Hard choices that PM Narendra Modi has to make after Pulwama terror attack

COVER STORY


In his spartan South Block office in New Delhi, Narendra Modi sat hunched in deep thought last week. The time had come for him to take the most momentous decision of his prime ministership. Whatever he did in the coming weeks would not only impact India, its reverberations would be felt across the world. It will also decide whether Modi will be voted to power again or be the leader who failed the nation in its critical hour.

The suicide-bomb attack on a convoy of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel on February 14 that left 40 dead was the worst cross-border terror attack in his tenure. It was a brazen and bloody challenge thrown at India by the Jaish-eMohammad (JeM) led by Masood Azhar and his alleged handlers, the Deep State of Pakistan. Modi vowed to avenge the deaths of the security personnel, stating, I want to tell the terror outfits and those aiding and abetting them that they have made a big mistake. They will have to pay a heavy price for their actions. Let me assure the nation that the perpetrators of this attack will be punished.

Modi was confronted with some hard choices. Having already ordered a much-publicised surgical strike in September 2016 following the attack on Uri, he might have to do something more spectaculara surgical strike plusto deliver on his threat to Pakistan. Yet even as India contemplates delivering such a blow, it has to ensure that any retaliation by Pakistan does not escalate out of control and result in a war that sets back the country’s economic development by several years. Not to mention the danger of a nuclear conflagration that will have worldwide ramifications. The timing of such a strike is another constraint. With a general election looming in three months, anything the prime minister does will have a direct bearing on voting behaviour, and Opposition parties are bound to accuse him of playing to the gallery. So Modi has to weigh all options carefully before striking at Pakistan.

Just for a moment, let us presume that Modi, in his hour of reckoning, sought refuge in the war doctrines of three of the foremost military and political strategists of yore: Sun Tzu, Kautilya and Carl von Clausewitz. If he rifled through the Art of War written by Sun, the fifth century BC Chinese general, he would encounter these sage words: Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win. In the Arthashastra, which Modi is no doubt familiar with, Kautilya points out, Wars are based on three pillars: the military, the government and the people. There should be a harmonious balance between the three pillars for success in war. Flipping through the pages of On War’, the treatise written by 18th century Prussian general von Clausewitz, he would have paused at: No one starts a waror rather no one in his senses ought to dowithout first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war.

In reality, Modi, while shaping his strategy to combat the new threat, seems to have adopted most of the key strategies outlined by these three experts. Among the first things he did was to get not just the government and the armed forces but the nation behind him as Kautilya might have advised. That the prime minister’s war cry had resonance was evident from the huge crowds that attended the funeral processions of the 40 CRPF personnel who were cremated or buried where their families lived. Meanwhile, he asked home minister Rajnath Singh to brief the Opposition parties and got their support for unified action against Pakistan. As a first step of protest, India withdrew the Most Favoured Nation status for Pakistan.

Then Modi seemed to have heeded Sun’s advice of victorious warriors winning first before going to war. That meant getting the international community right behind India in its fight against Pakistan. Most powerful nations barring China were already convinced of Modi’s narrative on his efforts to have better relations with Pakistan before Pulwama happened. Since Modi came to power in May 2014, he, like his predecessor, had tried to rebuild relations between the two countries, but found the powerful Pakistan army constantly thwarting his efforts. He had invited the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif for his swearing-in, but within months the bonhomie had dissipated after Pakistan stepped out of line and engaged directly with the Hurriyat in Kashmir. Then Modi made an impromptu stopover at Lahore to attend a Sharif family wedding. But, within a week, there was a terror attack on the Pathankot air base that saw six personnel dead. Months later, when the JeM again struck at an army base in Uri killing 31 persons, including civilians, Modi decided that enough was enough. Within 11 days of the strike, the Indian army launched the surgical strike several kilometres inside Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and killed 40 terrorists and Pakistani soldiers. Relations between the two countries touched a low after that.

When Imran Khan became the prime minister of Pakistan in August 2018, the Indian government saw him as a rubber stamp of the Pakistan army. So Modi was cautious and stuck to his line of no talks till terror stops. Then, the Pakistan establishment caught the Modi government by surprise by offering to open a corridor of peace’ to the gurudwara at Kartarpur, the holy shrine of the Sikhs, to enable pilgrims to enter without visas and minimise travel time. Pakistan army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa made a prominent entrance at the function and later spoke of wanting peace with India. But that overture seemed designed to deceive. The timing of the Pulwama strike, though, remains a puzzle. The careful planning and the large amounts of explosives clearly indicate cross-border support and rules out a rogue strike. Was it because the Establishment thought it could cash in on the deteriorating situation in Kashmir and create widespread disaffection across India? Was Pakistan’s confidence bolstered by the fact that its war of attrition in Afghanistan was paying off and that the US needed it to strike a deal? And that both China and Saudi Arabia were solidly behind it and would thwart India’s efforts to isolate Pakistan? That therefore the Establishment could create a perfect storm?

Whatever the reason, the Pakistan government remained recalcitrant and remorseless after Pulwama. Khan resorted to the old Pak game of denial and demanded that India show proof of the involvement of terror groups based in Pakistan. In a bid to internationalise the situation, Khan made it clear that Pakistan would retaliate if India attacked it. But he seemed to have missed an opportunity to cool temperatures down by not condoling the deaths of Indian personnel in Pulwama and not showing any intention of moving against the Jaish. India’s external affairs ministry dismissed Khan’s assertions and upped the ante: We demand that Pakistan take credible and visible action against the perpetrators of the Pulwama terror attack and other terrorists and terror groups operating from areas under its control.

With Modi standing firm in his resolve to avenge the Pulwama deaths, the international community moved swiftly to try and avert an armed conflict. France, backed by the UK, Russia and the US, moved a resolution in the UN Security Council to proscribe Jaish chief Masood Azhar. China has been steadfast in blocking such a resolution in the past and it is not clear whether it will yield under sustained international pressure. On a parallel track, with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the intergovernmental body dealing with curbing terror funding and money laundering, currently meeting in Paris, France, backed by other countries, moved a resolution to retain Pakistan on the grey list. Such a move could ultimately lead it to being blacklisted and deny it funding by international agencies, including the IMF. With Pakistan desperately looking for foreign funding to bail it out of a balance of payments crisis and also to put its tottering economy back on the rails, if the move succeeds, it will deliver a hard blow to the Khan government. However, such a decision is likely only in October and Pakistan still has time to make amends and act. What would make the case even stronger is if India soon came up with clinching evidence to show Pakistan’s direct involvement in Pulwama.

Yet, it is not as if Pakistan is devoid of support or can be browbeaten into submission. China has high stakes in Pakistan, including the $40 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and has so far gone out of its way to back Islamabad in international forums, including at the UNSC. While the US government under Donald Trump has strongly condemned the Pulwama attack, and for the first time overtly recognised India’s right to take action against Pakistan in self-defence, it has plenty of other fish to fry. With Trump keen to cut down America’s role in Afghanistan, including pulling out troops, Pakistan is key to its plans to hammer out a deal with the Taliban and the current Afghan government. So while the US may not mind India turning up the heat on Pakistan, it will caution Delhi to not do anything of an extreme nature that could push the subcontinent to the brink of a major war. Pakistan has the backing of Saudi Arabia too, as was evident during the visit of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Islamabad where he signed deals worth $20 billion. When the Prince came to Delhi, he hoped that India and Pakistan would work out a way to de-escalate tensions.

Just as Clausewitz had advised, Modi and his team have to be clear about what they hope to achieve by employing military force against Pakistan. It could be, for instance, a blood-for-blood option, striking at a Pakistan security establishment across the LoC and killing more personnel than India lost in Pulwama, either through a surgical strike or through heavy artillery shelling. But a surgical strike is unlikely to deter Pakistan from going back to its bad old ways as has been seen in the past. Another option is to hit at Jaish’s capability by either killing Masood Azhar or his key deputies or targeting its infrastructure in Bahawalpur in Pakistani Punjab through a covert operation. But this is difficult to achieve given that Pakistan forces as well as the Jaish will be on full alert.

Overt options such as missile strikes, either through rockets or precision munitions delivered by airborne vectors of the Indian Air Force, on terror targets carry grave risks. Apart from the collateral damage to civilians, they are likely to see Pakistan retaliate in kind. As one expert says of this option, You are on the dangerous ladder of escalation that may be difficult to control and prevent an all-out conflagration. There are also severe economic and international consequences to such a development. The third option is that India goes all out to give the Pakistan army a walloping before the international community calls for a stand down and restores status quoby which point hopefully Pakistan would have learnt its lesson. That is the riskiest gambit of the lot as it could lead to a full-scale war that neither side wants (see The Kinetic Alternatives for details.) The real problem is that India still lacks a sustained long-term strategy to deal with Pakistan. Some experts suggest a policy of routinely mowing the grass’ rather than trying to defang Pakistan completely.

The Modi government should also focus on tackling the deteriorating situation in the Valley, something it has been unable to do despite having been part of a coalition government in the state. After Pulwama, the central government ordered security forces to come down hard not just on Jaish but on all militant groups in the Valley. But the government needs to look into the massive intelligence lapse that allowed a large quantity of RDX to be brought in and let a local resident slam an explosives-laden van into the CRPF convoy on a route that should have been thoroughly sanitised and security cleared. There should also be introspection as to why Kashmiri youth are willing to take the path of militancy in growing numbers. The central government must come up with a game plan on how to win the hearts and minds of the people of Kashmir. That would be far better protection against anyone planning mischief from across the border than any amount of chest thumping and muscle flexing.

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