IAF’s cross-border airstrikes leave certainties in their wake. Some negative and some positive. In India and Pakistan. Let’s list some of either.
It will not conclusively end Pakistan’s strategy of using low-cost proxies against India. Depending on whether there is an escalation or not, it may stay calm for some time. But compulsive bad habits return. They did soon enough after the defeat in Kargil with the Parliament attack in December 2001. After the panic of Op Parakram in Mumbai, 2008. And following that global opprobrium, lately with Pathankot and Pulwama. Respite for India, if at all, will be short-lived. There is no immediate scope for complacence.
Going ahead, Pakistan and the global community will have to keep the redefined red lines in mind. There will be an Indian military response to terror strikes coming from Pakistan. India has dropped three self-imposed limitations of the past: One, keeping conflicts of Kashmir within and not expanding to the “mainland” (Pakistan outside of what it occupies of Kashmir). Two, within Kashmir, the sanctity of the LoC/international border. And three, pro-active use of air power.
Pakistan has so far executed a low-cost strategy of keeping India hurting and off-balance by using expendable proxies. Over the decades, there is no doubt left that the Pakistan Army uses Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba as kamikaze force-multipliers, giving the establishment plausible deniability. Even when internationally-acknowledged researchers establish the connection, Pakistan gets away by finally blaming it on non-state actors, or a deep state (ISI rogues) within a deep state (ISI) within yet another deep state (army). Check out the David Coleman Headley example. This is now over. India has demonstrated that it no longer accepts that state/non-state distinction.
For too long has Pakistan thrived on the presumption that as long as it use its proxies in mufti, India will hesitate to use its uniformed forces directly in its territory. This has changed. Pakistani strategists will now need to keep this reality in mind. The basic truth is, Pakistan can cynically employ its expendable, indoctrinated, mostly illiterate youth. Like any modern democracy, India has no access to such forces. It has no choice other than its regular forces.
If Pakistan so wishes to use it, Indian action has left it with plenty of scope for plausible deniability. It can say just a shallow penetration took place, even claim its fighters chased the IAF away. It has sufficient control over its territory and media access to control the narrative and say nothing was damaged, nobody was killed. As with the post-Uri surgical strikes. Kargil showed it can even bury its uniformed dead in secret.
If Pakistan wishes to retaliate, it has to also know that this isn’t a game of cricket with one innings for either side. This will go on. Does it want to go down that slope, or climb that escalatory ladder? You can choose your metaphor, but for Pakistan, the choice is tougher.
Should it still wish to go ahead, it sure has the instruments, aircraft and stand-off weapons to do so. But it has to then prepare for an attrition spiral. And what will it hit in retaliation? India does not offer any civilian equivalent of Jaish and Lashkar. Hitting Indian military raises the level of conflict to beyond where India has suggested it means to keep it: Non-military response.
The first important international reaction has come from China. It has counselled restraint on both sides. This must greatly disappoint Pakistan because it would have expected its most trusted all-weather friend to make a straight condemnation of India. But it’s a new world with no patience for terror as an instrument of policy. We have now to wait for Washington to wake up, and keep a close watch on Trump’s Twitter page.
Since the Americans and the Saudis too are unlikely to say what Pakistan wants, its leaders will have to weigh their leverage with the world again. They’ve believed that their geography gives them unique powers with the world. Trump can’t leave Afghanistan without their help, the Chinese are too heavily invested in their economy to dump them, and the Saudis depend on them for their national and personal security. They might see the limitations and risks of that presumption now.
And finally, we need to watch how this plays out in our domestic, electoral politics. There will be risks in post-Uri type chest-thumping. Because there is no knowing if there will be a retaliatory cycle set, and if so how and when. The strategically smart thing would be to stay calm and keep it non-partisan, at least for the next several days. It seems unlikely though, if you heard Narendra Modi speak at his campaign meeting in Churu in Rajasthan Tuesday, with the pictures of all the CRPF dead from Pulwama on the backdrop of his stage.
In conclusion: ‘Game-changer’ is a much-abused expression these days. It doesn’t even do justice to the significance of this turn of events. So please suggest something more apt for a development with profound implications which are tactical, strategic and political.