Lessons learnt from IAF’s Balakot strike

By Ali Ahmed

March 10, 2019

New Delhi: The return of the two high commissioners to respective places of duty at the national capitals, after each having been recalled for consultation sometime after the Pulwama terror attack, has finally put a lid on the latest India-Pakistan crisis.

The dust having settled somewhat, it is an apt time to undertake initial lessons learnt.

Obscured in the din over the toll from the Balakot aerial strike is that the decision itself is strategically questionable. The decision appears to have dismissed the possibility of a Pakistani response. It was not long in coming, with the Pakistan’s vertical escalation in the Naushera sector using its air force on military targets along the Line of Control (LC).

It is obvious any Indian deterrence of such a counter proved insufficient. India did not follow up its deterrent posturing, if any. As pointed out by a distinguished army general, Lt. Gen. HS Panag, echoing an observation initially made by the noted strategic thinker, Air Cmde. Jasjit Singh, a draw with Pakistan is hardly edifying for the larger power, India. This has implications for any future crisis.

In the wake of the Balakot aerial strike, a leading Indian realist thinker had opined that India must be prepared to twist the knife once plunged. His piece was penned the day of the Balakot strike and published the very morning Pakistan turned the tables at Naushera. He appeared to anticipate a Pakistani reaction and had required India to project readiness to scale up the heat in order to deter it and in case of deterrence failure, meet it.

In the event, India missed the boat for counter retaliation that could have given it the moral ascendancy at the end of the crisis. The rather tame Indian response to Pakistan going one up on it had the benefit of putting an end to the crisis, but has a down side to it. India is liable to overcompensate at the next crisis and end up flirting with the proverbial nuclear threshold of Pakistan.

The scene for the next crisis has already been set by the Pulwama terror attack. Even if executed with a different aim, it has certainly helped with improving the chance of Narendra Modi to power. The ruling party is making full use of the opportunity for military grandstanding the Pulwama terror attack has provided Modi.

The Jaish’s terror planners based in Pakistan and the two handlers killed within a 100 hours in an encounter near the car bomb attack site at Pulwama would have been interested in knocking back any post-election mending of fences between the two neighbours.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, on taking over charge, had extended a hand. Since he was reportedly the military’s candidate in the elections he won, his reaching out to India was taken as having the endorsement of the army. One Pakistani view has it that the Pulwama attack may have been to overturn Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s reported interest in patching up with India, in order to take the Pakistani economy out of dire straits.

The possibilities were aborted when India called off the meeting between the two foreign ministers, to be held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, in wake of the incident in which Indian border guards were mutilated. Imran Khan for his part had said that he would resume the initiative after Indian elections. In the interim, the interaction between the two over opening up of the Kartarpur Sahib corridor served to keep hope of talks alive.

These have been decisively dashed for now. In case of Modi’s return to power, a more likely possibility was that he that he will persist with a hardline, as his campaign rhetoric suggests. In case there is a change of guard, India would require more time to get its act together before it shifts gears.

With talks in abeyance and the likelihood of a hot summer in Kashmir higher, the military instrument willy-nilly becomes a seemingly viable option to address the next crisis. India having exhausted the surgical strikes option and burnt its fingers with the aerial strikes option, could contemplate a more robust punitive operation.

It bears considering what a future crisis could look like.

The cold start doctrine provides a clue. India is operationalising the doctrine through exercises this summer. Having struck a non-military target this time round, India may be tempted to knock some sense into the Pakistani army to punish and deter it. A variant of a cold start operation, such as military attacks along the LC in the tradition of Operation Kabaddi – the trans-LC operation aborted in late 2001 on account of the impact of 9/11 that unfolded in the region at the time – could be an option.

Through its action in the Naushera round of the latest crisis, Pakistan has demonstrated that it will hit back. This may push the two sides up the ladder, especially if India executes a ground based punitive operation for which Pakistan – being army led – is better prepared. Given that India cannot afford yet another draw, it may resort to offensives by select integrated battle groups alongside in the plains sector.

While these are limited war options, it is here that the apprehensions voiced by Pakistani general and former president, Pervez Musharraf, from his retired perch in Dubai, kick in. Musharraf had it that nuclear initiation by Pakistan, even if with one nuclear device, may bring a score Indian nuclear bombs down on it. This according to Musharraf would effectively finish Pakistan. He went on to observe that in order to pre-empt this, Pakistan may have to undertake a first strike with fifty atom bombs.

This logic has figured in the nuclear discourse in India. In order to ensure Pakistan prepares for going first with nuclear weapons, India could undertake a damage limitation strike with a few dozen more bombs taking out Pakistani ability for a first strike. An Indian movement towards a nuclear capability for preemptive counter force options has been assessed recently by two nuclear watchers, Vipin Narang and Christopher Clary, in one of the world’s leading journals on international relations, International Security.

Conservatively speaking, such exchange(s) could account for some 70-100 bombs going off. Studies have it that an exchange involving the higher figure may result in two billion deaths worldwide. Two successive workshops held in Colombo, under aegis of the Stimson Center and the Regional Center for Strategic Studies on limited nuclear exchanges involving a handful of nuclear weapons between India and Pakistan arrived at the conclusion that consequence management would be prohibitive. Clearly, fewer bombs and correspondingly fewer casualties do not make running the risk any more worth it.

The nuclear dimension did not figure in the recent crisis, making some believe that India has called Pakistan’s bluff. However, it was never envisaged that the nuclear factor would figure at the relatively low level blows exchanged in the crisis.

Nevertheless, Pakistan took care to point to its nuclear capability with its military spokesperson informing of a meeting of its nuclear decision making body, its national command authority, at just about the time Pakistan air force launched the aerial attack on Naushera.

This was no doubt to draw Indian attention to the nuclear overhang in order to deter Indian retaliatory action. It cannot be said that this impressed the Indians since it is not known if any action to move up the ladder was ever contemplated in first place.

The nuclear factor not having overly intruded this time, complacence may attend its consideration in the next round. In the next crisis, the Indian counter could well be of a higher order than Balakot. The possibility is heightened by the perception gaining ground that India has not appreciably gained ground over Pakistan this time. It may be tempted to be harsher next time, running the escalatory risk and its nuclear implications.

Scaremongering is necessary now to inform the war-gaming underway in the national security system. The nuclear factor may deserve more space in the consideration than some would have it under the mistaken belief that punitive operations are now replicable at will.

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