After Pulwama, a full-scale conventional war with Pakistan to inflict a decisive defeat is not in the realm of reality, given the nuclear backdrop.
Instead, India’s strategy has to be a combination of covert operations in Pakistan and direct military action below the nuclear threshold over a prolonged period. This will enable India to achieve its political aim of forcing compellence on Pakistan to stop interfering in our internal affairs.
Pakistan’s unambiguous political aim is to seize the Muslim-dominated areas of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and seek parity with India in the comity of nations.
In pursuit of this aim, it follows a long-term national security strategy, which is backed by a national consensus, and wages a calibrated hybrid war. Pakistan has persevered with this strategy despite all diplomatic, economic and military odds. The 14 February Pulwama terrorist attack is only its latest manifestation.
In a nutshell, the essential features of Pakistan’s strategy are:
- Wage a fourth-generation war in J&K and hinterland of India.
- Launch quid pro quo response to retributory Indian operations below the threshold of war.
- Avoid a conventional war; if forced, stalemate India’s conventional superiority with a combination of dissuasive conventional capability and “irrational nuclear brinkmanship”.
- Politically/militarily manage India’s counter fourth-generation war (as perceived) within acceptable limits.
Gaps in India’s strategy
Pakistan’s strategy has been eminently successful because it has checkmated a much more powerful adversary. Every major terrorist attack in India over the last two decades has led to political and public outrage. But our rare military responses have lacked strategic vision and a logical conclusion, as seen with Operation Parakram in 2001-02 and the ‘one off’ surgical strikes in September 2016.
This is because we do not have a comprehensive, long-term National Security Strategy to counter Pakistan’s hybrid war in a nuclear backdrop. In its absence, our responses are not carefully calibrated and we end up in a crisis management mode after every terrorist attack.
It is never too late to formalise a comprehensive National Security Strategy and initiate long overdue reforms in higher defence management and modernisation of armed forces. Let Pulwama be the turning point for that.
Nevertheless, national interest demands a measured response to the Pulwama terror attack.
Although our technological-military edge over Pakistan has got diluted over the last two decades, we still have adequate military capacity to achieve our political aim of forcing compellence on Pakistan. The essential ingredients of a possible strategy are:
- Counter fourth-generation war in Pakistan by exploiting its fault lines.
- Launch operations below the threshold of war focusing on terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and elsewhere in Pakistan.
- Engage in a proactive limited war at a time of own choosing to compel Pakistan to stop fourth-generation war in J&K and hinterland of India.
Engage Pakistan on all fronts
Waging a counter fourth-generation war, exploiting Pakistan’s fault lines, was and is the most cost-effective option for India. Baloch, Pashtun and Balti ‘nationalism’ and the sectarian divide between the Sunnis, Shias and Ahmadiyas are tailormade for this.
Since the subject is in the covert domain, to what extent Chanakya’s Kuttayudha (the art of covert warfare) has been exploited by India is hard to tell. Had this option been efficiently exploited, Masood Azhar and Hafiz Saeed would not have been plotting attacks on India, and the Pakistan Army would have been reeling under a series of attacks by ‘unknown assailants’ post-Uri or post-Pulwama.
In my view, this is the best long-term option and must be relentlessly pursued in collaboration with Iran and Afghanistan.
Operations below threshold of war
Across the Line of Control (LoC), such operations can be in the form of fire assaults, special forces’ raids, air/drone/missile strikes or small-scale operations to capture selected enemy posts. These operations lie in the tactical realm and are used proactively across the LoC as part of the ongoing operational strategy or for quid pro quo retribution.
Across the international border, similar actions on targets, such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed hubs at Muridke and Bahawalpur, would fall in the strategic realm. In the absence of an overwhelming technological-military edge like the US, India will have to consider a quid pro quo response and even the risk of escalation from Pakistan.
If we had a long-term strategy in place, such operations could have been launched in 24-48 hours. Nevertheless, any of these options can still be exercised at a time that India chooses.
Proactive limited war
There is adequate space for a short and intense limited war below the nuclear threshold. However, such an option must be exercised preemptively when the adversary least expects it. This is not a retributory option.
When restricted to J&K, this option is likely to give a bigger window before nuclear weapons actually come into play. The ongoing proxy war waged from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir provides enough justification to exercise this option, which is best timed during summers in J&K.
We should adopt a strategic defensive posture in the territory outside J&K and declare the same to the world. If Pakistan escalates the war outside J&K, we should decimate its air force, navy and mechanised forces. In 10 days, the LoC will be pushed back 10-15 km before nuclear weapons come into play, and we would be threatening their strategic objectives. All launch pads used for facilitating infiltration would be captured. This option would force Pakistan to the negotiating table as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor would come under threat.
We must not hastily blow the war bugle, egged on by public sentiment or for short-term political gains. India needs to keep Pakistan on the edge with calibrated execution of its strategy. It should strike preemptively, strike decisively and strike repeatedly until the political aim is achieved.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal.
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