Brahma Chellaney, Mint
Make no mistake: The four-day terrorist siege of the Pathankot air base was the equivalent of the 26 November 2008 Mumbai terror strikes. In both cases, the Pakistani terrorists were professionally trained, heavily armed, and dispatched by their masters for a specific suicide mission. The main difference is that in Mumbai, the terrorist proxies struck civilian sites, while, in the latest case, their assigned target was a large military facility.
After the widespread anger and indignation triggered by the recent Paris and San Bernardino attacks, a Mumbai-style strike on civilian targets was not a credible option for the Pakistani military, especially because such an attack would risk Indian retaliation. So, it chose a military target in India, orchestrating the attack through a terror group it founded in 2000 by installing as its head one of the terrorists the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government unwisely released to end the hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight 814.
That a pivotal Indian air base against Pakistan came under an extended siege represented a bigger hit for the terror sponsors than the earlier coordinated attacks on soft targets in Mumbai. And this hit occurred without the international spotlight and outrage that the Mumbai strikes drew.
It was not an accident that the Pathankot attack coincided with a 25-hour gun and bomb siege of the Indian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. The twin attacks, outsourced to Jaish-e-Muhammad, were designed as a New Year’s gift to India.
How did India come out from the crisis? Put simply, not looking good.
Leadership is the key to any country effectively combating the scourge of terrorism. India, however, has faced a protracted crisis of leadership for more than a generation since 1989. In this period, Pakistan has gone from inciting a Jammu and Kashmir insurrection, which ethnically cleansed the Kashmir Valley of its 300,000 Pandit residents, to scripting terror attacks across India.
Narendra Modi’s election win reflected the desire of Indians for a dynamic leader to end political drift. Yet, since Modi’s victory, cross-border terrorists have repeatedly tested India’s resolve — from Herat to Pathankot via Gurdaspur and Udhampur. And each time India flunked the test, as it has done since the Vajpayee era.
The Pathankot strike, above all, constituted an act of war, presenting Modi with his first serious national security challenge. Modi’s leadership, however, was found wanting in nearly every aspect — from leading from the front to reassuring the Indian public.
For almost the first two days of the siege, Modi chose to be away in Karnataka. And the only statement he made during the entire siege seemed to signify euphemism as escapism. Just as he called the Paris strikes an “attack on humanity,” he said the Pathankot terror siege was by “enemies of humanity” (he could not bring himself to even say “enemies of India”). Not a single meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security was held during the crisis.
Operationally, the action to kill the terrorists in the air base stands out as a textbook example of how not to conduct such a mission. Despite New Delhi receiving advance intelligence of the attack, the terrorists not only gained entry to the base but the operation to flush them out was also poorly conceived and executed, without a unified operational command.
War needs good public relations. But the Modi government doesn’t appear to even have a peacetime communication strategy. During the Pathankot siege, officials gave confusing and conflicting accounts.
The crisis, if anything, highlighted the government’s strategic naïveté. While the gunbattles were still raging inside the base, the government supplied Islamabad communication intercepts and other evidence linking the attackers with their handlers in Pakistan. This was done in the fond hope that the terror masters will go after their terror proxies, despite India’s bitter experience in the Mumbai case where it presented dossiers of evidence to Pakistan.
More laughable was New Delhi’s disclosure on the siege’s final day that, in a telephone call from Nawaz Sharif, Modi asked Pakistan’s toothless prime minister for “firm and immediate action” on the “specific and actionable information” provided by India and that Sharif promised “prompt and decisive action against the terrorists.”
Decisive power in Pakistan rests with the military generals, with the army and Inter-Services Intelligence immune to civilian oversight. India is in no position to change Pakistan’s power dynamics. Yet the critical issues that India wants to discuss with Pakistan — terrorism, infiltration, border peace and nuclear security — are matters over which the Pakistani military has the final say.
So, how can Modi hope to buy peace with a powerless Pakistani government that has ceded its authority in foreign policy and national security to the military?
If Pakistan wants a détente with status-quoist India, it can easily get it. Its military, however, cannot afford peace with India. It employs terrorist surrogates as a highly cost-effective force multiplier to undermine India’s rise and regional clout, which explains why Indian diplomatic missions in Afghanistan have repeatedly been attacked and why Bangladesh and Nepal have become new gateways to India for Pakistan’s proxies.
Yet India, as if expecting the Pakistani security establishment to turn over a new leaf, supplied almost real-time evidence in the Pathankot case.
Modi’s Christmas gift to Pakistan in the form of a surprise Lahore stopover yielded, in return, a New Year’s terror surprise for India. Rather than heed the mistakes of his immediate two predecessors — who learned the hard way how peace overtures to Pakistan, by signalling weakness, invited cross-border aggression — Modi chose to commit the same folly, reposing his faith in Sharif who backstabbed Vajpayee.
Of the 35 countries visited by Modi in his first 19 months in office, no nation has provided a payback to India as quickly as Pakistan. In fact, in modern history, no head of government before Modi visited an enemy country without any preparatory work and with nothing to show in results. Grabbing international spotlight through a brief surprise visit just to have tea does not befit the leader of an aspiring power.
Sadly, Modi is showing that showmanship is to his foreign policy what statecraft is to the diplomacy of great powers.
The recent terror attack in San Bernardino, although not an act of international terrorism, has shaken up American politics. By contrast, multiple cross-border terror attacks have failed to galvanize India into devising a credible counterterrorism strategy. With the ISI using narcotics traffickers to send opiates and terrorists into India’s Punjab, the Pathankot killers — like the Gurdaspur attackers — came dressed in Indian army uniforms through a drug-trafficking route. The influx of narcotics is destroying Punjab’s public health.
When the next major terror strike occurs, India will go through the same cycle again, including a silly debate on whether to talk to Pakistan or not. As Army chief General Dalbir Singh emphasized, “India needs to change its security policy towards Pakistan. Every time Pakistan bleeds us … we just talk about it for a few days and after that it is business as usual.”
Indeed, New Delhi, forgetting Mumbai, wants Pakistan to act in the Pathankot case. And when the next major cross-border attack occurs, Pathankot will be forgotten. With New Delhi focused on the last terror strike, Pakistan has still to deliver even in the 1993 case internationally known as the Bombay bombings — the bloodiest terrorist attack in India.
While the Pakistani military has made the country’s government impotent by appropriating key powers, the Indian government, through inaction, is rendering its powerful military impotent to defeat terrorism. This was apparent even in the Pathankot siege, with precious time lost due to the government’s bungled decision to airlift National Security Guard commandos to the scene rather than immediately press readily available army commandos into action.
India’s biggest threat is from asymmetric warfare, waged across porous borders or gaps in Indian frontier defences. This asymmetric warfare takes different forms — from Pakistan’s proxy war by terror and China’s furtive, salami-style encroachments into the Himalayan borderlands, to Nepal serving as a conduit for India’s foes to funnel militants, arms, explosives and fake currency to India.
Yet India, far from focusing on neutralizing the asymmetric warfare, has sought to prepare for a full-fledged conventional war through improvident arms imports. Modi alone has sunk billions of dollars in such mega-deals. The more weapon systems India imports, the more insecure it feels.
There are several things India can do against the terror sponsors short of war. But first, it must have political will and clear strategic objectives. Today, unfortunately, there is no long-term strategic vision or even a Pakistan policy. Under Modi, India has already made at least six U-turns on Pakistan. For example, its October stance that “talks and terror cannot go together” lasted barely 10 weeks. Almost every season in New Delhi brings a new Pakistan policy.
An unconventional war must be countered with an unconventional war. Nuclear weapons have no deterrence value in an unconventional war. Nor can they guarantee Pakistan’s survival. The Soviet Union unravelled despite having the world’s most formidable nuclear arsenal in mega-tonnage. Why should India allow itself to be continually gored when it is seven times bigger demographically than Pakistan, almost 12 times larger in GDP terms, and militarily more powerful?
Let us be clear: No nation gets peace merely by seeking peace. To secure peace, India must be able to impose deterrent costs when peace is violated in order to tell the other side that the benefits of peaceful cooperation outweigh hostilities.
India, unfortunately, has shied away from imposing costs, although the right to retaliate is a right enshrined in international law. Defending one’s interests against a terrorism onslaught, in fact, is a constitutional and moral obligation for any self-respecting country. The right of self-defence is embedded as an “inherent right” in the United Nations Charter. India did not impose costs on the terror masters in Pakistan even for the bloody Mumbai attacks. Will it allow them to go scot-free again?
Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research.
© Mint, 2016.