India’s critical test on Pakistan

After Pakistani militants infiltrated across the line of control in disputed Kashmir and attacked an Indian Army base on Sept. 18, killing 19 soldiers, India shed years of inaction over Pakistan-backed terrorism and retaliated with surgical strikes on terrorist launchpads. In a lightening operation, Indian special forces hit multiple targets located several kilometers deep inside Pakistan.

For long, India’s response to the Pakistani military’s strategy to inflict death by a thousand cuts through terrorist proxies was survival by a thousand bandages. India undertook no punitive action even in response to the 2008 bloody Mumbai attacks, although self-defense is embedded as an “inherent right” in the United Nations charter.

By signaling a likely end to the era of Indian inaction, the Sept. 29 commando operation has put the Pakistani military on notice that India could henceforth respond to terrorist attacks in punitive and unpredictable ways.

However, the military action has done little to change the fundamentals of India’s strategic dynamic with Pakistan. A single military operation, however successful at the tactical level, cannot by itself impose sufficient deterrent costs on the Pakistani military or demonstrate India’s strategic resolve, which has been found wanting for years. New Delhi has a long way to go before it can hope to alter the Pakistani military’s conduct or deter its rogue Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency from staging more cross-border terrorist strikes.

In fact, India’s surgical strikes constituted a limited military operation, with limited military objectives, and yielded limited military benefits. However, their political, psychological, diplomatic and strategic benefits have been greater than the tactical military gains. Pakistan stands virtually isolated in the region, with six countries pulling the plug on a scheduled South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

Still, the benefits accruing from the Indian action can easily be frittered away if New Delhi does not stay the course and squeeze Pakistan in a calibrated but ever-increasing manner to force it to sever its ties with terrorist groups. The risk of India squandering the gains is real. After all, the biggest shortcoming in India’s Pakistan policy is the country’s inability under successive governments to maintain a consistent Pakistan policy.

For example, a series of flip-flops toward Pakistan have occurred under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is midway through his five-year term in office. Less than 10 months ago, reversing his own policy that “talks and terror cannot go together,” Modi paid an unannounced brief visit to Pakistan, catching his own senior officials by surprise. No other head of government in modern history has visited an adversary state with so little preparation and so little to show in results.

The diplomatic focus on optics rather than outcomes has remained India’s Achilles heel, exacerbating its Pakistan challenge. Indeed, India’s own indecision and passivity played no small part in fueling Pakistan’s proxy war by terror.

Decisive power in Pakistan rests with the military generals, who cannot afford peace with India, lest they lose their power and privilege. The generals employ terrorist surrogates as a force multiplier to undermine India’s rise and regional clout.

In this light, no short-term Indian strategy can help tame a scofflaw Pakistani security establishment. India’s fight will be long and hard.

Without imposing direct costs on the Pakistani military and, by extension, on the Pakistani state, India cannot hope to deter Pakistan’s war by terror. This means India must initiate a comprehensive counteroffensive that uses all employable instruments. Indeed, to mount sustained pressure on a renegade neighbor, India will have to rely more on nonmilitary tools of leverage than on trans-boundary operations by its special forces. And if India wants the rest of the world to act against Pakistan, it must first act itself against that country.

Thus far, India has taken no direct action to penalize the Pakistani state, other than suspend meetings of the commission set up under the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty and cause the collapse of the SAARC summit in Pakistan.

India has neither downgraded its diplomatic relations with Pakistan nor withdrawn the most-favored-nation trade status it has granted Pakistan on a nonreciprocal basis for the past two decades. New Delhi has also made no move to designate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism or to declare bounties on the heads of prominent, U.N.-designated terrorists operating openly in Pakistan.

How can India expect the rest of the world to isolate Pakistan while it maintains full diplomatic relations with that country and shies away from imposing sanctions on it? In fact, with Pakistan’s principal benefactors, China and America, continuing to prop it up, it will not be easy for India to internationally isolate Pakistan.

China, by repeatedly vetoing U.N. sanctions on Pakistan-based terrorist leader Masood Azhar since 2014, is culpable in the killing of Indian soldiers, not just recently but also in a militant attack on an Indian air base early this year. China has shown the extent to which it is willing to shield Pakistan’s patronage of terrorism in order to undermine Indian security. To make matters worse, Modi, by letting China double its trade surplus with India on his watch, has weakened his bargaining position with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The United States, for its part, enforces sanctions against a host of countries, from Russia and North Korea to Sudan and Syria, yet shields from sanctions the world’s top state sponsors of terrorism — Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. As the American academic C. Christine Fair has said in a recent essay in the journal National Interest, the U.S., by exerting diplomatic pressure on India after each terrorist carnage to exercise restraint, “rewards Pakistan in numerous ways,” including “from the consequences of its illegal behavior” and by implying that “there is a legitimate dispute and that both sides are equally culpable for the enduring nature of this dispute.”

The White House recently went to the extent of shutting down an online petition calling for designating Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism, after the petition had garnered 625,723 signatures. A motion calling for similar action against Pakistan, however, is pending in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Against this backdrop, the onus is on the victim, India, to act against and discipline the terror masters in Pakistan.

To deter cross-border terrorist attacks, India needs to pursue a doctrine of graduated escalation, applying multipronged pressure on the adversary’s vulnerable points through economic, diplomatic, riparian and political instruments and its special forces. Consistent with this doctrine, India should impose costs in a calibrated and gradually escalating manner.

India’s goal is narrow: To halt Pakistan-aided terrorist attacks. Realizing this objective calls not for overt belligerence or brinkmanship but for a silent war, employing multiple tools of leverage and coercion, for however long it takes to bring the Pakistani military to heel.

But if, in a year’s time or so, New Delhi — in yet another flip-flop — returns to “peace” talks with Pakistan, it will be crystal clear that India’s biggest enemy is India.

Brahma Chellaney is a Richard von Weizsacker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.

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