Three shades of denial

Illustration: Surendra  

Denial seems to be everywhere these days. Sceptics profess a healthy instinct to question everything, not least the utterances of those in power. Others lament what they see as an increasingly post-factual age, where sowing doubt and spreading disinformation has become a strategic art in itself, mastered by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Outlandish claims stand through sheer force of articulation, whether > Donald Trump’s disavowal of his birtherism or, in my home country, Brexiteers’ wild promises of repatriated cash from Europe. But it may be worth unpacking the different flavours of denial witnessed in the past few days in India, for they have very different implications.

A week ago, on the morning of September 29, India’s Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) stated that the >Indian Army had conducted “surgical strikes” on sites “along” — not across — the Line of Control (LoC). That remains the only explicit claim made by the government, though ministers have referred to troops crossing the LoC. Every other splash of colour, from the depth of penetration, to the calibre of rockets employed, to the use of satellites, lacks the imprimatur of a public statement whose withdrawal would cause serious embarrassment and a loss of credibility.

On the days after

As we saw in the hours and days after the raid on Abbottabad in 2011, background briefings throw up inconsistencies and hagiographic embellishments, even where the basic facts are roughly correct. Osama bin Laden did not use his wife as a shield nor brandish a gun, both details that were widely reported on May 2. After > India’s raid in Myanmar in June 2015, anonymous sources similarly duelled over details. It is telling that some of those most sceptical about the details of India’s strike are journalists with decades of experience with the armed forces, familiar with the idiosyncrasies of off-record sources, and with a keen sense of how the fogs of war and politics can combine.

At the same time, there are reasons to be even more sceptical of Pakistan’s insistence that nothing, beyond routine shellfire, occurred overnight on September 28. Pakistan’s case appears to be that the LoC is impermeable, but we know this to be nonsense from the history of tactical raids in both directions. Such raids were commonplace before 2003, and some resumed a decade later. Pakistan itself has acknowledged some of these in its complaints to the United Nations, and Indian officials have tacitly owned up. Given that many of them painted India in a less than favourable light, they can hardly be written off as PR stunts. If that is so, then the idea of shallow incursions, perhaps a trivial distance across the LoC if not the claimed several kilometres, should be intrinsically plausible. Pakistan has ferried journalists to the spots where it says nothing occurred, and local residents’ accounts are not without value, but we have seen from its handling of drone strikes that such areas can be quickly sanitised and manipulated by the army. Moreover, Rawalpindi’s flurry of military activity — understandable, indeed prudent, in the circumstances — belies its public insouciance.

New Delhi’s modest public claims deserve scrutiny and corroboration, but those scornful of the very possibility of a raid are wilfully ignorant of LoC precedent. No matter. This sort of denial is a stabilising force. India made a deliberate choice to help Pakistan save face. It framed its strikes as pre-emption rather than reprisal, focussed on militants over the Pakistan Army, and kept public statements to a minimum. Video footage or photographs would give credibility to India’s claims, but they would also make it harder for Pakistan to disclaim the need for a response. The government may yet succumb to temptation, but discretion is often the better part of de-escalation. Had India acted as it did after the Myanmar raid, it is difficult to imagine that National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval and his Pakistani counterpart Nasser Khan Janjua would have found the political space to speak and agree to a reduction in tensions, as they have done.

Denial through hyperbole

This brings us to a second sort of denial. If denial through disavowal is steadying, then denial through hyperbole is less so. “Indian troops were like Hanuman who did not quite know their prowess before the surgical strikes,” boasted Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar. His remarks were both crass and wrong-headed. He too is in denial — about the meaning of the strike. The raid is plausible precisely because of its precedent. It did not cross Pakistani nuclear redlines, because it was in keeping with the hitherto private signalling that went on between the front line forces over the past two decades, rather than some act of unparalleled mountain-lifting

True, published accounts suggest a novel degree of integration between the human and technical intelligence, the army, and the political leadership. If corroborated, this is an important development, given what the Kargil Committee Report described as the “lack of inter-agency coordination [and] lack of coordination between the Army and the agencies”. The reported use of satellite imagery is a mark of how significant India’s emerging space capabilities may come to be. And the geographic scope of the raids, a couple of hundred kilometres apart from each other, would also be indicative of careful preparation and coordination. But these refinements simply aren’t fundamental rupture with the past, at least not in terms of the cost imposed on Pakistan. And that, surely, is the point.

There is a qualitative difference between a low-level, tactical raid on minor outposts a short distance from the LoC and a large-scale assault on the headquarters of the organisations that continue to attack India. These are deeper inside Pakistan, closer to major population centres, and far larger in size. They cannot be reached on foot, as was done last week according to the most detailed accounts. While India has some night-flying capability, the introduction of airlift on a meaningful scale presents more severe challenges. India reportedly kept attack helicopters ready at four bases in Kashmir in case the September 28-29 operation turned sour. Would such safety nets be available if commandos were near the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s headquarters in Muridke, 30 km inside undisputed Pakistani territory? “No helicopters, no integration, no intelligence, no training and no operational concept,” claimed Rear Admiral Raja Menon on the morning of the raid. Set aside the braying triumphalism, and it remains too early to conclude that he was wrong. Intelligence on launch pads is not the same as intelligence on the movements of Lashkar-e-Taiba leaders. Airlift to the LoC isn’t the same as getting stealthily across it.

Instrument of the state

And then we come to a third sort of denial, which is perhaps the most dangerous of all. The chest thumping in some parts of the Indian media is dangerous, because it exaggerates capabilities, underplays risks, and substitutes strategy with emotion. But far worse is the systematic denial that the terrorist groups that operate on Pakistani soil are, at root, instruments of the state.

When Pakistan’s Defence Minister Khawaja Asif described the Uri attack as an “inside job”, “self-generated by India”, he was feeding a ruinous culture of self-deception that should concern us far more than an over-caffeinated Indian news anchor confusing reality with Rambo. Freud would have had little trouble grasping Mr. Asif’s classic psychological projection: attributing to others that which can’t be accepted as part of oneself. This sickness is contagious. Monday’s joint resolution by Pakistani parties — including the PML, PPP and MQM — furiously rejected “false claims of cross-border terrorism”. So there we are. India conducted a non-existent raid to avenge a false flag attack perpetrated by non-existent terrorists who, if they existed, would have non-existent ties to the state. It’s enough to provoke an existential crisis in the best of us. Denial may have spared us escalation, for now, but it continues to sow the seeds of a larger crisis still.

Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London.

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