Monday, February 6, 2023
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Having achieved strategic goal with Balakot, Modi govt should now pivot to diplomacy

As Pakistan promises to release Wg Cdr Abhinandan Varthaman, India must de-escalate because prolonging crisis won’t get us anything new.

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India and Pakistan have entered a new round of tit-for-tat actions. The Pulwama terror attack had provoked the Indian Air Force’s Balakot strike, which led to the Pakistani air retaliation Wednesday. While the international community is cautioning restraint, voices inside India are clamouring for yet another response to Pakistan. But amidst this confusion, it must be recognised that the Balakot strikes are strategically distinct from any military action that India may take now.

The strikes served to strengthen India’s deterrence, however, anything now will have no strategic utility but only risk further escalation. Barring the unlikely event of Pakistan taking some other unprovoked military action, India shouldn’t escalate this crisis any further – considering that Pakistan has now even promised to release Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman.

The strategy behind IAF strikes

From a strategic point of view, revenge for revenge’s sake serves no purpose. Yet, a tit-for-tat strategy is sometimes useful to deter future attacks. The Balakot strike should not be seen merely as an act of retribution for the Pulwama attack, rather it should be seen as an attempt to prevent the next Pulwama. Indian Air Force’s daring strike across the border this week was a message to Pakistan that harbouring terrorists will evoke punishment. While passions may be running high right now, it is important to realise that regardless of who struck last, India’s point has been made.

So, should Pakistan’s retaliation be ignored? In short, yes. Pakistani retaliation does not nullify India’s message.

In fact, Wednesday’s air attack only serves to emphasise India’s signal of deterrence. India has credibly proved that it is not only willing to punish Pakistan for supporting terrorist groups, but also ready to pay the cost for meting out such punishment. In other words, India will hurt Pakistan even if it suffers as well in the process. This is a powerful message and is likely to impact Islamabad’s behaviour in the future.

However, a new military response from India now will only confuse this signal.

India’s goal now should be to mitigate the aftermath rather than flaming the crisis further.


Also read: IAF pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman to be released by Pakistan tomorrow


A new warning sign

To understand this, we should see the current crisis as an ongoing dialogue between India and Pakistan, in which both are trying to tell each other something new.

Pakistan has always known that India has the military capability to pull off something like the Balakot strike. Yet, it continues to support terrorism. This is because Islamabad does not expect India to respond militarily. It anticipates that India will feel it has more to lose than to gain by such a move.

Indians will calculate that their military response will evoke a counter-response from Pakistan and risk further escalation, a cost that they are not willing to pay over a terrorist attack. In other words, in Pakistani assessment, India would feel that while terrorism is a problem, it is not serious enough a problem to start a conflict with a nuclear power.

In the past India has too often been cautious in the aftermath of major terror attacks. While these decisions had their own geopolitical and strategic logic at the time, they also served to confirm Pakistan’s strategic calculation. With the Balakot strike, India is attempting to change that. It is trying to convince Pakistan that India takes terror attacks seriously enough to risk a military response and bear its cost.

This is new information for Pakistan, which it will now have to add to its future calculations.


Also read: Despite Imran Khan’s offer, Pakistan’s track record is why India has to escalate


Message shouldn’t be lost

On the other hand, Pakistan’s latest attack is not new information for India. India has always known that violating Pakistani sovereignty will provoke military retribution. While planning the Balakot strike, Indian leadership would have factored in such a response. It was not a surprise, but only served to remind Islamabad of India’s new deterrence policy.

However, if India now responds to Wednesday’s attack, it will be only taking the focus away from the original message and risking needless escalation. Imagine if India carries out another attack in Pakistani territory, which will likely be followed by another Pakistani response, and so on.

Assuming that the cycle of violence stops short of a full-fledged war, by the time both sides are finished, the trigger will be lost in the cacophony. The crisis will no longer be about terrorism, but about yet another round of India-Pakistan conflict.

Worse, it may even end up strengthening Pakistan’s hand. The cost of such violence may be so high that it actually ends up backfiring for India. In such a case, future Indian leadership would itself be deterred from considering another Balakot as a tool for establishing deterrence. We will be back to square one with Pakistan sponsoring terrorism with impunity.

Some have recommended India to prolong the crisis, hoping that India’s superior military will allow it to come out on top eventually. However, they miss the fundamental point that the Balakot strike was a punishment, not an attempt to compel Pakistan to take any action. The Indian government was issuing a new threat; it made no specific demands from Pakistan after the strike. The goal of the strike has been successfully accomplished. Prolonging the crisis will get India nothing new.


Also read: The way Pakistan sees it, Modi govt is playing a risky game & must de-escalate soon


Now, de-escalate

Instead, now Indian strategy should be to de-escalate. It is important to remember that strategy has dimensions beyond the military, and particularly in the international arena. On that front, Pakistan is threatening to steal the march on India.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s conciliatory statements Wednesday and Thursday sit in stark contrast to Indian jingoism and may end up influencing the world opinion against India.

Having achieved its strategic goal, New Delhi should now pivot to diplomacy. It should remind the world that the problem isn’t the current crisis, but Pakistan’s persistent sponsorship of terrorism. It should also demonstrate to the world that Indian actions were motivated by a pursuit of security and peace in the region, not a blind blood-thirst for revenge.

Sandeep Bhardwaj is a research associate at CPR, specialising in terrorism and South Asian geopolitics. He has worked in the field of security research in India and the US.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Look China has got territorial disputes with various countries, even with India. It hit India hard in 1962, captured Indian Land and still tries to bully however, it don’t go to occupy forcefully the land it claims from Japan, Korea and Russia, why? Whereas, China captures the area and waters that are claimed by Brunie, Vietnam, Indonesia.. South China Sea waters? China can’t afford to capture land it claims from Russia and waters from Japan because they are strong and damage China’s territory, interests and economy. Similarly, Pakistan doesn’t bother about Afghanistan, it captured Balochistan and wages war with India too. India remain mute for Pakistan’s ugly exigencies through terrorism for decades that boosted not just the confidence of Pakistan nurtured and based terrorists but also terrorists based in Myanmar too. Pakistani army’s ugly design of waging war through its terrorists continued on Indian army and Kashmir in Modi Govt too but, world was surprised to see that Modi Govt gave befitting reply through surgical strike and bombing terror launch pads and terrorists in Pakistani soil. In present circumstances India gave befitting reply to Pakistan by bombing terrorists and their infrastructure deep inside Pakistan soil. These are strong message to Pakistan by Modi govt that if terrorists are involved in disturbing India, we take on terrorists wherever they are holed in. If Pakistan retaliates with India for it’s punitive action specifically and precisely launched against terrorists, it becomes clear to they world that Pakistani army nurtures terrorists, deescalation and peace message by handing over IAF pilot will unfold as Pakistanis drama. We continue to teach lessons to Pakistan based terrorists until they stop creating nonsense in India.

  2. What is the sum total of the entire exercise? No one expected Modi to resolve the issue of Pak-sponsored terrorism, which all his predecessors left unresolved. In his tenure of five years, he has endeavoured to breach the red-line twice. Is the adversary impacted? Although some mitigation could be expected, the threat of terror attacks in future still remain. The memory of India’s air strikes will remain itched in the minds of the adversary. Though this is not an insignificant gain, it doesn’t offer adequate comfort. So far as diplomatic efforts are concerned, they hardly produce any effect., This is the track record of the last seven decades. From Nehru-Liaquat Ali pact of 1948 to Vajpayee- Musharraf Agreement of 2004, diplomacy has not reduced Pakistan’s animosity towards India- Terrorism continues unabated. Modi has a narrative for the impending elections, while the opposition stands undecided and confused, though this doesn’t guarantee electoral victory to the BJP. The future government of whichever party is in power has to ensure that our growth story remains unaffected by the threat of terrorism. Terrorism causes more harm to the aggressor country rather than to the victim. While the India economy is doing reasonably well, Pakistan is on the verge of bankruptcy. This is , in my view, the sum total of the the episode,

  3. We should be more open! India appears to have bitten the bullet! Pakistan said it will not accept India entering it’s territory. India did enter.
    Pakistan appears to be releasing captured Indian pilot unconditionally as it says as a first gesture of peace. It is difficult to deny that intent patent in a prompt release.

    Pakistan says they waited to find out if there was lossnof life on their side before retaliation! Apparently they claim no loss of life and there fore their aircraft attacked Indian targets while remaining in Pakistan skies.
    And they only attacked at open spaces for demonstrative purpose of their capability.
    India said it’s air strikes we’re on non military targets. Pakistan says open spaces to ensure no loss of life.
    Both seem to be speaking same thing in a circuitous way.
    India claims loss of life of terrorists under training, but as yet there is no credible evidence of what or if there was any loss of life.
    India appears to have taken the bait and chased the Pakistan aircraft crossing into Pakistan and got shot!
    Foe those not blinded by fog of war, it is a matter of examination to find that India entered deep into Pakistan air space and bombed, it went in a second time against retaliation strike and lost an aircraft and ended up with a captured pilot who is promptly released as a gesture of peace and invitation and willingness to talk and sort out problems.
    Irrespective of what our tv channels say, outside people and governments do not appear to be siding with either Pakistan or India.
    Which means Pakistan is able to hold onto some respectability despite Pulwama.
    May be India needs to stop any further escalation and begin the long jettisoned talks and negotiations.

  4. BSY’s coarse, thoughtless remark has now reduced issues of war and peace into electoral debits and credits. It will cause any further moves to be viewed with a great deal of scepticism. The drama surrounding Wing Commander Abhinandan’s capture has also drained away feelings of triumphalism. Absent forceful US mediation, it could have dragged on for some time. Best if this issue is excised from the electoral debate.

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