Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, February 28, 2019
Pakistan didn’t wait long to squash India’s Balakot airstrike bravado with its own air incursions. However, the financially strapped country cannot afford a serious escalation of hostilities, not least because India could wreak massive punishment. This explains why Pakistan’s military is at pains to affirm that it is not seeking war.
The mass-murder attack at Pulwama was India’s moment of truth. For too long, India had put up with Pakistan’s cross-border terrorism without imposing any tangible costs. So, when Pulwama happened, it triggered intense anger across the country, not just against Pakistan, but also against the fractious and feckless political class that has reduced India to a soft state.
Peace with Pakistan is a mirage, and the Indian Air Force (IAF) aptly employed its Mirage 2000 aircraft to bomb terrorists there. In a chilling message to Pakistan’s terror masters — the military generals — it demonstrated its ability to deeply penetrate Pakistani air defences and bomb. This represented a major loss of face for the generals. To salvage their image at home, the generals have responded with aerial aggression.
Had the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee quickly responded with punitive airstrikes to the December 2001 Jaish-e-Mohammed attack on Parliament — at a time when much of Pakistan’s F-16 fleet was not airworthy due to a lack of spares — India probably would have been spared the Pakistan-scripted terrorist carnages that have followed. The lost golden opportunity was compounded by nearly 18 years of political dithering on allowing limited uses of air power, such as taking out trans-border terrorist launch pads. India’s belated use of air power to strike a terrorist safe haven has finally sent a clear message — it is not afraid to call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff.
Balakot represents the first time a nuclear power carried out an airstrike inside another nuclear-armed State. The current conventional military face-off, however, promises to bust Western academic theories about the inevitability of tit-for-tat actions rapidly triggering a serious nuclear crisis. Pakistani generals may be roguish but they are not suicidal. Their delusions of security behind a supposed nuclear shield stand exposed.
A more fundamental question is whether the current face-off will mark a turning point for India, generating a newfound determination not to be continually gored. Or did India carry out the Balakot airstrike — like the 2016 ground-launched surgical strike — largely to assuage public anger, with the calculation that Pakistan would again not respond in kind? A one-off airstrike, in any event, would be as ineffective in deterring Pakistan as the one-off surgical strike was.
Whatever the number of terrorists killed at Balakot, the fact is that Pakistan’s generals were made to pay no costs. Now emboldened by their own quick military response, they will seek to bleed India further. Tellingly, the 2016 terrorists-targeting surgical strike, while underscoring India’s refusal to impose any costs on the terror masters, was followed by serial Pakistan-orchestrated terrorist attacks from Nagrota to Pulwama.
India must bring Pakistan under sustained and multipronged pressure. For example, how can India expect the international community to diplomatically isolate Pakistan when New Delhi is unwilling to do that itself? Indeed, India’s refusal to treat Pakistan as a terrorist state in its policy, as opposed to its rhetoric, has come back to haunt it.
India shies away from taking even non-military measures to penalise Pakistan. Nitin Gadkari’s empty statements on the Indus Waters Treaty have only generated bad international publicity. Far from seeking to weaponise water or leverage the treaty, India is adhering to the pact’s finer details, including supplying Pakistan design data of three proposed hydropower facilities on the eve of Pulwama.
Oddly, just as India called its 1974 nuclear test “peaceful”, only to endure almost a quarter-century of sanctions until it went overtly nuclear, it labelled its Balakot strike a “non-military” pre-emptive action. Pakistan’s military riposte has helped shatter that pretence. More significantly, India’s failure to quickly rebut Pakistan’s disinformation in the current face-off suggests it has learned little from China’s psychological warfare during the Doklam standoff.
India must face up to the fact that Pakistan has been at war with it for years. Labelling that aggression simply “terrorism” minimises its larger strategic dimensions and obviates the need to formulate a comprehensive strategy in place of the present ad hoc, reactive approach. It is a grinding, largely one-sided unconventional war since the 1980s whose cumulative costs for India outweigh those imposed by any full-fledged war in the past. Unless India is willing to take the battle to Pakistan’s terror masters, the latter will continue employing their terrorist proxies against it.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.