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Balakot air strike: What can India do next?

By Ajai Shukla
March 12, 2019 14:47 IST
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'For Pakistan, the comfortable old calculations and certainties are no longer valid.'
'Strikes on Indian targets now carry a high risk of retaliation and escalation,' notes Ajai Shukla.

The captured Indian Air Force pilot is back home, cross-border firing on the Line of Control is reducing and India's military has publicly 'committed to maintaining peace and stability in the region'.

We can assume this crisis is winding down, although another attack like the one at Pulwama on February 14 could trigger fresh cross-border violence.

It is, therefore, worth taking a step back to examine how, and where, the strategic terrain has shifted as a result of India's pre-emptive strikes. At the same time, we must take careful note of what remains unchanged.


First, a seismic shift has taken place through New Delhi's ostentatious abandonment of 'strategic restraint'. Since the Pulwama attack, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has been telegraphing to India a plea to hold back and resolve matters through dialogue.

All through the crisis, Khan urged restraint, even after shooting down an Indian MiG-21 and capturing an IAF wing commander. The very next day, Khan offered to repatriate the pilot as a 'gesture of peace'.

While that brought him praise for statesmanship and maturity, it was hard to miss the change: Suddenly, the rational actor was the Pakistani leader. India's leader was the unpredictable one.

Pakistan's strategy, one that has been described as 'cultivated irrationality', lies in tatters on the floor.

India's 'strategic restraint' has given way to 'assured retaliation'.

It is hard to overstate the magnitude and ramifications of this change. Since 1947, India has played the rational and responsible actor in every confrontation with Pakistan.

It sent troops to Kashmir only after the maharaja signed the Instrument of Accession in October 1947. The next year, India agreed, despite its military momentum, to wind down the Kashmir war by referring the dispute to the United Nations.

In early 1965, so restrained was New Delhi during the skirmish with Pakistan in Kutch that President Ayub Khan concluded India would not have the stomach to confront a tribal invasion, or a Pakistani ground force intervention in Kashmir later that year.

The rational player theme was again evident in 1999, when India pushed out Pakistani infiltrators from Kargil while consciously restraining its aircraft and ground forces from crossing the LoC.

Through years of cross-border terrorism and militancy -- in Nagaland, Mizoram, Punjab, Kashmir, the Mumbai bomb blasts of 1993 and the 26/11 strike in 2008 -- India demonstrated restraint.

In 2001-2002, when the terrorist attack on Parliament provoked New Delhii nto mobilising its military, the rationality of Indian decision-makers brought the army back to its barracks without drawing blood.

Soon after, India developed the Cold Start doctrine that envisions Indian battle groups pouring into Pakistan as soon as a provocation occurs.

However, Pakistani forward deployment and its deployment of tactical nuclear weapons have held back rational Indian decision-makers from entering into this escalatory spiral.

All along, Rawalpindi (the Pakistan army's headquarters) has duped a rational New Delhi into believing that Pakistan would respond irrationally to any Indian punishment.

Pakistan assiduously created the impression it would counter Indian strikes with its own army, while stepping up the ante with 'sub-conventional assets' -- a euphemism for radical Islamist groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Tayiba.

Pakistan has repeatedly signalled that if this were insufficient to hold India, Pakistan would breach the nuclear threshold, starting with using its TNWs.

To be sure, India's nuclear doctrine mandated massive retaliation --an all-out nuclear attack, targeting major Pakistan cities -- but nobody in Pakistan believed that rational and responsible New Delhi would retaliate massively, given that Pakistan's surviving nuclear weapons would immediately riposte, taking both sides towards mutual assured destruction, with its fitting acronym -- MAD.

All this is now in the past, with India having demonstrated resolve, unpredictability and indeed a political appetite for punishing cross-border terror attacks.

India is now willing to deploy more than the longstanding options of 'fire assaults' and 'surgical strikes', which allowed Pakistan to impose counter costs in the same coin.

Instead, New Delhi could escalate to options where India is significantly stronger, such as air power and -- who knows -- perhaps naval power next.

For Pakistan, the comfortable old calculations and certainties are no longer valid. Strikes on Indian targets now carry a high risk of retaliation and escalation.

Second, India must ensure that its intent is supported by its ability. Regrettably, it remains disputed whether the Indian Air Force actually struck and destroyed the madrassa it targeted at Balakot.

The air chief protested that the IAF 'can't count how many people died', but nobody wants a precise body count. What India and the global community need to be conclusively demonstrated -- employing standard 'post strike assessment' done with aircraft cameras, satellite photos, unmanned aerial vehicles or ground agents -- is that India is not just willing, but also able, to strike its targets.

This is equally true for the IAF's claim to have shot down a Pakistani F-16, which also remains contested.

In these days of aircraft cameras and airborne command platforms that track every second of an engagement, it is appalling that the IAF is unable to muster convincing proof of an MiG-21 shooting down an F-16 -- which would be a David-versus-Goliath triumph.

If India intends to continue along the path of retaliatory strikes, this needs to feature higher in our tri-service doctrine, service strategies and equipping priorities.

Instead, these documents remain preoccupied with 'preparing for a two-front war', that most unlikely of contingencies.

Prioritising cross-border punitive strikes would create a robust capability for dealing in a measured fashion with major provocations, without risking a spiral into full-scale war.

Third, and perhaps most crucial, New Delhi must remember that the roots of the current crisis, like others before it, lie in the estranged landscape of Kashmir.

The hopelessness that drove a Kashmiri youth to offer himself as a Jaish suicide bomber is widespread, and could lead others down that path too.

While the origins of the Kashmir dispute go back to 1947, the last five years have seen an unprecedented spike in Kashmiri alienation.

For Kashmiris, the killing of Muslims by gau rakshaks , initiatives like ghar wapsi (re-conversion to Hinduism), regulations preventing Muslims from praying in public spaces, and the 'love jihad' bogey validate the two-nation theory, based on the idea that Muslims could never be safe in Hindu India.

Instead of the healing touch that is required, the government continues treating Kashmir as a security issue that is best crushed under the jackboot.

Despite this, violence levels have increased over the last five years, more youth are picking up the gun and, most worryingly, unarmed civilians are willing to be shot down while confronting security forces.

Yet not a single senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader has engaged in dialogue with Kashmiri separatist leaders.

As long as Kashmir simmers in anger, the potential remains for another attack that could kill dozens of security men and spark another crisis with Pakistan.

Only dialogue can douse the anger.

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Ajai Shukla