The latest crisis in India-Pakistan relations was caused by terrorists who came across the border from Pakistan, attacked a fortified army base in Indian Kashmir on Sept. 18 and killed 19 soldiers before being neutralized. Many Indians are demanding Pakistan be taught a harsh lesson with a disproportionate retaliation under the principle of “a jaw for a tooth.”
With each fresh terrorist attack, the clamor for military strikes grows stronger from an outraged citizenry. The political cost of inaction is higher for a Hindu nationalist party. Prime Minister Narendra Modi risks cementing a reputation for bluster: in the Texan vernacular, all hat and no cattle.
The attack does indeed deserve a tough response, but against four targets: Pakistan’s military-intelligence complex that controls its security and India policies; India’s own military and intelligence officials for security lapses; the bellicose rhetoric and thuggish actions of Hindu hardliners; and India’s Kashmir policy.
Speaking Sept. 24, Modi effectively reaffirmed India’s policy of strategic restraint. In the new narrative, India’s story is bigger and brighter than India-Pakistan tensions. Ostensibly addressing Pakistanis, in reality he was messaging Hindu nationalist hotheads itching for war: Patience has paid big dividends, India is prospering and, instead of internationalizing the Kashmir dispute to India’s embarrassment, terrorist attacks point the finger of criminality at Pakistan.
In almost all acts of international terrorism, Modi noted, perpetrators either come from Pakistan or, like Osama bin Laden, settle there afterward. Why, he asked, having achieved independence together, India today exports software while Pakistan exports terror? He challenged Pakistan to compete with India in the wars on poverty, illiteracy, infant mortality and unemployment.
Unfortunately, words no longer appease the thirst for vengeance for serial terrorist attacks. Modi is starting to be openly mocked for his pre-2014 election boast of a 142 cm chest. The policy of strategic restraint is damned as a cover for cowardice. Much of India’s hyperventilating media is unrestrainedly jingoistic and relentless in hounding the political leadership’s paralysis vis-a-vis Pakistan.
Part of the reason for chafing at strategic restraint and demanding robust military action is India no longer has a critical interest in Pakistan’s stability. Pakistan has been mired in cycles of violence, volatility and bloodshed. The storylines of the two countries have diverged substantially over the last two decades and India’s prosperity and security can withstand Pakistan’s implosion.
Pakistan produces more terrorism than can safely be exported. Its terror toll from home-based jihadis has steadily climbed higher than India’s. According to the 2015 Global Terrorism Index, there were 1,821 terrorist incidents in Pakistan in 2014, killing 1,760 people — up by 1,663 from 2000. There were 763 incidents in India in 2014 involving 416 fatalities, down by 93 from 2000. As Pakistan morphed into the world’s terror central, India progressively lost any residual vital interest in Pakistan’s viability.
Islamabad’s record of double-dealing, deceit and denial of complicity in cross-border terrorist attacks has rested on four degrees of separation between the government, army, ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence directorate) and terrorists. This deniability has become increasingly implausible. Western powers experienced the same syndrome in Afghanistan and have become far more India-sympathetic in consequence.
That the Pakistani people might harbor goodwill toward India is irrelevant if they have little influence over policy. The enmity with India explains the role of the army as an enduring force of Pakistani politics that rules the country even when civilians are in office. The threat from India validates its size, power and influence, dwarfing all other institutions. Pakistan’s military must be brought under full civilian control and its links to all Islamist militants — including those directed against India and nurtured as such by the military-intelligence complex — severed.
If this proves impossible, India will have to acquire the military capacity and political will to take the fight into Pakistan. Recent incidents and allegations by Pakistan suggest India has indeed stepped up covert actions in Pakistan’s own troubled regions. Yet it is also clear that bluster aside, India has failed to invest in building full-spectrum capabilities to launch overt strikes and clandestine operations inside Pakistan while retaining escalation dominance: The enemy should know that any escalation from the limited strikes will bring even heavier punitive costs from a superior military force at progressively higher levels of intensity.
To the extent that terrorism is used by Pakistan as a continuation of war by other means, India has to fashion a robust response within a clear, hard-edged strategy of turning terrorism back into warfare that imposes heavier penalties and damage. To walk away from any military option whatsoever in perpetuity is to give free rein to Pakistan to engage in serial provocations as a low-cost, moderate-value, long-term strategy.
The 1998 nuclear breakout may or may not have given India a safety margin in Asian power rivalry with China; it has unquestionably made any military action against Pakistan more fraught. This is not helped by a lack of clarity on operational doctrine of nuclear weapons. The purposes of nuclear posture and doctrine include providing intellectual guidance to military planners, deterring adversaries, defining red lines and reassuring one’s own citizens that the national security elite knows what it is doing. The present mix of nuclear policy confusion and bellicose bluster merely eats away at India’s own credibility and earns contempt from Pakistan’s military.
For two decades India has operated within the straitjacket of an either/or false choice between war/no war. The cancelation of the South Asian regional summit, the threats to revoke Pakistan’s most-favored nation status and curtail its access to shared river waters — a global opening salvo in long-feared water wars? — because “blood and water cannot flow together” (Modi), and the global campaign to isolate Pakistan diplomatically show that heavy costs can indeed be imposed, short of military strikes, for complicity in cross-border terrorism.
The consequences of India being a soft state are not limited to foreign policy. Its own political, military, intelligence and police chiefs do not seem to have paid any price for the proven serial breaches in national security with the unabated spate of terrorist attacks. There is no evidence of public scrutiny. Instead the “foreign hand” thesis becomes a convenient alibi for escaping accountability.
Equally, India has proven it lacks the wit to resolve the Kashmir dispute through sensitive federal politics and diplomacy. The long history of brutal rule has alienated large sections of the public. Over the last two years, inflammatory statements by Hindu hard-liners have added palpably to the sense of insecurity of Muslims and other religious minorities, which domestic and external mischief makers are able to exploit.
Modi has shown himself either unwilling or incapable of reining in their fundamentally anti-national words and actions. If he cannot govern his own party, is he really tough enough a prime minister to govern a challenging country like India and to defend it against external foes and the enemies within?
Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Australian National University.