The lines that have been crossed

Background: India-Pakistan relations, Border disputes, Line of Control (LoC), Terrorism, Uri terror attacks, Surgical strikes.

  • As the dust settles following the so-called September 29 surgical strike which witnessed the publicly acknowledged employment of Indian special forces across the LoC for the first time in over a decade, it is useful to take stock of the larger implications – what the operation does and does not mean for India’s broader strategic dynamic with Pakistan.
  • On the one hand, those heralding a new era where India has called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff will be disappointed: the operation did not fundamentally alter the strategic options available to India.
  • On the other hand, those decrying that the operation meant absolutely nothing are also wrong: it has very real implications for future iterations of this tragic and dangerous conflict dynamic, and indicates the degree to which domestic political pressure to do something in response to Pakistani provocations against even military targets is boiling over.
  • What are the wrong lessons to draw from the surgical strike? First, it does not show that India has called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. The strike does not mean that India can now conduct operations that significantly attrite the Pakistan military or seize valuable territory across the international border. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are real, and they impose strategic limits on what India can do.
  • Second, the surgical strike does not herald a new era of conventional retaliatory options for India. This was not evidence that India has a proactive strategy (popularly known as Cold Start) option available for deeper punitive strikes – either on the ground or with air and stand-off capabilities. The use of special forces was carefully planned and highly successful.
  • Third, and important, the strike in no way suggests that the government has abandoned strategic restraint as a general grand strategy towards Pakistan. There is a lot of confusion about what strategic restraint means.
  • Strategic restraint does not mean do nothing. It means responding in a way that does not potentially become strategically costly for India by risking a broader conventional war, which carries with it not only human and economic costs, but also the risk of nuclear use if the war spills across the international border.
  • By carefully framing the operation as defensive and pre-emptive, limited in time and scope, and avoiding targeting Pakistan Army personnel, the government squarely stayed within the parameters of strategic restraint. This was a strike with immediate tactical consequences, but it demonstrated significant strategic restraint by what it took great pains not to do: target the Pakistan Army.
  • So what, then, are the major implications of the surgical strike? First, although the surgical strike demonstrated immense strategic restraint, it suggests that visibly doing nothing militarily may no longer be domestically politically tenable.
  • Second, and relatedly, although the Indian national security establishment is often given a lot of grief – for one, was there adequate force protection at Uri, and why were the jawans not in fire-retardant tents? – it deserves a lot of credit for how this finely calibrated operation was conceived, planned, executed, and managed.
  • The Modi team needed to find a sweet spot between do nothing and abandoning strategic restraint, simultaneously satisfying the domestic political forces baying for blood while avoiding risking further escalation. It found that sweet spot and deserves acknowledgement for it.
  • Finally, the surgical strike shows Pakistan that it must now consider potential Indian responses in the future. Although this strike in and of itself was limited in duration and aims, it sets a precedent that could potentially have a growing deterrent effect on Pakistan.
  • Strategically, Pakistan must now account for potential Indian retaliation where the intensity is uncertain and this is perhaps the most enduring implication of strike.
  • Thus, the strike does have some very real long-term strategic consequences that are important to consider. The strike was reportedly highly successful at the tactical level, but it did not alter the fundamental strategic dynamic between India and Pakistan – nor was it intended to do so, for very good reasons.
  • And it remains to see how Pakistan will respond, if at all, which could touch off a dangerous escalatory action-reaction cycle. This is a conflict dynamic, after all, and the adversary always gets a vote.

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