It has been almost a month since the deadly terrorist attack in Pulwama that killed 44 CRPF soldiers. Of course, this was not the first time India has seen such an attack on her soil. Parliament attack, Akshardham, 26/11 Mumbai attacks, Uri all come to mind. In the last one, Indian Army mounted a surgical strike to eliminate terrorist launch pads in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK). This time however things were a bit different. India retaliated 12 days later with an air strike to destroy a terrorist training camp. The air strike was not in PoK but Pakistan proper (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province). Something had changed. As many over enthusiastic people on social media proclaimed, “Yeh naya India hai!” But to understand what changed, let’s take a jog down memory lane and rewind to 1978.
Cold War and Pakistan involvement
In 1978, PDPA in a coup d’état overturned the extant Afghan regime and took over governance. Their radical reforms to modernise the country however met with resistance which turned to revolt and soon there was a civil war brewing in the country between the PDPA government and guerrilla mujahideen. The Soviet Union in its infinite wisdom jumped into this quagmire by sending thousands of “military advisors” to support the PDPA regime. Pakistan had started supporting the rebels by providing them with covert training centres on her own soil. Rebels kidnapped the US Ambassador to Afghanistan and even as negotiations were being carried out, one of the Soviet KGB advisors ordered an assault and, in the crossfire that ensued, the ambassador was killed. USA blamed the Soviet Union for his death and joined the fray by supporting the rebels with weapons and money through Pakistan’s ISI. What was hitherto an Afghan civil war quickly devolved into a tug of war between USA and the erstwhile USSR, with Afghanistan as the rope.
Pakistan saw itself taking on the might of a superpower. They began to feel that if they could do this, they could surely take on puny India.
USSR orchestrated a coup inside PDPA to overthrow the President and install their own guy. What followed was a heavy influx of Soviet troops into Afghanistan to stabilise the new government. USA were not phased and stepped up their funding and weapons supply through Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, even allegedly supplying thousands of surface-to-air missiles to the rebels. Gradually Pakistan became the focal point for US and allies to support the rebels fighting the Soviet occupation. Pakistan in general and General Zia-ul-Haq in particular began to gain confidence in their abilities to fuel a rebel movement. Soon however the confidence gave way to complacence. Pakistan saw itself taking on the might of a superpower, albeit with the help and support of USA and China. They began to feel that if they could do this, they could surely take on puny India who were hardly even punching their own weight at the time.
Pakistan sponsored insurgency in India
Pakistan had not forgotten the loss of Bangladesh inflicted on them at the hands of Indira Gandhi and India in 1971. In the early 80s, as the weapons and aid from US steadily increased and with rebel training bases already mushrooming across the country, Pakistan diverted some resources towards India. India had two boiling separatist movements and Pakistan decided to implement the Afghanistan model here as well. In 1981, ISI became involved in supporting Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his Khalistan Movement. Indira Gandhi’s Operation Blue Star ended Bhindranwale but the ensuing Sikh genocide in 1984 followed by Sikh militancy destabilised the state till the early 90s. However, without a leader of Bhindranwale’s calibre, the Khalistan movement was petering out.
In 1989, Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) intensified their armed insurgency movement and Pakistan saw its chance to withdraw from the losing cause that was Khalistan and “invest” in a fresh cause. ISI was mobilised and soon youth insurgents in the valley had easy access to automatic weapons and explosives. Afghanistan model all over again. Late 1989 and early 1990 saw a mass exodus of Kashmiri Hindus as they fled from the hardline Islamic insurgency sponsored by Pakistan. Soon the insurgents were able to align a large portion of the general public to their cause and used sympathetic villagers to execute attacks and then get away safely.
Since then India has been fighting a proxy war in Kashmir. Pakistan not only uses regular army to infiltrate our north western borders but also regularly sends in trained militants to execute terror attacks on security forces and civilians alike.
Current situation and what happens next?
And with that long-ish history refresher let’s jump back to the present. After every single terror attack on our soil, politicians boasted of giving an appropriate response, but it always remained limited to a dossier submitted to the Pakistan High Commissioner for further action and repeated requests to UN and the Security Council. When militants attacked the Uri base, India was furious. An attack on an Army Brigade HQ was unprecedented. The public wanted revenge. And they got their revenge when the army carried out its surgical strikes on terrorist camps in PoK. Then followed the Pulwama attack in February followed by the air strike at Balakot. Let us quickly review the events in question in a bit more detail.
On 26th February we used Mirage-2000 aircrafts to deliver a payload deep into Pakistani territory. The very same day our Prime Minister was up on stage beating his chest and asking for votes. Next day was even more eventful. Pakistan sent in a bunch of its aircrafts to cross the LoC to target key Indian military installations in Kashmir. It required IAF to scramble aircrafts in response to thwart the attempt. As the PAF planes beat a hasty retreat, one of our MiG-21 planes chased down a straggler. Now there are many versions of this story but for simplicity I am going to go with the Indian version of it. Wing Commander Abhinandan crossed the LoC in his MiG-21 while chasing the F-16, shot it down and then attempted a difficult manoeuvre to turn around completely to return home. However, the last move caused his engine to give out and the plane to crash. The pilot was later picked up by locals, roughed up a fair bit, then captured by the Pakistani Army and whisked away to an Army base. There the brave pilot was questioned multiple times. In the meantime, Indian Ministry of External Affairs, already made aware of the pilot’s capture, had activated back channels to other countries for diplomatic pressure. Apparently, USA, Saudi Arabia and UAE all leaned on the Pakistani administration to be careful in the treatment of their soldier and repatriate him on priority to his country. The result was that the pilot was back home safe and sound within two days. As of now, both the nuclear neighbours sit on either side of a tense and delicate stalemate as the war-like situation has deescalated for the time being.
India’s military might must become a deterrent to Pakistan to stop supporting terrorism from its soil
India, to many, clearly seems to be the country with the winning hand and the winner of this round. I choose to disagree here. I firmly believe that we have shifted the balance only half way. From Pakistan’s nukes being a deterrent to us to take military action, we have come only halfway – taking military action in spite of the nukes. The completion of that step would be a full reversal, where India’s military might must become a deterrent to Pakistan to stop supporting terrorism from its soil.
The situation has surely changed from what it was maybe 4-5 years ago. Pakistan has faced an Indian retaliation of this magnitude for the first time. Hitherto they had carried out terror strikes with impunity and without fear of a backlash but this time there was one. India had hit back. And nobody condemned India for carrying out the attacks. On the contrary even Pakistan’s long-term allies like USA, China, UAE and Saudi Arabia either refused to comment on this or sided with India. Pakistan was diplomatically isolated on the international stage. Even the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) ignored Pakistan’s threat to boycott a summit level meeting of Foreign Ministers of the member nations of OIC after the UAE extended an invitation to India. To put this into perspective, Pakistan is one of the founding members of OIC, who claimed its place of right because it was the country with the highest number of Muslims (undivided Pakistan, including Bangladesh). Yet Mrs. Sushma Swaraj spoke at the meeting and presented India’s case on Kashmir while Pakistan was relegated to sit in the proverbial corner on this.
With no help coming from other quarters, Pakistan is now self-reliant on their own armed forces. As far as skirmishes go though, surprisingly India and Pakistan are on level terms. Surprising because of the different trajectories the two countries have taken since the early 80s. Would it surprise you if I told you Pakistan of the late 70s and early 80s was more prosperous than India? Yes, it was. For instance, in 1982, Pakistan’s per capita GDP exceeded ours by a whopping 36%! Yet in 2017 it lagged behind ours by 20%. Pakistan’s insistence to continue supporting terrorism has taken its toll on administration and economy. Now the country is a shell of its former self.
And while we are on the topic of Pakistan’s transformation, India’s transformation has been even more striking. Any of the previous occasions when we were attacked, an air strike would have made us look like aggressors and Pakistan the aggrieved party. However, this time the narrative has been managed on the international stage so well that the air strike has been dismissed by most countries as a country protecting its sovereignty. It has highlighted again how alone Pakistan is on the international stage right now.
Even more striking is the relationship between India and Pakistan. For decades, ever since both India and Pakistan have obtained their respective nuclear weapons, even a small skirmish on the LoC is fought with the backdrop of it potentially escalating into all out war between two nuclear powers. Pakistan has often used this to their advantage. Whether it is making statements pregnant with threats of using nuclear weapons or simply pointing to the nukes as a deterrent. The air strike has also put a doubt in Pakistan’s head – maybe the nukes aren’t a threat enough to deter India any more.
If we aspire to be a modern superpower we have to look past the point of revenge. Revenge is sweet but deterrence is sweeter.
That said, Indian and Pakistani militaries are fairly equal when it comes to a skirmish by skirmish basis. Our equipment is much the same. Our air forces are pretty evenly matched in the context of single duals. The fact is that India does not have military might to supress Pakistan completely. We can outlast them for sure but that is purely because we run deeper pockets and so can keep playing the war games longer. PM Modi proudly proclaimed that his nature was not to dilly dally but seek revenge quickly. My point is if we aspire to be a modern superpower we have to look past the point of revenge. Revenge is sweet but do you know what is sweeter – deterrence. The USA gets away with a lot of things simply because no one in their right minds would want to take on the military might of the USA. They know their forces would be crushed to the ground. That is the deterrent. Ultimate military might. That is what we have to aim at. And most of it, if not all, revolves around better equipment. The need of the hour is to do away with archaic procurement policies that date back half a century or even more and empower the Ministry of Defense to speed up deals for better weapons. The aim should be to outgun and overpower Pakistan’s military capability to such an extent that even when a Pakistani soldier considers taking up arms against an Indian troop, he must feel he is already entering a losing battle. That ultimate might will also be the ultimate deterrent. Pakistan needs to feel like its playing with fire every time it prods us using terrorist attacks.
Another point which we need to take care of as a country is delinking military action and politics and public sentiment. Let me take this in two parts – politics and public sentiment – separately.
Military action has always been used by politicians to bolster their claim to the throne since time immemorial. Shouting that the BJP is using the Balakot air strike as an election issue is silly. Any incumbent would use any and all of its actions to secure votes. Till the time the Ministry of Defense controls the Indian military, it is then a government prerogative whether or not to act and how much. The burden for this lies on us, the electorate, to separate the campaign chest beating and hollering from the actual facts and then analyse whether the actions taken were required and sufficient. Inaction is as harmful or undesirable as insufficient action. This also brings us to our second point, public sentiment.
We ask for war, turning a blind eye to the burden of loss we must bear to win such a war.
As a public, we do not really have the stomach for war. Every year thousands of Indians, civilians and armed forces, are killed due to ceasefire violations and cross border terrorism at the LoC. They are usually relegated to a simple number on one of the inner pages of the newspaper as we plod on in our little self-centred lives. Yet on 26th February, as news filtered through of India’s Balakot air strike, the masses were on a high. Celebrations were reported from various parts of the country and social media was rife with people demanding India to go on an all out war with Pakistan and end things once and for all. However, less than 24 hours later, as news emerged of Abhinandan’s capture, the public changed its tune to save Abhinandan. When we go to war, casualties are inevitable. The day Abhinandan was apprehended by Pakistan, we also lost 8 air force officers in a separate incident involving a chopper. In the evening of the same day, 2 jawans were martyred during cross border shelling. We do not even know their names. My point here is that when we ask for war, we tend to turn a blind eye to the burden of loss we must bear to win such a war. But put a face and a name to it, and our stomachs turn to water. When faced with a difficult situation we want to back out. This isn’t even the first time this has happened. When the central government negotiated the release of Rubaiya Sayeed in exchange for 5 terrorists or when the passengers of IC 814 were rescued in exchange for 3 deadly terrorists, including Maulana Masood Azhar, the founder of Jaish-e-Muahmmed. In both incidents there was tremendous public pressure. Unlike the US government, who famously do not negotiate with terrorists, we not only negotiated but gave in to their demands. We saved the lives of a few at the moment, but the terrorists released took the lives of thousands others in subsequent years. It is a gross disservice to the nameless, faceless soldier who would lay down his life when we utter a war cry to see his sacrifice go in vain when we change tunes the very next moment and try to broker peace. It is important to understand the cost of going to war, and hence as a populace we must never ask our government to go to war. Instead, we must ask our government to improve our military might to such an extent that we never have to go to war. Fear of war and assured defeat should itself be enough to make our enemies see sense and avoid armed conflict.
Pakistan must choose whether it wants to join the upcoming period of economic boom or die crushed under the weight of its own hubris and hollow pride.
On Pakistan’s part, it now stands at an important crossroads. For 3 decades it has run a campaign of terror and bloodshed in the Kashmir valley. An India, which was hitherto silent, has woken up and lashed out. We have them isolated diplomatically and we have injured their pride and possibly taken out a major terrorist camp in the process. Pakistan must now choose if it wants to continue down this path which would ultimately lead to its utter and complete destruction as it runs out of support and money. Or it can choose to forge a new path forward, distance itself from the terrorists and the separatist movement in Kashmir, take decisive action against terrorist camps on its soil and help setup a stable and peaceful environment in the sub continent. India and China are poised to be the lever around which economic superiority will pivot. Pakistan must choose whether it wants to join the upcoming period of economic boom or die crushed under the weight of its own hubris and hollow pride.
Cover image: (C) Facebook, Yudh Abhyas 2017