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Evolving from Restraint to Dissuasion and Deterrence
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Ravinder Pal Singh | Date:23 Oct , 2016 0 Comments

Liberal democracies, organized on the basis of social contract between the citizens and the state are increasingly facing terrorist attacks globally. As this new kind of undeclared war is unleashed on citizens of democratic states, their national security sectors are obliged to develop appropriate military response. Consequently, policies have to be enunciated, doctrines have to be defined and capacities have to be built for effective action against terror threats. As any response requires consistency and coherence in using tools of dissuasive, preventive or punitive deterrence, a policy tool-box is required to provide a range of pro-active, reactive, covert or overt options. Should a democratic state find itself unable to deter terrorist attacks on its citizens, because of escalation concerns of an open-ended conflict, its social contract with its citizens loses credibility.

Over the past two decades, India has had terrorist strikes as elements of Pakistan’s policy of using non-state actors as proxies. These decades also provide evidence that India has not articulated and developed counter-terrorism doctrines that graduate from strategic restraint (which has come to mean avoidance of escalatory responses that may spin out of control) to pro-active dissuasion or deterrence. In this way, India’s national security decision-making has yielded space to Pakistan’s undeclared war that includes: mobilization of large number of non-state actors as proxies; arm and train them covertly for terrorist attacks on Indian targets to include civilians, while maintaining deniability of state support. Even though terrorism is a global phenomenon, terrorism against India is unique in its design that has an overlay of threat of nuclear escalation.

International law obligates all states to ensure that their territories are not used by non-state actors to terrorize citizens across the world. Actions against Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and Osama in Abbottabad are recent illustrations of legitimacy of such military responses. Even though the Pakistani state claims that it is not complicit in trans-border terrorism, its failure to prevent such crimes, ipso facto amounts to abetment. In such cases, if international military action does not come together to restore rule of law in territories from where international terrorists operate, then any victim State reserves a legitimate right to protect its citizens through preventive or punitive deterrence using military as well as non-military means at its disposal.

How does the Indian state mitigate risks of balancing dissuasive or punitive deterrence with conflict escalation management? Among the range questions to be examined include the following:

  • Options for punitive military operations against military-sponsored terrorists that manages nuclear risks or full scale mobilisation? What are the possible nuclear no-strike areas in Pakistan state’s calculus?
  • Would punitive or dissuasive deterrence compel Pakistan’s cooperation for countering terrorism in South Asia or would it harden resilience of the deep state and the society to rally around its military?
  • What are the strategic options that may raise political and military costs for Pakistan military’s sponsored trans-border terrorist attacks aiming to tie down the Indian army in Kashmir and arouse local sentiments.
  • Assessment of advanced technologies for reconnaissance and intelligence collection; surveillance; precision target acquisition and destruction capabilities that enables air power delivery or covert strikes on critical targets?
  • Examine barriers and limitations in India’s capability to manage complex long-term covert operations. What is the country’s legal framework for targeted killings of international terrorists and sponsors?
  • Among the various manifestations of terrorism, Indian responses are constrained bythreats of nuclear escalation. India therefore needs to examine complexities of declaring exceptions in its nuclear doctrine that retains preventive no-first-use strike option in case of states practicing terrorism under nuclear cover.
  • How should India’s decision-making process coordinate its military and non-military capabilities to integrate economic, diplomatic, industrial, energy, trade, financial, media and cyberspace efforts to dissuade the terror sponsoring state and society with least costs to India.
  • India policy options that combine multiple non-military strategies to dissuade or compel Pakistan military from employing terrorism as a weapon of its undeclared war. Examine ways to prepare the domestic and international public opinion on dispute escalation in non-military sectors.

A basic question on Pakistan’s cross border terrorism remains to be articulated in India: should a state fail or is unable to control non-state actors launching attacks across border from its soil, then how does the state under terrorist attacks legitimately exercise its obligations of citizen security by applying doctrines and capabilities for punitive deterrence?

After each terror strike in India, the public debate has been vociferous in its views on issues such as: an immediate military retaliation; failure of electoral promises; damage to political image of leaders; likely international reaction; implied messages of nuclear escalation from Pakistan’s leaders; hurrahs for Indian diplomacy for isolating Pakistan and unmasking sophistry of denial etc.

The need is to have a politico-military decision-making which is coherent and consistent, operates despite the whims, distractions and decibels of domestic political rhetoric. It should engage with the entire spectrum of India’s counter-terror policy to include: doctrines, plans (covert or overt), technology capacity building to degrade or destroy critical terrorist capabilities and sponsors, innovate risk-mitigation measures and so on.

What elements should define doctrines of preventive or punitive deterrence? While the aims and scope of a deterrence policy should be declaratory, the practices and potential has to retain military confidentiality, surprise, flexibilityand secrecy. Without doubt, deterrence operations have to be discrete; deploy technologically-superior military capabilities; select critical targets with high-probability of success with least co-lateral damage.

For counter-terrorism operations to be effective momentum is required to be sustained over time, that is,as long as Pakistan’s does not dismantle its terror infrastructure. We also need to be mindful that Pakistan Army, the society and the state havea strong resilience to face punitive actions and respond with nuclear threats. It would need mobilizing India’s resolve over a period of time to meet this challenge. Politicians and public opinion makers who expect instant response from the military only add to the country’s difficulties. As preparing military missions takes time, and covert missions take even years, risks of quick punishment options and limitations in conflict escalation management have to be duly examined by India’s decision-makers. In any case the Indian state has to give up hand-wringing for international support for protection of its citizens.  Mumbai’s 26/11 is a case study at several international training establishments on errors in India’s security-sector decision-making processes.

India’s haplessness is evident after every terror strike. In any case, ham-handed military mobilization such as for Operation Parakram and equally ham-handed withdrawal are not the kind of responses which India’s citizens deserve. It is about time the Indian state applies its mind, mettle and muscle against an innovative military policy that has been developed across its western border.

A punitive deterrence doctrine will need to make distinction and differences between the society and sponsors of terrorism in the deeper state of Pakistan.The intention should not be to humiliate the Pakistan society or the country, but it should aim to dissuade its military to modify its behavior of sponsoring terrorism.

Public opinion makers ask if the Indian military’s cross-border strikes on 29th Sept is a one-off reaction to the Uri attackor a trailblazer. It should be neither. If Pakistan is denying the fact of Indian military’s strike on its terrorist launch pads, maybe they haven’t been hit hard enough to be deterred. We must never under estimate the adversary’s capabilities, its responses or the support it may get from its allies.

Political leaders, instead of chest thumping will serve their citizens well, if they articulate, declare and prepare the country for a robustanti-terrorism policyand punitive deterrence doctrine. It must combine overt and covert methods against all manifestations of terrorism, including the one couched in threats of nuclear escalation.

Application of this policy cannot be dependent on whims of electoral politics. It has to be consistently applied till the adversary dismantles its terror infrastructure and return to normative inter-state behaviour.The government of the day has to build and maintain support across the country’s political spectrum, without which, deterrence cannot become effective.

As the larger state, India has the capability to develop unpredictability in its military posturing that compels Pakistan to maintain mobilization on its Eastern front to keep its military on tenterhooks. It could compel Pakistan to denude the military on its Western front, where the grip and writ is already challenged.


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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