It's increasingly clear that the terrorist strike on the Pathankot air force base was in planning for months. The heavy ammunition the terrorists used (including mortars) underscores the military-style training they had undergone.
A coordinated attack on a forward Indian air force base spread over 1,600 acres cannot take place without the absolute involvement of the Pakistani army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
It's equally obvious that when Prime Minister Narendra Modi dropped by to meet Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Lahore on December 25 planning for the Pathankot terror strike was well under way. Significantly, Sharif almost certainly knew about the planned attack even as he walked hand in hand with Modi at his opulent home on the outskirts of Lahore.
For Modi, Pathankot presents a nuanced challenge. Pakistan plays a double game. India must pay it back in the same coin. Because it can't win a conventional war against India over Jammu and Kashmir, Islamabad's long-held strategy is to bleed India by a thousand cuts. At the same time, Islamabad wants to engage in a comprehensive dialogue with India to show the world that Pakistan is not a pariah state.
This is Pakistan's Achilles' heel: it wants terror; but it also wants talks. Modi must target this weakness to bring Pakistan to heel.
Let's now get some myths out of the way.
Myth 1: The attack on the Pathankot air base was specifically designed to derail the new comprehensive dialogue between India and Pakistan.
Fact 1: The Pathankot strike was planned months ago, well before the new comprehensive dialogue was formalised recently by external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj in Islamabad. Pakistan follows the good cop-bad cop policy. The Nawaz Sharif government plays good cop, engaging with India, piously condemning terror attacks on Indian targets, promising action against the perpetrators, politely asking for evidence, and then doing nothing about it.
Meanwhile, Pakistan's army and ISI clinically plan attacks on India targets with their terrorist proxies: the Laskhar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM). The attacks are designed to be lethal enough to damage key Indian assets but not lethal enough to compel New Delhi to break off talks or launch a retaliatory attack on Pakistan's terror infrastructure across the border.
The purpose of this strategy is plausible deniability. The Pakistani government pretends it knew nothing about the attack while the army lays the blame squarely on rogue terror groups over which it says, without batting an eyelid, it has no control.
This charade accompanies every Pakistan-sponsored terror attack on India. Jawans are routinely martyred. Officers are killed as well. So are civilians.
But Pakistan knows that Indian outrage is often shortlived. In a week, it will be business as usual as the two foreign secretaries continue with plans to meet in Islamabad on January 14-15 as part of the new comprehensive dialogue. For Pakistan, if these talks do go ahead, it will be mission accomplished. It would have successfully given India a bloody nose and shown the world that a handful of terrorists can occupy an Indian air force base for days. The Nawaz Sharif government will deny complicity and insist the dialogue process continue to discuss the root cause of terrorism.
This time though, Pakistan may have overplayed its hand. We will soon know.
Myth 2: India has no option beyond doing nothing and outright war - with all its nuclear dimensions.
Fact 2: There are a broad range of options between doing nothing and war. Examine three.
One, following an attack India can downgrade diplomatic relations with Pakistan. Recall our high commissioner in Islamabad. Tell Pakistan's high commissioner in Delhi to pack his bags. Downgrade the Pakistani high commission to consular status. (Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic relations with Iran on January 3 following the execution of a respected Shia cleric by Riyadh and a retaliatory attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran.) Talks can meanwhile continue at consular level but Pakistan's diplomatic downgrade will send an important message to both Islamabad and the international community: terror carries a price.
Two, impose calibrated economic sanctions. After the Modi-Sharif meeting in Lahore, Pakistan wants more trade with India not less. Following Pathankot, give them less trade. It will pinch Pakistan's fragile economy and have no impact on India's.
Three, covert operations. Hit Pakistan quietly but consistently where it hurts most by using proxies. India's covert capability is poor but mercenaries (Baloch, Pashtuns and others) are available on hire. We must use them behind enemy lines to inflict proportionate damage with surgical precision on Pakistani terror assets - with plausible deniability. National Security Advisor Ajit Doval knows exactly what to do.
The Pathankot strike has shades of the Mumbai 26/11 attack that killed 166 people and took years of planning. Pathankot clearly was meticulously planned months ago. The air base, spread over 1,600 acres, has over 1,500 families in residence. Securing their safety was paramount. Hence the slow pace of combing operations to neutralise the remaining two terrorists. All physical assets in the air base - aircraft, helicopters and avionics equipment -were secured early in the attack.
To summarise: India must engage with Pakistan - there is no long-term substitute for talks. But the level of engagement can be downgraded. When terror from Pakistani soil strikes, India must punish it: diplomatically, economically and covertly. Pakistani proxies today attack India with impunity knowing India will outrage but eventually do nothing.
That comfort level must end. For every terror attack there must be relaliatory action - covert and overt - along the three measures outlined above, taken together or individually, depending on the scale and nature of the terror strike.
What about the nuclear threat? That is the biggest myth of all. Even in conflicts where only one of the two countries involved has nuclear weapons (North Korea-South Korea; Israel-Palestine; US-Iran), the nuclear option is not an option.
When both countries have nuclear weapons (India-Pakistan; US-Russia), mutually assured destruction rules out their use. Pakistan's Scotch-loving Generals are perfectly aware of the consequences of using even small battlefield nuclear weapons like the Nasr (which Pakistani commentators obliquely refer to in mildly threatening tones on virtually every Indian television debate). First use of such weapons will invite destruction of Pakistani cities on a scale the Pakistani army will not dare risk.
The smart thing for India, with an economy 900 per cent larger than Pakistan's, is to pay Pakistan back in the same coin - covertly and overtly - with proportionate response and impeccable deniability.
Only when Pakistan's Generals realise that proxy terrorism carries a price, will they end it.