Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses before the flag off ceremony of Vande Bharat Express
Prime Minister Narendra Modi | PTI Photo/Kamal Singh
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the security response to the Pulwama terror attack will be a Muh Tod Jawab, a euphemism that the government has frequently used for retaliation. He said that the armed forces have been given full freedom to decide the mode, place and timing for the reprisal.

What does it really mean for a country’s leader to say that the Army has ‘full freedom’? Unless it is treated purely as a rhetorical statement at an election rally to convey a perceived continuation of a muscular stance against an implacable adversary, this articulation is misleading and problematic at several levels.

Who has a ‘free hand’?

Giving a ‘free hand’ to the armed forces when one is dealing with a nuclear power cannot be acceptable from a national security perspective. On the contrary, deeper political guidance and oversight are imperative while dealing with another nuclear power.

Such political oversight is required during planning and execution stages of the retaliatory actions. In practice, it entails greater civil-military interaction, and not a ‘free hand’ as the Prime Minister suggested.

The crystallisation of political objectives and identification of politically imposed constraints must be derived from a political-military dialogue, which serves to delineate the political framework.

The military’s ‘free hand’, therefore, is guided by the political framework. More importantly, the civil-military interaction has to mutually evaluate and comprehend the potential political and strategic gains and risks of a security response.

Only after a careful consideration of a plethora of factors, the final mode, timing and targets are approved by the political leadership. Before arriving at a final decision, political and military leaders need to have sufficient understanding of each other’s requirements, potential strengths and weaknesses. Such understanding is better achieved if there is regular interaction.

The challenge for the military leadership is to ensure that the political objectives are successfully translated into strategic effect through application of force.

Strategic effect will be mostly defined by the political value of the targets coupled with the scale of the damage inflicted on terrorist and military assets.

Accordingly, application of force will be shaped by the possible resistance that one can encounter and the scale of damage that needs to be inflicted. Such a response will also require intelligence gathering from non-military government agencies.

Ipso facto, while the armed forces are at the forefront of any operation, they act as per the political direction.

Therefore, Prime Minister Modi’s statement on giving a ‘free hand’ to the armed forces is misleading, because only the political leadership has a ‘free hand’, depending on the risks they are willing to take.


Also read: To war or not to war with Pakistan: Strategy, not public mood, should drive Modi govt


Sending a wrong signal?

The recently established Defence Planning Committee headed by the national security adviser has definitely made it even more difficult for the armed forces to act on their own.

At the top decision-making level, military does not and should not have a ‘free hand’ for their role is instrumental. It is at the tactical level, which involves execution of an operation, where military commanders need the freedom to act.

The PM’s statement of ‘free hand’ to the armed forces should not be misinterpreted to indicate that the actions undertaken are without political approval and guidance and the armed forces are solely responsible for success or failure.

The ‘freedom to the military’ narrative also has potential to reverberate internationally. Strategic experts may read it as a signal for nuclear escalation, especially because Pakistan’s military can operate independently of its civilian government’s control.

The tensions in India’s civil-military relationship can also be cited to craft a narrative that the situation could reach a nuclear flashpoint. This could well impact international support for India negatively.

The political leadership must determine the purpose and nature of the military reaction. The purpose, in this case, is to assuage the emotional upsurge and the natural desire for vengeance among the people.

The deterrence, if any, will be marginal and temporary. In the long-term, it can strengthen the Pakistan Army and its terrorist proxies, who can leverage the ‘threat from India’ to their advantage.

Yet, the government has to react robustly, given that it has oversold the post-Uri surgical strikes and faces an election in the next two months.

However, there is much to gain if the political leadership acknowledges the nature of the retaliatory action, which is vengeance primarily aimed at assuaging the domestic audience.

It is natural for militaries to seek a ‘free hand’. But politicians must control the momentum of military interaction through a rational approach. As Carl von Clausewitz famously said that although war has its own grammar, it cannot have its own logic. A ‘free hand’ to the military bestows it with its own rationality.

When dealing with a nuclear-armed country, even the political leadership’s freedom to direct use of maximum force is curtailed.

Treading discreetly, staying vigilant and having an unambiguous diplomatic goal may be better options to extract meaningful revenge. A ‘free hand’ is a hazardous approach that promises no happy endings.


Also read: Don’t politicise Pulwama attack, Modi & Shah say but won’t stop themselves


Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon PVSM, AVSM, VSM is director of Strategic Studies Programme at the Takshashila Institution, Bengaluru, and former military adviser in the National Security Council Secretariat, New Delhi. He is the author of Strategy Trap: India and Pakistan Under the Nuclear Shadow.

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15 Comments Share Your Views

15 COMMENTS

  1. Nothing else to write and create unwanted controversy. Indian Defence knows very well to what extend they can utilise this freedom and responsibility. Chamchhas of trogen horses can never think positively and see only negative things. One more term for Modi will teach them proper lesson.

  2. The PM largely implies freedom of action to retaliate at place of own choosing, form that is generally well understood by all – limited retaliatory but effective. If a thinker conceives nuc action – the thinker forfeits being called strategic thinker!
    In any case, no military leader will go ahead without sounding peer chiefs and CCS of impending action. Please bear in mind need to assuage public anger and hence such statements are much in order.

  3. One would have thought that offensive actions are initiated at a time and location suitable for the initiator of the offense, in any case. That choice and recommendation will have to be made by the armed forces. But giving clearance for the action, and considering the political fallout/ consequences, will be the Govt’s responsibility. The buck has to stop there. One hopes, as mentioned in the responses, that PM meant just that.

  4. Absolutely true, free hand to armed forces. ? Our Political Masters lack that “Will” becoz there is only ONE Strategy for them – Elections and How to grab the Power with little National Interest and No Strategy at all.

  5. Not taking any action as in the past shall send a wrong signal to the ISI/Pakistan Army led government. Both diplomatic pressures and military actions are requied to keep Pakistan in its place. How long shall China keep feeding the bankrupt government, CPEC has brought disaster to the Pakistani people. China has started ruling in some parts of Pakistan. It shall eventually hurst the Pakistanis under their belt. TheDefence Forces should be given a free hand to retaliate.

  6. Dear Friends, PM’s statement only means that the Defence forces can take ,”ON THE SPOT DECISION”. This has many strings attached automatically. There is nothing much to discuss further.
    Col Shivraj

  7. The author has not understood what is meant by free hand. When you are given a free hand the responsibility and result is entirely yours. You have to discuss the situation with all concerned stakeholders, think thoroughly about the consequences and then take the final decision. The decision will be yours, but the Government will back you fully.

  8. 1. Any action against Pakistan has to factor it’s retaliatory response(s) and how does Indian poiltical leadership propose to manage the escalatory response laddering?
    2. Any Indian action against Pakistan also needs to consider: would it change or modify Pakistan’s behaviour? Alternatively, would it impact Pakistan’s politico-economic coherence to compel it to accept normative inter-state behaviour?

  9. Both PMs have used the typical language that any PM would have used. Nothing wrong there. It’s more for public consum – ption.Both can’t afford to get into a war.Lack of edu/jobs is not the reason for taking up weapons as most made to believe. OBL was a prince with huge finances, similarly lot of 2ndGen immigrants/ highly educated youth are joining Trsts. Its hy radicalisation.Its high time they have to be told that whether they want to go back 800 yrs or keep pace with rest of the country.

  10. As I understand, the message to the Country is that Forces have been given a fee hand. It appeals to a nonmilitary mind. The maximum the government can allow is to retaliate and indulge in a little more than a border skirmish. It is not meant to escalation to war. Anything beyond is the Government’s baby.

  11. At the moment, what is required is a visible riposte that slakes the thirst for revenge. In that sense, the objectives will be political, not military. 2. What next ? That makes it imperative that the civilian leadership signs off on any retaliatory action, for how Pakistan will respond and how any escalation will have to be dealt with are not entirely in the military domain. 3. Take the issue of loss of life. What if there are military – or even very large civilian – casualties. Recall the image of the burnt out helicopters in the desert when the United States tried to use a military option to rescue the hostages in Iran. That sealed Jimmy Carter’s reelection fate. Conversely, killing OBL in that magnificent mission to Abbottabad locked in President Obama’s second term. 4. The simple fact is that dealing with Pakistan – China fortunately is more like a lethal SSBN which seldom surfaces – is not the raw material for an election campaign. These are thoughtful issues, where the muscle most required to be used is the Cerebrum.

  12. I think it’s better to give them freedom than staying back . Because they know what they are to do . They are trained to fight only . So they are more acquainted with this type of situation than us . So it’s a right move .

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