Pulwama, Balakot, and the Future: How the Chips Stack Up
For the time being, the India-Pakistan crisis triggered by the terrorist strike against the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy in February in Pulwama appears to have stabilised. However, India must have no delusions that such acts of terrorism will not recur. Pakistan has long believed that terrorism is too low cost a tool to keep India unsettled. Therefore, the only way India can hope to change Pakistan’s propensity to use the abundantly available and cheaply trained terrorists is by raising the costs across all spectrum – economic, diplomatic, political, and military, especially to the Pakistan armed forces and intelligence establishment.
Raising costs cannot be a one-action exercise. It has to traverse a number of steps across a range of realms in a sustained manner over time to have an impact. The Indian air strikes at Balakot, as also the surgical action across the border in 2016 in response to the terrorist strike in Uri, managed to impose costs on Pakistan’s military in terms of loss of face. In both cases, the armed forces were not able to ‘save’ their country from border incursions that targeted terrorist training or launch camps. In both instances, the armed forces were left red-faced and it was a chip off their credibility.
At the same time, India’s ability to undertake precision strikes enabled by accurate intelligence was a demonstration of its capability and resolve to not let acts of provocation go unpunished. The exposure of Pakistan’s support for terrorism also imposed a significant diplomatic cost on the country since no major country except China opted to stand up for it. On the other hand, Indian air action across the border, though unprecedented and fraught with the risk of escalation, was nevertheless seen as justified by most political leaders across world capitals.
The ensuing period of crisis since the short exchange of air strikes by both sides has also imposed a heavy economic burden on Pakistan. Not only are the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) provisions ever more stringently being demanded, the sources of financial and military aid, which were once plentiful from the US, have also dried up. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan comes with many strings, and the apparently easy loans from China are a cause for concern for right thinking Pakistanis. Meanwhile, the instability generated by military actions has also vitiated the domestic Pakistani environment for investments, even as the prolonged closure of air space has had its own repercussions.
The costs of the strategy of supporting terrorist organisations can also be felt in the security situation within the country. The jihadi blow-back on Pakistani society has been well-recognised, including by the country’s military officials. It may be recalled that former Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) Gen Kayani had even called terrorism the biggest threat facing the country. An unstable security situation caused by the frequent terrorist strikes against their own targets in Pakistan has caused religious, social, and economic wounds that fester, much like what Pakistan hoped to do by its thousand cuts strategy against India.
So, what may have once seemed like a low cost strategy may not be so any longer if the country critically examines its current situation. It can only be hoped that at least a few people with influence in the military and civilian administration can force the country to look in the mirror and see it for what has come to pass. The Pakistani passport is viewed with suspicion across the world, its citizens are denied access to opportunities of education and jobs abroad, the economy is faring well below its potential, and the socio-economic indicators are dismal. However, these are issues for Pakistan to think about and remedy, if it so desires.
Meanwhile, how should India prepare itself for possible future acts of terrorism from across the border? Firstly, India must accelerate the process of equipping itself with the right military instruments that can enable calibrated use of force when the situation so demands. Besides conventional modernisation, special emphasis will need to be placed on the special forces and air power to mount operations that are capable of quick escalation and de-escalation. Secondly, a very high level of importance needs to be placed on intelligence gathering that utlises all possible instruments and assets in space or on the ground. Only this can enable the right choice of targets for precise action with zero collateral damage. International and national legitimacy for actions will rely on this heavily.
Thirdly, India will have to continue to impose opportunity-based costs on Pakistan and especially its military in order to keep chipping away at its credibility in the eyes of its people. Pressure at the LoC will have to be maintained to make Pakistan’s military suffer losses of men and material since these are far more difficult to replace than terrorists. Lastly, it is critical to forge and show political consensus on policy towards Pakistan. A united front would significantly strengthen the force of all actions. Every effort must be made by the government and the opposition parties to do or say nothing that weakens the cause of imposing costs on Pakistan, especially not in moments of crisis.