Taking the wrong tack after Pathankot

The Indian govt having conveyed “actionable intelligence” to Islamabad, the MEA spokesman announced, using that hag of a phrase, “the ball is in Pakistan’s court” which, in the South Asian context, means nothing. Have just come off a TV show (on News X) where there was a great deal of huffing and puffing by two retired militarymen — a major general and an air marshal both of whom called the Pathankot terrorist intrusion än act of war” deserving of harsh reaction. But, when specifically asked, neither was able to say just what kind of action they’d rather the Modi regime take. This is the problem with a lot of public military posturing — it stops at hollow histrionics. It has become part of the routine!

The fact is Nawaz Sharif is up a tree — he feels he needs to respond positively to Modi’s Lahore stopover initiative but is in no position to get the Pak Army-ISI combo to relent. So there’s unlikely to be the sort of action that would satisfy Delhi by way of a mea culpa and show of contrition.

Is the option then to call off the foreign secretary-level talks scheduled for Jan 15 the only thing available option to stop the baying by the opposition and salve national honour? This is what the Modi govt may end up doing but it would be wrong for the obvious reason that it would be to play into the hands of the elements in the Pak military establishment seeking to perpetuate the status quo.

But the status quo is potentially beneficial to the Pak-Army-ISI nexus only if its slate of sponsored terrorist actions fails to fetch a series of equal or intensityh and loss-wise greater covert reaction. As I have been stressing, in the age of covert warfare Indian conventional military retaliation is a non-starter. But a sustained strategy of covert actions at all levels and especially actions to take out the ISI-nursed monster by eliminating its hydra-heads every time a new one crops up, but without extending these actions to those outside the terrorist outfit leadership ranks will have two immediate effects: (1) By targeting only terrorist leaders and property within Pakistan and in PoK it will establish the reaction threshold minus any escalatory possibilities (because by definition terror outfits are outlaws that Islamabad cannot formally claim as its own creatures), and (2) Suggest to the Pak govt that Delhi is quite willing to play the covert-asymmetric warfare game if that is what it wants, but in the final analysis Pakistan will lose both because of disparity of resources and because of the many more exploitable faultlines in Pak society.

By separating the dialogue process from the covert warfare scene, the signal will go out and loud and clear to GHQ-Rawalpindi that the Indian govt is happy to talk and just as willing to wield the concealable wagh-nakh (as Shivaji did to tear open the Bijapur commander Afzal Khan’s entrails). Just issuing loud meaningless threats or demands makes India look vulnerable, particularly when nothing of note ever follows.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, civil-military relations, Culture, domestic politics, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, guerilla warfare, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Politics, Internal Security, Pakistan, Pakistan military, society, South Asia, Special Forces, Terrorism. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Taking the wrong tack after Pathankot

  1. Shaurya says:

    Yes, but managed in way that clearly publishes these individuals on a widely publicized target list, indicating them as a terrorists and enemies of India. Along with the rider that these enemies shall be targeted whenever, wherever and however.

  2. Shaurya says:

    It is important that your message is not construed as “Low intensity Conflict” or Pakistan be allowed to construe this as “terrorism” by India. Do not think that is what you are proposing. Targeted killings yes – and the perception management/mismanagement can be managed!

  3. subhashbhagwat says:

    You hit the nail on its head. For too long, Pakistani politicians have been talking one thing and doing the opposite. It is unclear whether elected heads of state in Pakistan are really not in agreement with the military-ISI complex or they are simply pretending to be powerless. When covert actions begin to hurt it will force them to show their real teeth.

    In a previous blog you referred to the issue of working with Iran to build a port facility to counter the Chinese-Pakistani collusion in Gwadar. The question that pops up in mind is Iran’s reliability to reciprocate. Past experience indicates that not a single Muslim country has ever sided with India at times of conflict, militarily or diplomatically. On the other hand, the Shia-Sunni divide seems to be shaping up in making Iran a counter-pole to the Saudi led Sunni block and should be used by India at least as a means to neutralize the evil forces working against India. How friend Israel will respond is not clear but a way must be found to explain our stance to them.

    • @subhash.bhagwat — Precisely because the Saudi led Sunni world is ganging up against Iran is what raises India’s value to Tehran, and Delhi ought to make the most of it.

  4. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    What in your view are the chances that the PA would up the ante, conventionally or asymmetrically, because of the successful TN test in North Korea?

    • A valued friend and source wondered if the Pathankot terrorist intrusion did not, in some sense, reflect the confidence about the thermonuclear test on the anvil at Punngye.

  5. satyaki says:

    Bharat Sir,

    Do’nt you see this situation as a repeat of the 1990s? Then Pak. had covertly obtained a proven fission weapon from China and escalated subconventional warfare. The same is being repeated now, but across the fission/thermonuclear threshold. Hopefully, the dice is being loaded for the resumption of testing on our part as well.

    Regarding the rejigged thermonuclear designs based on the 1998 tests: Are such unproven thermonuclear warheads actually fielded with our armed forces ?

    • Well, that’s what everybody who is anybody in GOI claims! As I have argued in my books, by fielding unproven, untested, H-weapons Delhi, perhaps, hopes to transfer the risk to the adversary because he will have to plan on the basis that these weapons work.

  6. Pradeep Ullal says:

    Dear Mr. Karnad,

    Feel the criticism of the present administration is perhaps harsh. After 10 years, some would say, criminal negligence of the combat readiness of the forces, or the terribly suspect police and intelligence services, under the UPA and the RM then, this government has made efforts to set things right. Obviously, it will take time to be able to talk or act and deal with Pakistan, decisively.

    The priority is now to get the economy going and that will have its dividends that will resolve a myriad, big and small issues that plague the defense and intelligence services. In 2014, had heard, that we perhaps could fight a war for just 6 days!

    Sure, there is a need for a more a muscular response to Pathankot, now. Yes covert. Yes sustained. But, this covert does it mean funding a gang of loonies across the border to throw grenades or bomb the ISI or JDU HQ ? What are the options available to stop the ISI in its tracks?

    • As I have iterated over the years, the need is to visit fatal punishment on the the terrorist outfit leaders by whatever means to impact these jihadi gangs the cost of their anti-India activities.

      • Pradeep Ullal says:

        You are spot on. We have been a soft state for long. Hopefully that will change sooner than later. Do you see any hope on that?

  7. Pradeep Ullal says:

    Have started following you recently. So, pardon me am reading all recent and older posts from you. Have also ordered your recent book.

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