Doctrine of graduated escalation

Narendra Modi’s cautious, measured start has masked his discreet gradualism. Border and other provocations are moulding his policy approach, founded on the premise that preventing hostile actions hinges on India’s capacity and political will to impose deterrent costs as a response

October 15, 2014 01:33 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:29 pm IST

The India-Pakistan “peace process” has produced a lot of process over the decades but no peace. While India is a vibrant, buoyant nation, Pakistan remains a notion in search of a national identity. Yet, given Pakistan’s foundational loathing of India, many among Pakistani strategic elites still pine for India’s unravelling or at least Balkanisation.

In this light, the Pakistani military has again >escalated border tensions with India. Since the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks it scripted, it has initiated intermittent exchanges of fire along the Line of Control (LoC), including this summer and then in recent days. This month’s artillery exchanges along the LoC were unusual in terms of their ferocity and the sudden eruption in violence, resulting in the highest single-day death toll in over a decade.

Difficult road to peace In provoking a second series of firing duels along the LoC since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office, the Pakistani military establishment — which includes the rogue Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) — was doing more than using gunfire as cover to allow Pakistan-trained militants to infiltrate into India. It was also testing the resolve of >India’s new government while simultaneously undermining Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and derailing any prospect of a rapprochement with India.

Every time a Pakistani leader wishes to build better ties with New Delhi, his effort is undermined by the military masterminding a serious cross-border attack or terror strike. Indeed, it was during Mr. Sharif’s previous stint in office that a major Indian peace initiative — as symbolised by then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s bus diplomacy — collapsed spectacularly, with the bus itself getting hijacked allegorically to Kargil, triggering a war. This has served as a cautionary lesson on how the pursuit of peace can lead to war when one side’s military is not answerable to the civilian government.

The Pakistani military actually sought to test Mr. Modi soon after he won the national election. On the eve of his inauguration, ISI-backed militants stormed the >Indian consulate in Afghanistan’s western city of Herat . The Pakistani plan was to take some Indians hostage and bring India under siege just as Mr. Modi took office. The plan, however, went awry as Indian security guards at the consulate heroically killed all the attackers.

The U.S. blamed the Herat attack on the same ISI front organisation it held responsible for the 2008 Mumbai strikes — the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). The LeT’s leader, Hafiz Saeed, remains the Pakistani military’s darling, with his public life mocking America’s $10-million bounty on his head and the U.N.’s inclusion of him on a terrorist list.

The daring attack in Herat, 1,000 kilometres from Pakistan, must have had the ISI’s nod. The ISI’s “S” branch — tasked specifically with aiding and abetting >acts of terrorism in India and Afghanistan — handles the LeT, the Jalaluddin Haqqani network and other terror organisations. This shows that the ISI is itself a terrorist entity.

The ISI is searching for new tools and methods to bleed India. In this context, is this fountainhead of transnational terror now using Osama bin Laden’s close associate, Ayman Zawahiri? The aging Zawahri, who U.S. officials say is hiding in Pakistan, announced the formation of an Indian branch of al-Qaeda in a videotaped message released early last month. The 55-minute video, in which Zawahiri threatens terrorist strikes across India, indicates that he is not holed up in some mountain cave but ensconced in a safe house, as bin Laden was.

Pakistan’s internal dynamics The ISI’s war by terror is a reminder that the scourge of cross-border terrorism emanates more from Pakistan’s whisky-sipping generals than its rosary-holding mullahs. The real jihadists are the self-styled secular generals, who have reared the forces of jihad and fathered the LeT, the Taliban and other terror groups. In fact, Pakistan’s descent into a jihadist dungeon occurred not under civilian rule but under two military dictators — one (Zia ul-Haq) who nurtured and let loose jihadist forces, and another (Pervez Musharraf) who took his country to the very edge of the precipice.

Another reminder is that India-Pakistan relations will be shaped largely by Pakistan’s internal dynamics, especially its civil-military relations. Although it is in India’s interest to help strengthen Pakistani civilian institutions, Pakistan’s civil society remains too weak to influence the direction of ties with India. In the absence of a structural correction to Pakistan’s historically skewed civil-military power equation, a peace dialogue with India only encourages the Pakistani military to carry out cross-border shootings, ambushes and acts of terror.

Mr. Modi and Mr. Sharif come from the political right and enjoy parliamentary majority. Both are business-oriented and eager to revive flagging economic growth at home. Yet the expectations raised by Mr. Sharif’s presence at Mr. Modi’s inauguration proved false because they failed to factor in the role of a powerful, meddling third party — the Pakistani military, which holds virtual veto power over any fundamental change to the India-Pakistan dynamic. This party is simply not ready to allow better bilateral relations because that will undermine its extraordinary power and privilege in Pakistan.

It is not an accident that this month’s border provocations by Pakistani forces followed a power struggle in Pakistan that culminated with Mr. Sharif’s wings being clipped and the military reasserting authority in foreign policy. Mr. Sharif has emerged as a diminished figure and the main loser from a crisis triggered by street protests that were tacitly backed by the army and the ISI. With the military back in the driving seat without staging an overt coup, Pakistan’s democratic transition has again been disrupted.

Such has been Mr. Sharif’s weakening that he not only had little say in the recent appointment of the new ISI chief, but also his government, at the behest of the military, has sought to re-internationalise the Kashmir issue. The intensity of ceasefire violations indeed was designed to help shine an international spotlight on Kashmir and also demonstrate as to who is in charge of Pakistan’s foreign policy.

Mortar-for-bullet response Mr. Modi’s cautious, measured start has masked his discreet gradualism. Border and other provocations are moulding his policy approach, founded on the premise that preventing hostile actions hinges on India’s capacity and political will to impose deterrent costs in response to any aggression. In Mr. Modi’s policy of graduated escalation, pressure on the adversary begins at low levels and then progressively increases in response to the target’s continued provocations and aggression.

There was no Indian reprisal to the Herat attack, and India’s response to the summertime border shootings was circumspect. But, in keeping with the doctrine of graduated escalation, this month’s Pakistani machine-gun fire along the LoC brought a heavy response, including retaliation with 81-mm mortars, which have a range of up to five kilometres. Mr. Modi wasn’t exaggerating when he said publicly, “Pakistan has been taught a befitting lesson.”

A peace dialogue between India and Pakistan only encourages the Pakistani military to carry out cross-border shootings, ambushes and acts of terror

The mortar-for-bullet response suggests that India’s policy of appeasement since 2003 is officially over. Indeed, to underscore that times have changed, the Modi government was quick to scrap Foreign Secretary-level talks in August after the Pakistani High Commissioner in New Delhi defiantly met Kashmiri secessionists. For Islamabad, meeting Pakistan-backed Kashmiri separatists was “business as usual,” but for Mr. Modi’s government, such interaction was simply unacceptable.

Mr. Modi is showing he is no Vajpayee, whose roller-coaster policy on Pakistan traversed through Lahore, Kargil, Kandahar, Agra, Parliament House and Islamabad, inviting only greater cross-border terrorism. And Mr. Modi is clearly no Manmohan Singh, whose peace-at-any-price approach was founded on the naive belief that the only alternative to do nothing in response to terror is to go to war. So, whether it was the Mumbai attacks or a border savagery, such as a captured Indian soldier’s beheading, Dr. Singh responded by doing nothing.

The real choice was never between persisting with a weak-kneed policy and risking an all-out war. Indeed, that was a false, immoral choice that undermined the credibility of India’s own nuclear deterrent and emboldened the foe to step up aggression.

The Modi government, by building a range of options, including to neuter Pakistan’s nuclear blackmail, is indicating that Pakistani aggression will attract increasing costs. If the ISI is planning new attacks in India, with the intent to fob them off as the work of al-Qaeda’s supposed new India franchise, it can be sure that it will invite an Indian response imposing serious costs on the entire Pakistani security establishment.

Mr. Modi is clearly signalling that India’s response to the Pakistani strategy to inflict death by a thousand cuts will no longer be survival by a thousand bandages, but punitive so as to bolster deterrence and mend conduct. Given that the “do nothing” approach allowed India to be continually gored, prudent gradualism has been a long time coming.

(Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of Water, Peace, and War .)

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