IAF’s goofs and Delhi’s post-Pulwama debacle: A Post-mortem

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Many things are incomprehensible when pondering the post-Pulwama developments. The nature of the retaliation is one issue, and India’s reluctance to say anything, do anything, that would be taken askance by China, is another.

If the idea of the aerial strike on the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) training centre in Balakot in the Pakistani province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa was to send a message of India going fully punitive, display Indian resolve to hit the terrorists hard, and cause such losses as to signal clearly India’s willingness to escalate, and to escalate again, should the Pakistan military react to the initial IAF foray, then why was a PGM (precision guided munition) the weapon of choice? The 500kg glide bomb outfitted with the Israeli Spice 2000 terminal guidance set is very accurate and may, in fact, have penetrated the roof of the JeM hostel and killed off and incapacitated many trainee mujahideen/jihadis.

But such a precision strike was inappropriate if the aim was to impact Pakistan and the world with wide-area destruction to take out the entire terrorist complex, which outcome, at a minimum, wouldn’t have been questioned or spawned, as has happened, an alternative Islamabad narrative of IAF Mirage 2000s dropping their ordnance harmlessly on some trees and scooting to avoid engaging with PAF aircraft in a dog fight. In light of disputed satellite imagery, the effect of the Indian strike was diluted and lost what  deterrent value it had because it was seen to have, if not missed the target, then caused only minor damage. If a massive area weapon – several 1,000kg bombs — to level much of the forested hilltop the JeM facility was used instead and, post-attack, ‘Before’ and ‘After’ pictures with clearly labeled but destroyed terrorist support structures – hostels, arms depot, firing range, etc., been released to the Indian and international media, Islamabad would have had little wiggle room and the world would have been stunned into pondering a suddenly decisive India.

So, the question arises: Why did IAF choose a PGM not an area weapon? If it did so under Prime Minister’s instructions to minimize collateral damage, then it apparently failed to inform  Modi, or the latter was not properly briefed by his National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, and the Intelligence agencies, that the selected JeM targets were, in fact, situated on a forested hilltop far from Balakot town, whence the possibility of civilian casualties was nil, and the use of wide-area destruction bombs was appropriate.

True, this may have upped the pressure on PAF to respond in kind but to hit what targets and where? After all, Pakistan has never claimed that India is conducting a terror campaign inside Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Had General Headquarters, Rawalpindi, in the circumstances chosen to escalate, target selection would have proved a major headache for it, because attacking military targets within India would have invited Delhi to up the ante by striking at tempting Pakistan military installations within easy reach of the border, and all-out war would have been risked that Pakistan was in no position to win. Further, had such conventional military exchanges tripped the nuclear wire, Pakistan wouldn’t have been able to prevent its own extinction as a social organism in return for the destruction of two Indian cities at most, owing to a very adverse ‘exchange ratio’ (the ratio of destruction absorbed to the destruction inflicted).

In the event, rather than daring Pakistan to climb the escalation ladder, the Indian government and IAF were left defensively to argue their claims of Balakot damage in the face of world-wide skepticism based on satellite images that showed most of the structures still standing. The lesson to learn from this cross border anti-terrorist aerial strike is that to finish off a gnat it is sometimes necessary to use an elephant gun.

So, two major goofs by the Indian Air Force: The incorrect choice of ordnance and the equally strange absence of the MiG-29 in operations. Sending up the old and venerable MiG-21bis against the F-16 while keeping the MiG-29, rated among the best maneuvering air defence aircraft, grounded, led to the embarrassment attending on an Indian pilot’s capture. These two mistakes point to something very wrong with IAF’s operational mindset and, naturally, with the conduct of operations.

To match, the post-Balakot dud initiative at the UN Security Council (UNSC) showed up a deficient Indian diplomacy. Delhi revels in symbolic victories while our adversaries, in the main, China, seeks substantive gains. For the Narendra Modi government it was apparently enough that several Western nations, especially US, UK and France, voted for or co-sponsored the Indian resolution to designate Masood Azhar a global terrorist, when the odds of success were huge considering China’s veto on the anvil. The only proof, in this respect, Beijing may be convinced by is if JeM cadres hit Chinese troops in Xinjiang. Not content with the UNSC failure, Delhi has now exposed the country to further foreign depredations. By declaring that third countries are free to verify and validate India’s painstakingly accumulated evidence about the terrorist infrastructure inside Pakistan, it has handed China as well as US, UK and France the means to interpret whatever material Delhi provides them through the filter of their own national interests and contingent imperatives, adding still another layer of diplomatic complication. What happens the next time there’s a terrorist strike and India responds similarly? These states may choose to meddle by publicly doubting India’s reading of the threat as credible cause for its armed action, and thus put India in future diplomatic jeopardy. That this move was made with such little thought as to its ramifications speaks volumes about the impulsive thrust of Modi’s foreign policy.

The Indian government still doesn’t understand that Beijing’s reasons for its veto have little to do with the piddling matter of JeM and Masood but with reassuring Islamabad that it can rely on China, against India anyway.  The MEA, bereft of historical knowledge and basic strategic common sense, is yet to realize that China is playing the role for Pakistan that the erstwhile Soviet Union did for India such as during the 1971 Bangladesh War, when it provided political cover at UNSC to realize its goal in the then East Pakistan. And that Beijing won’t budge because the benefits from having Pakistan wage, in effect, a meta-level proxy war against India to serve China’s interests at little real cost is too tempting to pass up.

But, why is it so easy for Beijing? Why has India not imposed any costs on China? Well, in the extant case, because MEA rates its own persuasive power very highly, which is reflected in its statement that Delhi will “show patience for as long as it takes” to bring Beijing around to conceding that Masood is, in fact, a bonafide terrorist. Such are the small stakes that the Modi regime envisions for the country.

Modi and MEA are surely habiting an alternative universe, one in which hurt to the country’s status and prestige with China repeatedly kicking it in the teeth is readily ignored. This because Modi expects the “Wuhan spirit” to pay dividend. Really, when this Spirit is taken as license by Beijing to act detrimentally against India’s vital interests while Delhi sits on its haunches hoping its reticence will someday be rewarded by Beijing? In fact, all this will do is reinforce the unalloyed contempt Beijing has always had for India. When the late K.C. Pant, as defence minister, visited China after Rajiv Gandhi’s 1988 state visit featuring the long and memorable handshake with Dengxiaoping, he asked his hosts where India stood in China’s threat compass. Nowhere, he was assured condescendingly by his opposite number – “India is not on our threat radar.”

That was 40 years ago! How much more disdain and disrespect would the Xi Jinping regime feel for Modi’s India that resembles a punching bag, letting China do as it wills, hesitant to turn off the Chinese trade spigot, ban the sale of Huawei telecommunications hardware and mobile telephones despite legitimate concerns about cyber warfare bugs inserted into them, and not responding in kind to the gravest possible provocation of nuclear missile arming Pakistan, by strategically missile arming states on China’s periphery, with Vietnam and the Philippines in the van? (Imposing killer tariffs on Chinese goods is entirely within India’s ambit under World Trade Organization rules and regulations considering Chinese manufacturing Companies, without exception, enjoy built-in subsidies — free land, free power, free water, etc.)

All things considered, the Balakot episode, it turns out, is only the latest instance in India’s ignominious history of drawing defeat from the jaws of victory.

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Is China India’s bigger problem?

Posted in Afghanistan, Africa, asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, Central Asia, China, China military, Decision-making, domestic politics, Europe, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian ecobomic situation, Indian Politics, Intelligence, MEA/foreign policy, Military/military advice, nonproliferation, Pakistan, Pakistan nuclear forces, society, South Asia, Terrorism, United States, US. | 5 Comments

Impose costs on China for Azhar backing

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(Xi, Azhar)

Last evening on India Today news show at 7:30 PM, I said that (1) Delhi’s eagerness to brand Mohammad Masood Azhar Alvi a “global terrorist” is more symbolic in wanting to restore the country’s reputation on account of the hit it took after the humiliation in Kandahar than because this man is any more of intrinsic importance to Pakistan’s management of the asymmetric war it has successfully waged against India over the last 30-odd years, (2) even if China were  provided with “smoking gun” evidence, Beijing would be disinclined to accept it because it treasures Pakistan’s utility in keeping India shackled, and (3) it was time to ruthlessly cut off access to all ‘Made in China’ products  to the Indian market in the name of “balancing trade”. More generally, I also wondered out aloud why it is that the Indian government simply won’t do the obvious thing and start imposing costs on China for such repeated provocations when Delhi wastes no time in puffing out its chest, ordering minor counter-strikes, and promising Pakistan retribution, even as the Indian press and media hurrah the government along?

In this context, does Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s promise to “go to any extent for our national pride” mean nothing at all, or is it Delhi’s reflex of stopping dead in its tracks when a contemptuous Beijing heaps insult on top of injury? (For Rajnath’s remarks see his interview to a pink paper — https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/government-will-always-respond-on-terror-attacks-and-do-its-best-for-the-people-of-kashmir-says-rajnath-singh/articleshow/68401413.cms

The Modi government swears by the “Wuhan spirit”. Whatever it is, Beijing has shown no signs of abiding by it but is happy as long as Delhi does. And still the Indian government hopes, prays and acts like the impotent entity it is proving to be every time a confident China bumps up against it, banking on diplomacy to persuade Beijing. Modi and MEA seem undeterred by failure upon failure — that’s optimism for you! Indeed, our Man in Beijing who recently demitted office as ambassador, Gautam Bambawale, outlined the MEA’s softly-softly approach in an interview. ( https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/interview/india-must-work-slowly-on-china-so-that-it-aligns-itself-with-us-on-terror/article26514702.ece     ) “India must”, he said, “work slowly on China so that it aligns itself with us on terror.” By this reckoning,  Delhi, it would appear, is seeking a favour. Like a beggar daily importuning a rich person in the hope that the latter will some day relent and drop a coin or two in his bowl.

It is not cued to the fundamental aspect of international relations that diplomacy works best when backed by the fear of cost in terms of real and serious economic loss and/or political-military and security disadvantage and discomfiture.  It is a principle the Foreign Office mandarinate particularly abhors, which was proved in the wake of the Pulwama attack. It wasted time “burning the wires”, as a newspaper headline reported, to get major countries to side with India on the Azhar issue. We have learnt, yet again, just how much good this sort of activity does India.

(As an aside, the Indian rep at the UN, Syed Akbaruddin, compounded the Chinese veto with a diplomatic faux pas of his own — tweeting gratitude to “all the small and big” states in the 15-member UNSC for supporting India, thus no doubt upsetting small and sensitive developing  countries and temporary members of UNSC, such as Ivory Coast, Dominican Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Kuwait, and Peru.  Six months hence, should the new government in search of symbolic victory want to get India’s nose rubbed in the dirt one more time, Akbaruddin, having dismissed these countries so callously, may find it harder to convince them to fall in line.)

Cutting off market access to Chinese trade and goods is the most obvious and natural thing to do considering the horrendous negative balance of payments that this country has borne for the last decade and more. Delhi can follow up by banning Huawei  from selling its mobile phones here, again an entirely defensible action on the basis of the suspicion and fear of these devices being cyber Trojan Horses, which, in fact, they actually are. It is reason why the US and several West European countries have already banned government agencies from buying Huawei stuff. It is such a ban that I have been advocating since this Chinese telecom giant was first given permission to sell in India.

The more substantive costs India can impose on China lie in facilitating the diversion of the Central Asian jihadi traffic that is turning into a small flood in the extended region after the Islamic State’s decimation in Syria  to East Turkestan that China expropriated and calls Xinjiang. The strategic idea here being to render the Muslim Uyghur dominant western province more attractive to Islamic extremists as a bigger challenge than Kashmir by secretly mobilizing and providing them with financial, material and moral support. China will then face a Kashmir-like terrorist-armed insurgency but on a far grander scale, one which many countries, including US, Russia, Japan and Taiwan may be keen covertly to stoke. Delhi could begin by having some RSS arm or the other semi-formally and publicly promote the cause of freedom for the Uyghurs, which will also burnish its secular credentials.

The ideal long term riposte to keeping China militarily distracted and  unsettled is to conjoin India’s clandestine backing for the ETIM (East Turkestan Islamic Movement) and the East Turkestan Liberation Organization that Beijing has labeled terrorist, with more open support to the cause of freeing Tibet from Chinese occupation. It will be a bold stroke, to begin with, by inviting the Washington- area-based Uyghur exile Rabeeya Kadeer, leader of the nonviolent World Uyghur Congress, to receive the Jawaharlal Nehru Peace Prize. (Isn’t it ironic that no noodle-spined Indian government has so far thought it fit to confer this award on His Holiness, the Dalai Lama — the ultimate peacenik when some very odd people such as Barbara Ward, Bruno Kreisky, and Giuseppe Tucci, have won it ?)

There are nervous Nellies galore in PMO, MEA, academic outposts like JNU, and in the commentariat in the press and media who will counsel against the hard options. They have long been taken in by the wrong things in Nehruvian thought, such as accommodationism that Jawaharlal was cured  of only after PLA ran over the Indian Army in the 1962 War. It is not too late to inject correctives in the present China policy, however, one that emphasizes paying Beijing back in its own coin and no nonsense about it. Alas, the Modi-Doval combo is simply not up to it, they don’t have it in them to do something really meaningful, they lack mettle. All the steam they readily blow off is only against that great big bad bone chilling bogey —  Pakistan!!

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Time for India to Break Free


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The March 2019 edition of the ‘Swarajya’ magazine has published ‘The Right Manifesto’ on the eve of the general elections, containing short pieces by domain experts. C. Rajagopalachari — the rightist ideologue and free market enthusiast, who left the Congress party in the early years of the Republic because he believed Nehru was too steeped in socialism to do the country any good, it may be recalled, founded this magazine.  A version of my short contribution (relating to foreign and military policy) was published in this Manifesto. The original  is reproduced below.


Notwithstanding its attributes and natural assets, not the least of which are an extraordinarily resilient people who never lost hope or their belief in the manifest destiny of the country to be a great power, India is very far from realizing its potential.

Jawaharlal Nehru was an imaginative statesman who turned the country’s all-round weakness into moral leverage to carve out a role for India and for the Nonaligned Movement as the balancer of power between the US and USSR and gaining from the competing attention of both. He appreciated that, while soft power is good, but hard power is what matters. Nehru seeded the dual-purpose nuclear energy and space programmes and the first jet combat aircraft project in Asia, which last, he hoped, would lay the foundations for the cutting-edge Indian aviation industry. Most importantly, he articulated a stunning strategic vision for India as the fulcrum of power in the arc Maghreb-Indonesia, marred only by his blind spot for China. Succeeding Prime Ministers, lacking his “map reading habit of mind”, foreign policy intuition, historical insights, and the confidence to prosecute surefooted diplomacy, began the country’s slide.

Ironically, it was post-1971 War and post-nuclear test three years later that the county’s prospects darkened. India’s military policy shrank, its focus on a weak and truncated Pakistan and, in the strategic realm, the benefits of increased global heft from full-scale nuclear weaponization were lost because the government developed qualms. India, in the new Century and under different party dispensations, forsook “strategic autonomy” for the comforts of American camp follower and, with near total reliance on imported armaments, has become a second-rate military power to match. To recover for India its inherent significance, it is necessary for an expansive national vision to be defined in geostrategic terms of making India the foremost power in the quadrant Caspian-Central Asia-South China Sea-southern Indian Ocean-the East African littoral-Gulf and by the by, ensuring that the Indian Ocean once again becomes an “Indian lake”. It is imperative that India embrace disruptive policies to force itself back into international reckoning.

To achieve the above aims, the Indian government needs to have the following foreign and military policy priorities. These are here presented in bullet-points.

In the foreign policy sphere: India should

  • seek to undermine with actions all international and multilateral agreements and regimes that impinge on the national interest and which it had no role in negotiating;
  • incentivize countries in the extended neighbourhood, including Iran and the Central Asian Republics, and particularly adjoining states, especially Pakistan, with generous grants, financial and trade agreements, to join in an extended southern Asian economic, trade and eventually security schemes;
  • align all external, economic and trade, and national security policies of government with reference to China as the most credible comprehensive threat to India, especially using denial of access to the vast Indian market as lever to obtain more equitable trade and less aggressive Chinese policies on the border and in the subcontinent;
  • implement severely reciprocal measures to signal Beijing that whatever bad it does will be returned to it in trumps. Thus, for instance, its deliberate policy of nuclear missile arming Pakistan should be the precedent for India equalizing the situation, a little belatedly, by transferring sensitive strategic armaments and technologies to all the countries on China’s periphery;
  • cobble together a loose and informal organic security architecture in Asia of rimland and offshore nations, including Taiwan and Japan, to ring-fence China without according any role for extra-continental powers, such as the US;
  • on the larger stage, to prevent the US and China from setting the security agenda in Asia and the world, structure equally loose military cooperation collectives of BRIS (Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa), i.e., BRICS minus China, while retaining BRICS for economic purposes only, and of the Modified Quadrilateral or Mod Quad with India, Japan, Australia and militarily capable Southeast Asian states, the last mentioned to replace the US in the Quadrilateral, with the US being free to engage in such activities of the Combine as it may choose to.

In the military sphere, India should

  • abandon its defensive-passive-reactive mindset and become proactive and expeditionary;
  • equalize the military situation with China by strategically missile arming states on China’s  border;
  • urgently build-up military use foreign bases (in Duqm, Oman, the Agalega Islands in Mauritius, the Gan Island in the Maldives, Nha Trang in Vietnam, Sabang in Indoenesia, and Subic bay and Clark’s air base in the Philippines, and man them with forward deployed Indian forces;
  • rationalize and restructure land forces by forming a single composite armoured and mechanized corps from the current three strike corps meant for the Pakistan front, channeling the freed up manpower, war materiel and financial resources into speedily raising three mountain offensive strike corps equipped with light tanks and high-altitude terrain specific weapon systems to take the fight to the PLA on the Tibetan Plateau;
  • constitute a dynamic cyber warfare force capable of preemptive and ceaseless offensive and defensive operations manned mainly by highly paid IT specialists and algorithm-writers from the private sector and universities;
  • resume thermonuclear testing to upend the global nonproliferation regime and to obtain proven and tested warheads/weapons, ranging from those of megaton- and tailored-yield to micronukes for battlefield use, and atomic demolition munitions for placement in Himalayan passes to deter the PLA, and canisterised long range Agni missiles for launch-on-launch and launch-on-warning capability to firm up the country’s deterrent posture;
  • create an exclusive nuclear cadre of officers and men in the three armed Services to run the Strategic Forces Command;
  • scrap large aircraft carriers and their construction, secure strategic and relatively invulnerable reach and punch for the navy with an augmented fleet of SSBNs and SSNs, and for the air force with 2 squadrons of Tu-160M2 strategic bombers taken on long-term lease from Russia but for tactical and theatre-level air operations rationalize the air order-of-battle with Tejas LCA as the bulk aircraft, Su-30 MKI upgraded to “super Sukhoi” configuration for air superiority, with Rafales and  upgraded MiG-29s, Mirage 2000s and Jaguars providing specialist mission punch.
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Why was MiG-29 missing in action? And, why the ‘stability-instability paradox’ has proved a dud

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[IAF’s MiG-29 at a forward base]

The delayed Indian riposte to the Pulwama attack finally took place with the aerial attack on Jaish-e-Mohammad ops centre in Balakot, fairly deep into the Pakistani province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. It played out, however, in the usual fashion when India and Pakistan are involved — a lot of patriotic noise covering up for minimal action, and also on the Indian side, the familiar charges of intelligence failure. The eventual Bahalwalpur feint followed by the Mirage 2000 strike sortie was, however, nicely staged by IAF.

The important thing about the Balakot strike was not the numbers of JeM cadres eliminated or the extent to which JeM’s terrorist infrastructure was destroyed, but the fact that the strike took place at all. During the time it took the Modi government to gird up its loins and seek armed retribution, it seemed Delhi was going down the familiar path of doing little itself but relying on other countries to pressure Islamabad to rein in the terrorist outfits under its wing, and otherwise trying its hardest diplomatically to “isolate” Pakistan — as if this somehow would restrain GHQ, Rawalpindi, or convince Imran Khan to go on bended knees to Pakistan COAS General Javed Bajwa. Indeed, prior to Balakot the Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Qureishi all but laughed at MEA’s contention that his country was isolated in the world for its sponsorship of terrorist gangs as asymmetric means of warfare. So, when IAF finally went into action against Balakot, it was a huge relief.

The downside of the Balakot episode was that Modi government felt compelled to first touch base with Washington, rather than immediately after the strike had gone in. US President George W Bush’s National Security Adviser (NSA), Stephen Hadley, candidly described US’ role in India-Pakistan crises on Christiane Amanpour’s CNN programme, February 27, as divulging to each side intelligence on the other side it could trust – a sort of honest intelligence broker! This leads one to wonder, if Hadley spoke true, about the kind of intelligence that Modi’s NSA Ajit Doval was after when he betook himself to America mid-February to meet with his US opposite number, John Bolton. It would appear from a consideration of Indian intelligence capabilities, the operational planning predicates and the interval between Pulwama and Balakot that what Doval sought and was provided were refinements of the Indian military’s target coordinates for the JeM training centre that the Indian Mirage 2000s pulverized on February 26. This reading is reinforced by GOI sources conceding that owing to technical infirmities of its satellite and other sensors gauging exact damage done and killing of JeM personnel in Balakot was “speculative”.  The US government would have been interested in letting IAF obtain extremely accurate target data to preempt the possibility of large scale collateral civilian damage, which could have prompted Pakistan to escalate. This is a more positive read on events than if Doval met with Bolton with the sole objective of seeking US’ “blessings” for the operation then under planning, because that would have resulted in India’s status as a self-respecting independent country taking a hit. It did not prevent President Trump from hinting in Hanoi (after the failed summit with North Korean President Kim Jong-un) about a mediating US role and even a peaceful outcome. “They’ve been going at it, and we’ve been involved in trying to have them stop…..It’s been going on for a long time — decades and decades.  There’s a lot of dislike, unfortunately”, he said.  “So we’ve been in the middle, trying to help them both out and see if we can get some organization and some peace.  And I think, probably, that’s going to be happening.”

The downing of the IAF pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, however, raises the troubling issue of why the aged MiG-21 bis were sent up to blunt the incoming counter-strike by the Pakistan Air Force? May be Varthaman’s R-73 air-to-air missile did down the F-16 and the Wing Commander, once he rejoins his squadron, can sport this kill on the next plane he pilots. But why was the far more advanced and immeasurably more capable air defence aircraft in the IAF inventory — the MiG-29, not deployed for air defence in the first place? This is not to second-guess IAF’s operations staff but to flag a legitimate concern. Why keep your best horse in the stable when the adversary is fielding his prize steed? Is IAF’s Western Air Command to blame for this operational faux pas? Doubtful, considering how much of the operational thinking was taken over by Air HQrs with CAS ACM BS Dhanoa in constant touch with NSA to craft a just-so response. So, the question: why was the MiG-29 ignored?

If the late-1950s vintage MiG-21, a wonderful plane in its day, could take out an F-16, the redoubtable MiG-29, it is reasonable to assume, would have made mincemeat out of the equally antiquated F-16 aided and assisted by a bevy of PAF’s bulk multi-role aircraft — the ex-Chinese JF-17. Considering MiG-29’s extraordinary agility, the chances would have been minimized of getting an IAF plane shot down and a pilot captured. So, why wasn’t the MiG-29 used? There are two explanations. One, that the MiG-29, like every other combat aircraft an ultimate switchable military asset, was deemed too valuable to risk in live action. And two, that most of the MiG-29s were not in operational readiness, and couldn’t, therefore, be called up.

The latter explanation doesn’t cut mustard and, in any case, with so much time available between the Pulwama provocation and Indian reaction, sufficient numbers of MiG-29s would have been brought into fighting-fit condition. If, on the other hnd, the MiG-29 was considered too valuable to lose, how much more operationally hesitant would Vayu Bhavan be in using the Rafale in similar situations – the point I have repeatedly made in questioning the military utility of Rafales in the IAF inventory, and particularly of only 36 of them? I bring up this aspect because Prime Minister Modi, without perhaps realizing the import of what he was saying, implied that Varthaman would not have been shot down had he been riding Rafale rather than MiG-21, in making the political point in an election year about the decade-long delay by the Manmohan Singh’s Congress regime in making the MMRCA decision and its responsibility in undermining military preparedness.

Lucky for Varthaman that he was not kept prisoner and used as a political pawn as many in the Pakistan military would have preferred to do, and that Imran prevailed on Bajwa to let the Indian pilot go. With Varthaman in captivity, moreover, the pressure would have daily mounted on Modi to ratchet up India’s counter counter-response in the hope to, if not get the Indian flier back, than inflict more attrition and pain on Pakistan, in the process, possibly triggering an action-reaction sequence that Western strategists have long feared as a “nuclear flashpoint”.

This fear, however, got diluted once Pakistan was armed by China with nuclear missiles some 35 years ago, and also on the basis of the last 20 years record of Delhi’s inaction when confronted by Pakistan’s terrorist excesses. It led US thinktankers to try and explain India’s restraint by conceiving of something they called the “stability-instability paradox”, which got traction in this country with their local acolytes (C. Raja Mohan, et al) supporting it and, for obvious reasons, in Pakistan.  I showed it up as a flawed and nonsensical concept during the time I spent in 1996 at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington DC, among the main propagators of this concept, and deconstructed this concept at length in my 2002 tome — Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security.

The paradox concept is as follows: By acquiring nuclear weapons Pakistan gained  strategic parity with India making for stability at that level and, because of the fear of tripping the nuclear wire, also at the conventional military level. But Pakistan army, protected by the overhang that its nuclear weapons provides it, feels free to wage sub-conventional/asymmetric warfare in J&K making for instability, with nuclear weapons deterring India from responding in kind and that this, in turn, makes for Indian non-response but also for stability.

The fatal flaw in this concept, as I pointed out, is in its basic premise — of parity at any level when the fact is India can up the ante every level. In fact, the disparity is not only in terms of the resources India can muster to assure an edge in the conventional military sphere, but also in the sub-conventional military and covert warfare sectors to exploit Pakistan’s far deeper and more serious socio-cultural, sectarian (shia-sunni), and regional-ethnic faultlines than anything India suffers from. For every Srinagar Valley there’s an independent Baluchistan, Baltistan, or even Sindh to egg on, and for every Khalistan, a Jinnahstan (propelled by the grievances of the muhajir community in Pakistan) and even Seraikistan! And that, attempts at radicalizing the Indian muslim can fetch Delhi (in cahoots with Iran) radicalized Pakistani shia enclaves and an energized Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan. All it needs is for a strong-willed Indian government to ratchet up the response in kind in any or in all three of the hostile engagement sectors that Pakistan chooses to venture into including, I have said, the nuclear warfare field.

Have admired the strategically-driven Pakistan army for its professionalism, a main component of which is its ability to measure the risk in pushing India only so much and no further, to generally appreciate that country’s geographic, political and economic limitations when facing a comprehensively superior adversary, and to call a halt to the hostilities when they begin trending against it. So, like in previous conflict situations, this time too Islamabad terminated the budding action-reaction sequence once its F-16 was downed, the Indian AD firmed up, the Indian army was geared for movement, and the Modi government showed an appetite for still bigger military action.

Thus, I have argued that while Pakistan, run by its army, is far better at holding its nerve in crises than the Indian government ruled by a disinterested political class and advised into responding sub-optimally by a strategically slow-witted military and civil servants manning the permanent secretariat of government, if a conventional military push actually comes to nuclear shove, GHQ, Rawalpindi, will ultimately be persuaded by the logic of the exchange ratio.

The exchange ratio (ER) refers to the cost and destruction one suffers compared to what can be inflicted/imposed on the enemy. The ER is so adverse to Pakistan and so skewed in India’s favour — two Indian cities for Pakistan – with all its eminently targetable main population and wealth-producing centres lying in a north-south corridor within easy reach from the border, becoming extinct as a social organism — that even the most rabid Pakistan COAS – and Bajwa is far from being one — would not ever contemplate a nuclear exchange, let alone a full-fledged, no-holds, nuclear war. This is exactly the calculus embedded in former Pak President and COAS General Parvez Musharraf’s recent statement to the press that  “if we drop one bomb, they [India] will drop 20.”

This unalterable fact of geography will always leave Islamabad stuck in the terminal nuclear sabre-rattling mode, and well short of risking annihilation. Hence I concluded that the stability-instability paradox is a dud concept. It is a conclusion dutiful Indian supporters of the US policy line and concepts are, in the face of the Balakot Indian reaction, belatedly coming round to accepting. (Refer https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/pulwama-attack-pakistan-narendra-modi-balakot-air-strike-iaf-5609325/ )

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China is the villain

Image result for pics of Imran and Xi

[Xi in Pakistan]


‘The Week’ published the following column of mine in its Feb 23, 2019 edition, advising that in all the raked up excitement over Pulwama-Balakot, India’s main threat — China not be lost sight of, at https://www.theweek.in/theweek/cover/2019/02/23/china-is-the-villain.html


Pakistan has long been China’s cat’s paw in the region. Between the two of them, India has been reduced to a shrinking violet of a country. Beijing’s unwillingness to brand terrorist outfits prospering under Pakistan army protection reflects how masterfully China wields its one-two punch: using proxy terrorist outfits to unsettle India in the sub-conventional military sphere and a nuclearised Pakistan to checkmate it strategically, besides providing Islamabad political cover in case things go wrong.

The success of the China-Pakistan nexus is mainly due to India’s extraordinarily defensive-passive attitude to Chinese provocation. Beijing’s hold on Delhi is so complete, its every move occasions a sense of foreboding and dread in the Indian government. Its rocketing economic growth has added the element of awe to the fear of China, resulting in Delhi’s characteristic stoop as a second-rate power. It is not too late for India to stop being preoccupied with the cat’s paw and to instead deal with the cat.

In its habitual kowtowing, India has lost sight of China’s frailties and ways of exploiting them. The greatest strategic blunder Beijing committed was providing nuclear missiles to Pakistan. India knew of these clandestine transactions when they began in the mid-1970s. Rather than reciprocating by arming states with nuclear missiles, starting with Vietnam on China’s periphery, most of whom have territorial disputes with it, India sought to burnish its moral stature as a “responsible state” and handed the strategic advantage to China. Strategically-equipped southeast Asian nations would have brought China to its knees, because its maritime weakness against the powerful Japanese and US navies in the Sea of Japan and the East Sea would have been matched by its vulnerability in the South China Sea. Its seaborne trade, accounting for more than 90 per cent of its exports and generating much of China’s wealth, would then have been in peril.

Then there is Tibet, which is under Chinese military occupation since 1950, which India chose not to contest. It is suffering systematic “cultural genocide”, its people treated with utmost cruelty in their own land. Far from fighting for the ‘Free Tibet’ cause and leading an international campaign against human rights excesses in Tibet, and in Xinjiang, thereby conjoining the Uyghur and Tibet causes, Delhi acts as Beijing’s thanedar, preventing exiled Tibetans from even protesting peacefully in front of the Chinese embassy. If Beijing does not subscribe to ‘One India’, inclusive of the whole of Jammu and Kashmir, where is the need for Delhi to continue to accept Tibet or Taiwan as part of the ‘One China, many systems’ concept?

And, isn’t it time that India, burdened by a colossally unbalanced $70 billion trade with China, used the threat of loss of access of Chinese goods to the vast Indian market to leverage a more equitable trading regime? And, shouldn’t India, like many European countries and the US, ban Huawei and other companies peddling mobile phones and switching systems, and rendering our communications grid vulnerable to cyber attacks?

Moreover, India has been lax in raising offensive mountain strike corps fast enough to take the fight to the People’s Liberation Army on the Tibetan Plateau, and not considering the utility of placing atomic demolition munitions in Himalayan passes to deter China from aggressing in the northeast. Doklam was just a foretaste of territorial aggrandisement to come if India does not wake up.

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Using the brahamastra — diverting rivers; think again!

Image result for pics of Imran Khan and General Bajwa

(PM Imran Khan and Pak COAS Gen. Javed Bajwa)

The over-the-top public breast-beating with everybody a jingo demanding telling retribution for the Pulwama terrorist suicide attack has forced a, national security-wise, disinterested political class to hyper-ventilate. In this situation, there’s the ready danger of a government’s response decision, prompted by the media-driven frenzy and hysteria, being very, very wrong. With general elections in sight, moreover, the  government is more interested in impacting public consciousness than embark on a well thought-out punitive strategy, which’s all the more reason that cool heads prevail in the South Block and the Prime Minister calmly tones down the rhetoric, while instructing his cabinet colleagues and BJP minions to do the same. This won’t happen of course because, as is virtually an Indian norm in crisis, political leaders without a clue about what sensibly to do, spout blood in their speeches and fire up the public anger still more. The danger of the government being led by the nose by public sentiment is nigh and results in fiasco.

Recall the immediate aftermath of the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC 814 to Kandahar on 24 December 1999, when families of passengers on board sat on dharna on the pavement across from the Race Course Road prime ministerial complex with TV cameras airing in endless loops heart-rending scenes of mothers, wives and children hollering for PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee to give into the terrorists’ demand and save their kin which, minute by minute, hour by hour, eroded the first BJP regime’s resolve to halt the Jaish terrorists in their tracks by preventing the plane captured by them from taking off from Amritsar for Dubai. Had Vajpayee steeled his heart and decided that he’d not be swayed by public cries but by national interest, the 176 passengers in the Airbus A 300 may have died but the message would have gone out strong and clear to all terrorist quarters that they wouldn’t enjoy easy victories by aiming at soft targets. Instead, the farce at the Amritsar airport was played out when the aircraft was refueled and flew out of Indian air space and the situation got out of India’s control. At the mercy of the Taliban government, the Indian government had to eat crow on the bare airfield in Kandahar as external affairs minister Jaswant Singh handed over known terrorist kingpins — Maulana Masood Azhar, Mushtaq Ahmed Zagar, and Omar Saeed Sheikh until then in Indian jails. The precedent, however, was established exactly a decade earlier, in December 1989, with the kidnapping of Rubaiya Sayeed by members of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, who demanded the freeing of 13 militants for the release of the daughter of the then Union Home Minister in Prim Minister VP Singh’s coalition government cabinet, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, and sister of the erstwhile Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti. The Indian government complied with the terrorists’ demand, and the  exchange went through despite being opposed, to his credit, by the then J&K Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah.

Blood counted for Mufti Sayeed more than national interest. Vajpayee in the Kandahar episode extended that principle democratically to mean that thereafter any terrorist outfit holding Indians hostage would also hold the Indian nation hostage to its whims. The terrorism problem in J&K has been out of a reactive-passive India’s control ever since.  Over subsequent years, heinous strikes against army, paramil and police personnel in Srinagar Valley was escalated by the Pakistan ISI-sponsored terrorist gangs to attacks on Parliament in 1999 and, nine years later, the 26/11 sea-borne strike on Mumbai. And still Delhi was not stirred from its lassitude to think up and articulate a long term strategy to deal with the terrorist scourge, to lay down a protocol and SOPs and train all agencies in following them once a terrorist action is underway. The Indian government time and again settled instead for passion-rousing rhetoric, public cries for vengeance to match the people’s mood, followed by some slapdash response or the other. In recent times,  thunderous threats of “surgical strikes”, etc. are regularly mouthed, leaving the IS to meticulously plan the next incident to spring on India.

Post-Pulwama, an infinitely more serious, even reckless reaction was voiced by the only hard performing minister in Modi’s cabinet who is his also own man, perhaps, because of his direct access to RSS HQ in Nagpur, the Road Transport and Water Resources Minister Nitin Gadkari. Addressing a public rally in IP yesterday he said, “When India and Pakistan were divided, three rivers were given to Pakistan and three to India. However, India continuously gave the river water supply to Pakistan, but now we will use that river water supply to nurture the Yamuna river through the Yamuna project.” Hr elaborated that view in another political rally today to inaugurate numerous water projects in Uttar Pradesh.  “Our government has decided”, he informed the country, “to stop our share of water which used to flow to Pakistan. We will divert water from eastern rivers and supply it to our people in Jammu and Kashmir, and Punjab.” He added: “Three of our rivers have been flowing into Pakistan. So water which we rightfully owned was going into Pakistan. …Construction of dam has started at Shahpur-Kandi on Ravi river. Ujh project will store our share of water for use in Jammu and Kashmir and balance water will flow from second Ravi-Beas link to provide water to other basin states. Above projects are declared as national projects.”

Throttling Pakistan by denying it water under the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty has been recommended by some as a heavy-punch strategy to visibly impose a devastating economic cost on Pakistan for persisting with its hugely successful policy of waging asymmetric war using willing Kashmiri proxies. Because no clarification has been issued by Prime Minister Modi, PMO or MEA, one supposes this is one of the two prongs of strategy the Indian government will now implement. The other prong being a military response at a time of the Indian army’s choosing. This last is an excellent ploy to keep Islamabad guessing and on tenterhooks, unleashing a destructive strike when Pakistan forces relax — because they can’t remain on alert forever.

If the diversion, in effect, of the waters of the Sutlej, Ravi, and Beas Rivers designated by the Treaty for India’s use that Gadkari  has promised is indeed state policy then there should really have been  much greater debate and cogitation within government circles about its regional and international ramifications than has evidently occurred to-date. Has the MEA informed PMO about what this significant step means? Under international law, for a lower riparine country to be denied its legitimate portion of shared river waters can be casus belli — cause for war. Fine, the onus will be on Pakistan to start one, and it is in no position to do so. The trouble is a war for such an elemental reason could quickly spiral into a war of annihilation unlike all the previous relatively harmless wars of maneuver that, I have argued in my books, India and Pakistan have engaged in since 1947. Because, let’s be clear, damming and diverting the Indus River tributary waters is a matter of life and death for Pakistan. It is the brahamastra — not nuclear weapons — that can, quite literally, turn much of Pakistani Punjab and upper Sindh, in no more than 30 years, into an arid extension of the Thar Desert.

Yes, emotions are running high and rational thinking is apparently another casualty. But the Modi government has to really THINK, strategically weigh the ill-effects that may follow in its train. The first thing to weigh is whether junking the Indus Waters Treaty is anywhere a proportionate response to the Pulwama provocation. Proportionality — whether anybody likes it or not — is an established central tenet of international law of war.

Secondly, and it is this consequence that I have harped on in my writings, it will immediately gift China the justification for pell-mell damming and diversion of all rivers originating in the Tibetan Plateau — the Tsang-po (Brahmapurtra River) as also the Indus. Beijing has been more hesitant in building upstream facilities to siphon of water from the Indus than it has been in paying ducks and drakes with the Brahamaputra waters because its all-weather friend, Pakistan, is at the lower end of this River. Assuming Pakistan cannot and will not initiate a suicidal all-out war to settle the water issue for once and for all, how long does the Indian government reckon it will be before Beijing, citing the Indian precedent on the Sutlej, Ravi and Beas, orders huge construction projects to redirect the precious Indus waters in Tibet itself and away from its natural pattern of flow south of the Tibetan watershed and into the subcontinent? Because then the Pakistan reason for caution will go missing.

What then? What case will Delhi make to mobilize international opinion against the Chinese action? As it is, Delhi has not anything other than squawk ineffectually about the Chinese civil works and dams at the great bend obstructing the Brahmaputra.  India will find itself squarely in Pakistan’s position of being unable to prevent diversion but also incapable of militarily taking on a far superior China. It is this aspect of Indus waters diversion that Delhi has to be most wary of. But then Indians have always been tactical minded, not strategically oriented.

(No need to go back to Prithviraj Chauhan, the various Battles of Panipat, et al — the upcoming Cricket World Cup will do! There are calls, for instance, to not play Pakistan — the biggest draw in the upcoming championship rounds, when doing so may cost India the chance of winning the World Cup — with Virat Kohli’s team rated as one of the two top teams in the game. So, we are prepared to forfeit matches, concede Pakistan 2 or even 4 points, and even help it get to the Finals for such small change of emotional satisfaction as can be extracted from this self-abnegating gesture.)

And India will once again end up paying the greater price. Talk of cutting off one’s nose to spite someone else’s face!!

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