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.
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.
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.
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.