India’s elusive deterrence against Pakistani terror

In seeking to demonstrate resolve and strengthen deterrence, India ended up snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Deterrence theorists have long underscored that a deterrent’s credibility is in the eye of the beholder — namely, is the target of deterrence (the potential aggressor) sufficiently convinced that the other side has both the capability and the will to act so as to make aggression not worth the risk? Whether a foe is deterred is thus a function of its understanding of the deterrer’s strengths and intentions.

Pakistan has waged a protracted proxy war by terror against the much-stronger India since the 1980s because it has repeatedly tested the will of successive Indian governments and found it wanting. No prime minister after Indira Gandhi has been willing to impose sufficient costs on Pakistan to dissuade it from continuing to inflict upon India death by a thousand cuts.

The February 26 Balakot airstrike was a potential game-changer. It revived bitter Pakistani memories of the 2011 US raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Even before India said a word, Pakistan admitted Indian warplanes struck at Balakot without being interdicted or challenged. That India struck a target in the Pakistani heartland with impunity was momentous. The extent of damage or the death toll was immaterial. However, boastful toll-related claims, starting with the foreign secretary’s statement that “a very large number” of terrorists were “eliminated”, generated partisan controversy that undercut the chilling message that the Indian Air Force (IAF) delivered to Pakistan’s terror masters — the military generals.

Worse still, India has allowed a defining moment to slip away by failing to retaliate against Pakistan’s aerial blitz. Pakistan’s military regards its terrorist surrogates as de facto special operations forces, employing them cost-effectively as a force multiplier against India. So, India’s contention that it struck a “non-military” target at Balakot did not wash with the Pakistani generals, who responded barely 30 hours later with a daring, daytime aerial onslaught, in which India lost a MiG-21 — and, in perhaps friendly fire, a Mi-17 helicopter.

Voltairenet-org_-_1-657-2fc4aThe F-16 downing issue has not only detracted from Balakot’s main message but also obscured the absence of Indian retribution for the Pakistani blitz. The IAF is sure its MiG-21 shot down an attacking F-16. What is remarkable is that a short, sketchy April 4 US news report, which quoted anonymous sources to claim a US inventory probe found none of Pakistan’s F-16s missing, attracted front-page Indian press coverage and was quickly seized upon by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s critics at home and abroad — until the Pentagon said “we weren’t aware of any investigation like that”.

The intruding Pakistani warplanes brazenly tried to bomb Indian military sites. Although “no significant” damage was caused, according to the Indian military, Pakistan’s trans-border targeting of army formations opened a long-sought opportunity for the Indian armed forces to wreak massive punishment. Underscoring this opportunity is the fact that a near-bankrupt Pakistan cannot afford a military conflict. Indeed, such is Pakistan’s vulnerability to a punitive attack that, as this newspaper reported, only one Pakistani submarine currently is operational — that too partially.

Yet, India’s political leadership held back the armed forces from retaliating. New Delhi chose to defer to Washington’s assurances on Pakistan. Consequently, it was US President Donald Trump who signalled de-escalation, saying the tensions were “going to be coming to an end”. Hours after Trump’s announcement, an overcautious India finally allowed its armed forces to brief the media. But by then, parts of Pakistani propaganda had already taken hold internationally.

Modi has oddly relied on the ministry of external affairs to issue statements about a military crisis. Naturally, MEA has been out of its depth in that role, as was illustrated during the Doklam crisis, when India had no answer to China’s full-throttle information warfare. In the Balakot saga, MEA’s tardy, unforthcoming briefings ceded perception management to a mendacious Pakistani military, whose claim of downing two Indian warplanes dominated international news for days. Indeed, MEA’s February 26 statement inexcusably failed to identify where Balakot is located. This led the international media to wrongly assume it is in Pakistan-held Jammu and Kashmir and to spotlight the Kashmir dispute.

Despite Modi letting go the opportunity to wreak vengeance on Pakistan, the threshold-breaching Balakot strike after years of Indian inaction has helped sharpen his strong-leader image at election time. Pakistan, however, still fears Indian reprisals to its blitz, which explains why its airspace remains closed to most commercial overflights. It has reopened just one of its 11 airways for flights between Asia and Europe — that too a marginal route over Balochistan to Iran.

Meanwhile, international pressure on Pakistan to take verifiable actions to root out terrorist groups has started easing. The US lists North Korea, Iran, Sudan and Syria as “state sponsors of terrorism” but not the main sponsors — Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Its latest action in designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as “terrorist” but not the biggest terror-exporting force — Pakistan’s military — highlights the increasing politicization of the war on terror.

India, alas, has yet to build a reputation for resolve, which, as the social scientist and Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling wrote, is a prerequisite for deterrence. All the weapons India is frenetically importing can offer no effective deterrence in the absence of political will. India failed to capitalize on the Balakot strike to compel the Pakistani generals to start cleaning up their terror act. Far from imposing deterrent costs to prevent further terrorist attacks, India reinforced the Pakistani generals’ belief that its bark is worse than its bite. This is why the present lull is likely to prove only an interlude.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.