a planned politico-military response. Further, the fact that Pakistan was forced to upgrade its defensive posture by moving its defensive formations, put its offensive formations on high alert, deploy its Air Force - including the closing of air space over Lahore and Karachi - are enough indicators of Pakistan being rattled despite its denial. The rubbishing of the strikes as a wild Indian fantasy and a media-managed exercise are part of the disinformation campaign often indulged by Pakistan - reminiscent of their denials during Kargil.

Coming to the efficacy of strikes - Hindustan Times story dated October 4 vividly details the entire operation. Confirmation about the effects and casualties are provided in today's edition of The Indian Express. In addition, the Indian Army has agreed to share evidence of the cross-LoC strikes in public space, leaving the final choice to the government. This should reasonably rest doubts about the veracity of the strikes. Given the existing political discourse, no doubt as and when the information is put out in public domain, quibbling in all probability will continue.

Now let me come to the strategic import of the strikes. The proxy war being waged by Pakistan is a low-cost option to bleed India by a "thousand cuts". Pakistan believes this to be a credible strategy of coercion to put India on a strategic backfoot, while leveraging nuclear deterrence and brinkmanship for managing escalation and war avoidance.

So long as this strategy holds, the situation from Pakistan's perspective is largely favourable as it limits India's strategic and operational space and options. This has forced India to respond to Pakistani terror and machinations in J&K through defensive means - be it Mumbai, Gurdaspur or Pathankot - thus the euphemism of strategic restraint and high thresholds of tolerance.

This politically ordered and militarily calibrated strike has changed this narrative. By clearly outlining the Indian policy of punitive retaliation and the right of self-defence, India has outlined that both proxy war - and Uri and Mumbai-like terrorist attacks - will invite retaliation.

Does it mean India has finally created space below the nuclear threshold to execute military options? To understand this we need to have clarity about Pakistan's nuclear agenda, which is to deter India from exercising its military option. It realises that over time, the conventional asymmetry could become stark and strategic balance unfavourable. It wants to stymie such a situation through what it calls "development of full spectrum nuclear capability".

Strategic signalling from the strike for Pakistan should be clear. India has demarcated its thresholds of tolerance, which it can overlook at its own peril. Nuclear sabre-rattling, brinkmanship et al will not work. Having played a number of war games and Track II discussions with Pakistani interlocutors, my understanding is that beyond bravado they understand the limits of their rhetoric.

It cannot be said with equanimity that the raid will have a salutary effect in preventing Pakistan from prosecuting its nefarious cross-border terror plans. However, it can be said with some alacrity that it will not be business as usual. Pakistan will be forced to factor the Indian retaliatory response, which should in the medium run temper its propensity for cross-border terror - this will be a decisive achievement.

Last updated: October 05, 2016 | 17:29
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