A leading scholar-strategist, Professor Rajesh Rajagopalan, opined recently: “With the US (United States) no longer needing Pakistan in the critical manner it did before – and with considerable domestic US anger at Rawalpindi’s role in Afghanistan – there is no reason why India should not plan much more extensive punishment for any Pakistani provocation.” In light of US’ departure from the region, the new geopolitics reopens a consideration of India’s response. The expectation is that Pakistan will revert to its usual provocative self once it settles matters on its northern front in Afghanistan in favour of its protégé, Taliban, requiring India to reassert deterrence and if challenged, resort to compellence.
India’s response options
Even prior to the large scale surgical strikes of 2016, India always reserved the option of retribution and had administered measured punishment on Pakistan along the Line of Control, either through discreet raids or heightened fire assaults. In one case it also baited Pakistani incursion across the Line of Control gave the intruders a controlled drubbing by localized air attacks in the cul-de-sac operation, with Operation Parakram providing the backdrop.
With the Balakot air strikes that targeted the Pakistani mainland, the scale of retaliation decidedly went up a notch. In the aftermath of the speedy Pakistani aerial counter in the Pooch-Rajauri sector, India had reportedly prepared missile strikes, aborted by the Pakistanis sensibly throwing in the towel by returning India’s downed pilot in that aerial skirmish. Lately, by reconfiguring to fulfill the belated promise of its Cold Start doctrine, India has the option of launching an integrated battle group or two for a limited counter to Pakistani provocation. Ever since the raising of the defence cyber agency, cyber space shall perhaps also witness a joust or two.
Thus, it is evident that India has multiple military options for response against Pakistan sponsored mega terror attacks. These complement the diplomatic and intelligence options available, such as the financial action task force as an instance of the former and clandestine support for Pakistani insurgents, as the Baluch, in regard to the latter. A combination of these orchestrated by the national security adviser (NSA), serve to reinforce deterrence.
Communication is the third subset of deterrence – the other two being capability and resolve. Capability, reprised above, is constantly a work-in-progress, while resolve has been demonstrated in publicly acknowledging the surgical strikes – pitched higher – since 2016. The strategy is thus one at the interstices of deterrence and compellence and therefore can be construed as offensive deterrence, characterized by the NSA as ‘defensive offence’.
The US as a factor
However, that the relative decline in Pakistani support for insurgency in Kashmir over the last decade and in terror attacks – other than the Pulwama episode – cannot be attributed to the strategy of deterrence/compellence alone.The US’s hitherto presence in the region needs factoring in.
With US’ presence hitherto compelled India to pull its punches against US’ frontline partner, Pakistan. India had to factor in the US’ global war on terror (GWOT) concerns. To an extent, this accounted for Operation Parakram being restricted to being coercive diplomacy since the GWOT had just about been launched. When faced with 26/11, India had to factor in the fact that the US was then bogged down in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The US had been pressing India – mostly at the behest of Pakistan – to engage with Pakistan on differences in the period prior to the mega terror attack. In the event, the government of the day chose the economic rationale for staying its military hand, even though the foreign ministry argued that India must not only retaliate but be seen to do so and the military said that it was game, but assaying the escalatory possibility was a political call.
While the US presence impacted India’s response, to an extent it also stayed Pakistan’s proxy war. The US wished to extricate from what was developing into a potential ‘forever war’ for over a decade. Pakistan was critical to a successful outcome on this. Therefore, Pakistan bided its time, first wanting to stabilize its northern front on its terms. Its strategic patience appears to have paid-off with Taliban grabbing power in Kabul. This turn has raised concerns in India of a revival in the proxy war. Besides, global jihadists received a boost from the set back to the US adding to India’s wariness over international terrorism.
India has both upped its retaliation and capability. The departure of the US seemingly gives India freer hand. However, US disconnecting opens up the possibility of escalation, especially so if the retaliation is heavier, as suggested by the professor. Consequently, if escalation looms larger, a point for India to deliberate would be escalation control and if retaliation fraught with such risk is worth it.
To recall, President Trump’s engaging the North Koreans at Singapore had led to the US’ inattention in 2019 that allowed the two sides to punch up post-Pulwama. The moment the North Koreans departed the summit, the US weighed in to de-escalate the developing situation in South Asia. Since its national security interest is not intricately linked with South Asia anymore, US’ efficacy as a third party insertion to help with de-escalation will be lessforceful.
Earlier, when India had engaged China in summit diplomacy, China was also reckoned as a stabilizing force in such circumstance. However, post Ladakh this is no longer the case. China’s incursion into Ladakh, though veritably amounting to ‘a riddle wrapped in an enigma’, can be also be interpreted as its aiding Pakistan by indubitably materializing the two-front threat for India. Even so, China’s stance will be uncertain. While it would not want escalation to jeopardize its belt and road initiative in the region in the form of the China-Pakistan economic corridor and the budding prong towards Afghanistan, it would like to re-hyphenate India to Pakistan by having Pakistan wrestle India in a South Asian sandbox, distracting India from its aspiration to be an Indo-Pacific player.
If India’s nuclear doctrine – that posits massive retaliation – is any guide, severe retaliation is its preferred form of deterrence by punishment. It is also a logical extension of the strategic shift of the New India. This has deterrence utility in warning off Pakistan that the onus of escalation in such a case rests with it. Either Pakistan absorbs the punishment or faces the consequences of any escalatory choice it makes. India’s escalation dominance advantages enable posing of a credible threat on these lines. The professor’s view quoted is a credible articulation of deterrence.
Prevention (deterrence) being better than cure (compellence), India can at best keep its capabilities and resolve transparent. However, when faced with the circumstance, India may have to appreciate the circumstance on its merits. Consideration will have to go beyond strategic factors as escalatory dynamics, potential for de-escalation, uncertainty of military means generating political outcomes and nuclear thresholds. Factoring in the positions of the US and China, political certitude, the legal case, diplomatic heft, domestic compulsions and any economic underside may be more significant than military aspects. Therefore, severe retaliation cannot be a default option.