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.