AS THE dust settles following the so-called September 29 ‘surgical strike’ which witnessed the publicly acknowledged employment of Indian special forces across the line of control for the first time in over a decade, it is useful to take stock of the larger implications — what the operation does and does not mean for India’s broader strategic dynamic with Pakistan.
On the one hand, those heralding a ‘new era’ where India has ‘called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff’ will be disappointed: the operation did not fundamentally alter the strategic options available to India. On the other hand, those decrying that the operation meant absolutely nothing are also wrong: it has very real implications for future iterations of this tragic and dangerous conflict dynamic, and indicates the degree to which domestic political pressure to do something in response to Pakistani provocations against even military targets — let alone civilians — is boiling over.
WHAT are the wrong lessons to draw from the surgical strike? First, it does not show that India has ‘called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff’. There is a lot of self-congratulation in the Indian media that India has finally called Pakistan’s nuclear threat for what they believe it is: a bluff. This is wrong and extremely dangerous. No serious analyst, scholar, or military officer ever argued that the threat of nuclear use against Indian forces was salient, or even possible, for operations across the LoC. It is only operations across the international border — and more likely in the desert sector where India’s 21 Corps has a quantitative and manoeuvre advantage over Pakistan’s forces — which present possible targets for tactical nuclear use (such as logistics, bridgeheads, or concentrated armoured forces) where the threat of Pakistani nuclear use becomes salient. Short of that, and particularly on the LoC, India has always had — and will continue to have — a wide berth to use limited force, both on the ground and in the air. This does not mean that such operations may not escalate to a broader conflict, and there is a real fear they might spiral. But, in and of itself, the surgical strike was well below any Pakistani nuclear threshold, and analysts have long known that. The strike does not mean that India can now conduct operations that significantly attrite the Pakistan military or seize valuable territory across the international border. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are real, and they impose strategic limits on what India can do.
Second, the surgical strike does not herald a new era of conventional retaliatory options for India. This was not evidence that India has a proactive strategy (popularly known as Cold Start) option available for deeper punitive strikes — either on the ground or with air and stand-off capabilities. The use of special forces, at most several kilometres across the LoC, was carefully planned and, by most official accounts, highly successful. But one should not be deluded into believing that India has now developed the capability to catch the Pakistan military by surprise with even more punitive strikes than this. The Narendra Modi government was very careful not to use helicopters across the LoC, and even the drone that recorded the strike could have easily loitered over Indian territory to do so. Furthermore, as security analyst Manoj Joshi has shown, one should not mistake special force strikes like this with the capability to conduct deeper covert special operations. This strike should therefore not be read as evidence that India has advanced its so-called Cold Start options.
Third, and important, the strike in no way suggests that the government has abandoned strategic restraint as a general grand strategy towards Pakistan. There is a lot of confusion about what strategic restraint means. Most precisely, it means avoiding operations that risk major conventional escalation: attriting the Pakistan military or seizing valuable territory across the international border. Strategic restraint does not mean ‘do nothing’. It means responding in a way that does not potentially become strategically costly for India by risking a broader conventional war, which carries with it not only human and economic costs, but also the risk of nuclear use if the war spills across the international border. By carefully framing the operation as defensive and pre-emptive, limited in time and scope, and avoiding targeting Pakistan army personnel, the government squarely stayed within the parameters of strategic restraint. This was a strike with immediate tactical consequences, but it demonstrated significant strategic restraint by what it took great pains not to do: target the Pakistan army.
So what, then, are the major implications of the surgical strike? First, although the surgical strike demonstrated immense strategic restraint, it suggests that visibly ‘doing nothing’ militarily may no longer be domestically politically tenable. Given the public outrage, expressed most vehemently online and on television, the notion that attacks by Pakistani-supported militants can be suffered with no response may be increasingly unsustainable. The cumulative harms believed to be suffered by India since the Kargil war in 1999 have slowly built pressure amongst at least a very vocal section of the public that enough is enough. The groundswell of anger, and Mr. Modi’s own professed tough line against militant attacks, tied his hands to some degree. He believed he could not ‘do nothing’ without suffering some damage to his domestic credibility. This dynamic is now a fact. But it is also potentially dangerous. One must walk a fine line with hawkish nationalism. On the one hand, it can generate a deterrent to more audacious Pakistani attacks, if Pakistan fears that hawkish Indian nationalism might force a disproportionate response. On the other hand, hawkish nationalism can force leaders to escalate when it is not in the national interest to do so. Nevertheless, while strategic restraint may still persist as grand strategy, the era of visibly ‘doing nothing’ militarily may be ending.
Second, and relatedly, although the Indian national security establishment is often given a lot of grief — for one, was there adequate force protection at Uri, and why were the jawans not in fire-retardant tents? — it deserves a lot of credit for how this finely calibrated operation was conceived, planned, executed, and managed. The Modi team needed to find a sweet spot between ‘do nothing’ and abandoning strategic restraint, simultaneously satisfying the domestic political forces baying for blood while avoiding risking further escalation. It found that sweet spot and deserves acknowledgement for it. By publicly announcing that it had responded with a concrete justifiable objective, and highlighting the enduring professionalism of the armed forces, it satisfied wide portions of the media and public. But by limiting the scope and duration of the operation, subsequently framing it not as retaliation but as a pre-emptive strike against an imminent attack from the launch pads, it avoided further escalation by giving Pakistan a largely face-saving way to not have to respond in kind — if it chooses to avail itself of it. For a national security apparatus that is often accused of dysfunction, this strike illustrated that it is immensely capable when it needs to be.
Altering the long-term dynamics
FINALLY, and most broadly, the surgical strike shows Pakistan that it must now consider potential Indian responses in the future. And the nature of those responses may be unpredictable. Perhaps they will be calibrated like this one. Or perhaps they may escalate, if the attacks persist or, worse, expand against civilians in metropoles. Although this strike in and of itself was limited in duration and aims, it sets a precedent that could potentially have a growing deterrent effect on Pakistan. Strategically, Pakistan must now account for potential Indian retaliation where the intensity is uncertain — anywhere from ‘doing nothing’ to higher intensity military action around the LoC — and this is perhaps the most enduring implication of the strike.
Thus, the strike does have some very real long-term strategic consequences that are important to consider. It was not nothing. At the same time, it is imperative that India does not get drunk on success. The strike was reportedly highly successful at the tactical level, but it did not alter the fundamental strategic dynamic between India and Pakistan — nor was it intended to do so, for very good reasons. It should not thus be viewed as a carte blanche with which India can now impose its will on Pakistan militarily — that is neither possible nor in India’s broader strategic interest. And it remains to see how Pakistan will respond, if at all, which could touch off a dangerous escalatory action-reaction cycle. This is a conflict dynamic, after all, and the adversary always gets a vote.
TheHindu.com, October 4. Vipin Narang is Mitsui Career Development Associate Professor of Political Science, and a member of the Security Studies Program, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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