The strategic situation has irrevocably changed for both India and Pakistan after the Balakot air strikes. And both countries now have to note the changed paradigm and modify their strategies accordingly. Given its precarious economic situation, Pakistan cannot annoy the international community by precipitating another post-Pulwama situation. It is also clear that India’s technological military capability has only a marginal edge over Pakistan, which restricts it to play a ‘one-day game’.
Airstrikes and skirmishes
The 2016 ‘surgical strikes’ in response to the Uri attack and the 2019 Balakot air strikes after the attack in Pulwama proved that India has the will and the means to strike against terror targets anywhere in Pakistan. Pakistan has also proved that below the nuclear threshold, it is capable of a quid pro quo retaliation to neutralise the effect of India’s surgical strikes.
Also, India lacks a long-term strategy and continues to show ‘strategic restraint’ against Pakistan’s proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir, while responding only to ‘major terrorist attacks’.
Situation in the Gulf
Feeling the heat from the international community, Pakistan is desperately trying to woo the US. The standoff between the United States and Iran threatens to escalate into a serious conflict. This gives Pakistan an advantage of returning into the US’ good books by providing its air and naval bases, and an avenue for a low-probability ground invasion.
US sanctions are adversely affecting India’s oil imports from Iran and military deals with Russia. Note the reduced allocation for Chabahar port development in Narendra Modi government’s 2019 Budget. Conflict in the Gulf will further affect India’s oil imports from other countries in the region.
Talks in Afghanistan
Pakistan is acting as the facilitator for the US-Taliban and Afghanistan-Taliban talks. To this end, Islamabad has proved its indispensability to Washington and the international community.
Pakistan has tactically decided to seek accommodation with the Afghanistan government to get a crucial position for the Taliban in a coalition government to eventually usurp power in the long run.
India has run out of options in Afghanistan, and can only rely upon the goodwill earned through development projects and hope that the future coalition survives.
But Pakistan’s economy is in dire straits, surviving on loans and largesse from Saudi Arabia, China and the World Bank. Recovery of Pakistan’s economy hinges on the success of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is not possible with conflict in Afghanistan and J&K. Pakistan’s disproportionate defence budget cannot be supported by its current economy.
India, on the other hand, is seeking to become a $3-trillion economy in a year, and a $5-trillion economy by 2025. This, however, cannot happen without stability in the region. India’s defence budget is tied to its economy. It will hover at 1.5 per cent of the GDP, not taking into account the defence pensions and miscellaneous expenditure of the Ministry of Defence. So, the quantum jump that the Indian military seeks in order to create the overwhelming technological military edge over Pakistan and achieve parity with China can happen only when the defence allocation goes up 2.5 times to $125 billion in a $5-trillion economy. Until then, I only foresee a marginal change.
International pressure on Pakistan
Pakistan’s strategy of using non-state actors as an instrument of policy has run its course. The international community, directly and through institutions like the World Bank and the FATF, has put Pakistan on notice to rein in the terrorist organisations operating on its soil.
Indian diplomacy, too, has been hard at work. This pressure on Pakistan is not going to relent and the recent ‘induced behavioural change’ against terrorist organisations may well become permanent.
One thing that stands out about Pakistan is that it has remained steadfast in pursuing its long-term national security strategy against all odds. Any change has been a tactical move, to cater to adverse strategic situations. Pakistan’s long-term strategy of seeking parity with India and annexing J&K, and pushing for a friendly regime in Afghanistan, which it can manipulate at will, have remained unchanged.
Tactically, Pakistan will rely on indigenous terrorist organisations and mass agitations to keep the proxy war simmering in J&K, instead of orchestrating any major terrorist attack. It will calibrate the Taliban’s actions while pushing for bilateral/tripartite talks with the US and the Afghanistan government.
Pakistan will seek talks with India to ease off international pressure. It will work hard to mend fences with the US and its allies, taking advantage of the situation in the Gulf and its role as an honest broker in Afghanistan.
An ethical strategic review should make it clear to India that its military capability to force compellence on Pakistan suffers from serious limitations in the limited war scenario due to lack of decisive technological military edge. This edge is contingent on a booming economy, which requires stability.
It should also be clear that in pursuit of its strategy to alter Pakistan’s behaviour, India’s aggressive diplomacy is paying higher dividends than direct military action.
In the next five years, I foresee a return to ‘strategic restraint’ – managing the proxy war and seeking a political settlement in J&K – with ‘surgical strikes’ being an exception in the event of a major terrorist attack.
It may be prudent for India to take advantage of Pakistan’s current strategic weakness to engage with it and make its current ‘induced change in behaviour’ a permanent feature.
Last, but not the least, as Plan B, India has to initiate holistic national security reforms to create the decisive technological military edge required to force compellence on Pakistan in a conflict below the nuclear threshold.
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. Views are personal.