India should aim for ‘escalation dominance’ over Pakistan
28 Feb 2019|

The suicide bombing of a paramilitary convoy in Pulwama, Kashmir, two weeks ago killed 44 soldiers and spurred a series of events that threatens to spiral into a full-blown conflict between India and Pakistan. In the latest escalation, Pakistan claims to have shot down two Indian jets it says crossed into its airspace. India has confirmed the loss of one aircraft and is demanding the return of a captured pilot. It also says it has downed a Pakistani jet in an ‘aerial encounter’.

The Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) claimed responsibility for the attack in Pulwama. India has pointed the finger of criminality at JeM for many previous atrocities, but China has blocked several efforts to brand its leader Masood Azhar a global terrorist.

In the highly febrile atmosphere in India after the attack, and with elections due in April or May, an aroused public lost patience with nuance and thirsted for vengeance. In a policy brief in 2016, I wrote: ‘The toxic cocktail of growing nuclear stockpiles, expanding nuclear platforms, irredentist territorial claims and out of control jihadist groups makes the Indian subcontinent a high risk region of concern.’

For over a decade, it has been the case that no one could be confident that another major terrorist attack with links back to Pakistan-based jihadists would not take place. If it happened, India would be compelled to retaliate militarily and that could escalate into another war that crosses the nuclear threshold.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the military had been given a clean hand to determine the timing, location and scale of response to the attack. On 26 February, India claimed to have conducted a ‘non-military preemptive action’ against JeM targets in Balakot, Pakistan. Twelve Mirage 2000 jets carried out the strikes, which India says killed ‘a very large number of terrorists’ while avoiding civilian casualties. While Pakistan denies anyone was killed, it’s the first such action by the Indian military across the border since 1971.

The strikes also mark the first occasion in history of an air attack inside any nuclear-armed state. This may be relevant to how the Trump–Kim summit in Hanoi plays out, in that future mischief by a North Korea allowed to keep the bomb can be met with airstrikes deep inside North Korea.

The official Indian statement justified the action not in the legally questionable language of punishment for the Pulwama attack, but of pre-emptive action against credible intelligence reports of an imminent terrorist attack by the JeM.

There were hints that Washington may have been kept in the Indian decision-making loop. US National Security Adviser John Bolton publicly backed India’s right to self-defence. Describing the post-Pulwama situation as ‘very dangerous’, President Donald Trump predicted a ‘very strong’ response from India. The intriguing question is: was US drone surveillance used to help pinpoint the location of the terrorist camp struck by India?

Pakistan called the action an act of aggression and asserted the right to retaliate in self-defence. Major General Asif Ghafoor insisted the strikes caused no casualties and the Indian jets were forced to make a ‘hasty withdrawal’ when intercepted by Pakistani fighters, dropping their payload in an open area.

India’s nuclear policy has been driven primarily by China. That Pakistan would follow India in coming out of the nuclear closet in 1998 was widely anticipated in India and accepted as ‘collateral damage’. That said, few would have foreseen the extent to which, and the skill with which, Pakistan has exploited the parallel nuclearisation of the subcontinent to taunt India with cross-border terrorism sponsored and facilitated by the shadowy elements of its military-intelligence complex. Particularly after the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in 2011 within a stone’s throw of its premier military academy, Pakistan lost plausible deniability of complicity in acts of terrorism in Afghanistan and India.

A nuclear Pakistan has mistaken a higher bar for retaliation, for immunity against retaliation. For two decades, lacking a coherent vision or strategy on how to deal with the dilemma of state complicity in cross-border terrorism amid official denial, at best India managed to cobble together a muddled ‘shaming campaign’ against Pakistan as it solicited international censure of terror-tolerant Pakistani postures. At worst, India elicited contempt and pity, not sympathy and support, for hand-wringing appeals to others to sort out the mess in its own neighbourhood.

India’s patience with both Pakistan and the veto-ridden UN Security Council has been exhausted and it is moving to take the fight into the territory from which terror attacks originate. India will likely invest in the military and intelligence capacity it currently lacks in order to complete this task.

India had failed to impose accountability for state sponsorship of serial terrorist attacks in the past, emboldening Pakistan into continuing to use jihadists to wage hybrid warfare across the border. Now India has made it clear there will be consequences that are more than just pinpricks. To be effective—emulating the Israeli model—such strikes will have to be combined with ‘escalation dominance’: the enemy should know that any escalation from the limited strikes will bring even heavier punitive costs from a superior military force. Nuclear war remains unthinkable, but the onus for escalation has been shifted back onto Pakistan.

In a perverse and stubborn pattern of not letting national interests come in the way of abstract principles and noble ideals, shortly after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, India persisted in condemning ‘the ongoing incursion into Gaza by Israeli ground and other forces’ to take military action against Hamas. This came despite the fact that Israel is the only other country that can compare and empathise with India’s predicament and policy dilemma in facing the threat of serial terror attacks planned, organised and launched from neighbouring territories.

Of course there are differences. Israel’s dilemma isn’t as sharp because the Palestinians don’t constitute a nuclear-armed state (which should make Indians sympathise with the Israeli fear of an Iranian bomb). India also doesn’t have the total local air dominance that Israel possesses in its region. But the geopolitical, demographic and terrorist infrastructural differences also mean that India can avoid the disproportionately heavy civilian casualties that major Israeli strikes entail, to worldwide horror and unease.

But Modi must also recognise that India has a Kashmir problem first, and that has empowered Pakistan to foment trouble. The Pulwama suicide bomber was a home-grown militant. Without understanding and redressing Kashmiri grievances and guaranteeing their human and civic rights, no amount of punitive strikes on Pakistan will create peace in the Valley.