The Pakistan government’s decision to release the captured Indian pilot as a ‘gesture of peace’ opens a window of opportunity to defuse the ongoing crisis. Prime Minister Narendra Modi should seize it. Meanwhile, as the country awaits the return of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, we could usefully ponder the choices—strategic and political—that have brought us to this juncture.
The core strategic challenge for India over the past two decades has been to deter Pakistan from fomenting terrorism while standing behind the shield of its nuclear weapons. Previous governments learnt the difficulties of doing so over time and through serious crises. Recall that soon after the Indian nuclear tests of May 1998, then Home Minister L.K. Advani proclaimed India’s willingness to carry out ‘hot pursuit’ of terrorists beyond the Line of Control. Pakistan’s nuclear test put paid such ideas and forced New Delhi to reckon with the new reality.
If former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee eschewed the option of air strikes across the LoC during the Kargil conflict or after the attack on Parliament in December 2001, it was owing to the assessment that this could quickly escalate. Conversely, such strikes were deemed incapable of altering Pakistan’s strategic behaviour in any significant fashion. Then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s response to the Mumbai attacks of 2008 was conditioned by similar considerations. Neither Vajpayee nor Manmohan Singh saw the threat of force as useless, but rather they grasped that it had to be one element in a longer-term strategy that encompassed other tools.
Deterrence works better in the context of terrorism not by threats of punishment but by denial: by strengthening our counter-terrorism capabilities and infrastructure to the point where the adversary realises the futility of attempting to strike us. Equally important was directing international pressure on Pakistan. Indeed, India’s threats of force in these crises were primarily useful in catalysing international action to rein in Pakistan. Neither denial nor diplomacy could ‘solve’ the problem of terrorism, but they could help manage it better.
The Modi government, however, regarded such prudence as self-imposed fetters—if not downright pusillanimity. Following the Uri attacks in 2016, the government carried out ‘surgical strikes’ across the LoC. Although such ground action had been carried out in the past as well, these strikes were stronger and carefully coordinated. Unlike earlier, the government not only announced them but embarked on an assiduous publicity campaign over the next two years and more.
This had strategic and political consequences. Pakistan’s unwillingness to respond militarily after these strikes gave the government the unwarranted confidence that it could inflict severe punishment on Pakistan without incurring any serious costs itself. Politically, the hoopla around surgical strikes set inordinate expectations among domestic audiences about what the government would do in the event of future terror attacks. Perhaps the most unsavoury, if not necessarily the most consequential, upshot was the spawning of a brood of chicken hawks on Indian television and social media that worked itself into a lather over fantasies of ever stronger strikes on Pakistan.
In consequence, when the biggest ever attack on Indian security forces in Jammu and Kashmir took place in Pulwama in February, the government was not only expected to do something more spectacular than the surgical strikes, but apparently believed it could do so at minimal cost. Air strikes seemed to fit the bill both strategically and politically.
In the immediate aftermath of the Indian Air Force strike on the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) camp in Balakot, there was a widespread assumption that Pakistan was unlikely to retaliate owing to its parlous economic situation or the absence of suitable non-military, non-populated targets of the kind that India had struck. But this failed to read the situation from Pakistan’s standpoint. Writing about limited conflicts in a nuclear context, American economist Thomas Schelling perceptively observed that these tended to be limited at certain clearly identifiable thresholds: geographic features, cartographic lines or weapon systems used. This, he argued, was a form of a tacit bargain between the two adversaries—it need not be explicitly agreed upon, but both sides limit their actions to a clear threshold.
In using airpower to strike the camp inside Pakistan in peacetime, India had breached several thresholds. If Pakistan failed to respond at the same level, it would encourage India to carry out future air strikes with impunity. It is important to note that Pakistan not only responded in the air, but consciously did so in a manner that signalled its willingness to run even higher risks: the Pakistani strike was attempted in broad daylight and in just over 24 hours after the Indian attacks, when Indian alert levels were still high. In so doing, Pakistan sought to convey both that the use of airpower by India could be escalatory and that India too would incur costs.
Yet, there is a continuing clamour for the government to escalate further, if only to preserve the reputation of the ‘new India’. Worse, diplomatic efforts are dismissed as ‘backing down’. The reality is that the pursuit of ‘escalation dominance’ is an illusion. The very idea of an ‘escalation ladder’, which can be climbed rung by rung to mete out ever higher punishment on Pakistan, is an oxymoron. The metaphor of escalation reminds us that once we get aboard an escalator, we can only get out at the top. Bismarck, who knew a thing or two about the use of force, rightly said that pre-emptive war was ‘suicide from the fear of death’.
The claim that we need to preserve our reputation is discredited by reams of research, which show that a reputation for resolve is a highly over-rated factor in international politics. If anything, reputation matters only inasmuch as we should be careful about where we stake it in the first place. A poorly thought-through strategic action will be far more injurious to India’s reputation than exploring a diplomatic route to disengagement from the crisis. Diplomacy is essential to demonstrate our resolve to fight terrorism without recklessness. In the current moment, it is also imperative to stop both sides from blundering to the brink of war. Prime Minister Modi can reciprocate the overture of his Pakistani counterpart without compromising on India’s fight against terrorism.
The BJP, of course, has an election to fight too. But pandering to their domestic constituencies is likely to miscarry. Speaking in the British Parliament during the Second World War, Winston Churchill warned against politicians keeping their ears to the ground in a grave crisis: “All I can say is that the British nation will find it very hard to look up to leaders who are detected in that somewhat ungainly posture.” And the Indian nation too.
The author is Professor of International Relations and History at Ashoka University and a Senior Fellow at Carnegie India. Views are personal.