After the terrorist strike in Pulwama, is war even an option?

Published - February 22, 2019 12:15 am IST

Jawans moving people to safety during a 
gunfight with terrorists in Pulwama on Monday.

Jawans moving people to safety during a gunfight with terrorists in Pulwama on Monday.


YES | Gurmeet Kanwal


Our conventional deterrence has failed. It is necessary to initiate strong military measures

The terrorist attacks in Pulwama, Pathankot, Uri and Nagrota, among others, are part of Pakistan’s low-intensity limited war on the Line of Control (LoC) since 1947-48 and its 30-year-old proxy war to bleed India through a thousand cuts.

Proportionate reaction

India should resist a knee-jerk emotional reaction to this grave provocation, which unquestionably crossed its threshold of tolerance, to satisfy an enraged public. Instead, the response should be part of a comprehensive long-term, national-level strategy to counter Pakistan’s proxy war. The aim should be to raise the cost for Pakistan’s deep state — the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) — for waging its proxy war, with a view to eventually making the cost prohibitive. The response should be proportionate and multidisciplinary in approach, comprising diplomatic, economic and military measures. It should include overt and covert actions.

What if miscalculation on either side leads to war? Military theorist Carl von Clausewitz theorised that war is an instrument of state policy. Today, some analysts believe that, because of the destructive power of modern weapons, war is no longer a viable option unless the most vital interests of a state are threatened.

The object of defence preparedness of an appropriate level is to deter war and, if deterrence breaks down, to fight and win. Since the victory over Pakistan in 1971, the Indian armed forces have succeeded in deterring a major war, with the exception of the localised Kargil conflict of 1999.

However, India’s conventional deterrence has failed to deter Pakistan’s proxy war and state-sponsored terrorism and it is now necessary to initiate strong military measures to prevent future terrorist strikes being launched from Pakistani soil. These measures should be carefully calculated to minimise the risk of escalation and must avoid collateral damage to the extent possible.

The military’s aim should be to inflict punishment on the Pakistan army deployed on the LoC and terrorist training camps and related infrastructure in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). For each new act of state-sponsored terrorism, the scale and the intensity of the punishment inflicted should be increased by an order of magnitude.

Military operations should include artillery strikes with guns firing in the ‘pistol gun’ mode to destroy bunkers on Pakistani army posts on the LoC with minimum collateral damage; and Smerch and Pinaka rocket and missile strikes with precision-guided munitions (PGMs) on brigade and battalion HQ communications centres, logistics infrastructure, ammunition dumps and key bridges on major rivers. Trans-LoC attacks by troops should be limited to raids by special forces and border action teams like the surgical strikes launched after the Uri military camp was hit in September 2016. Brigade-level attacks or larger infantry attacks must be avoided at least to begin with. The employment of fighter aircraft, particularly those armed with PGMs, launched from a stand-off range on the Indian side of the LoC is also a viable military option. As long as the international boundary in Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat is not crossed by Indian Air Force aircraft, escalation by Pakistan is unlikely.

Covert operations

Counter-proxy war operations should be supplemented by covert operations. Since the remaining roots of militancy are now in Pakistan and PoK, and Pakistan is not inclined to bring to justice the leaders of terrorist organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed, terrorists they call ‘strategic assets’, they must be neutralised through covert operations.

Gurmeet Kanwal is former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi


NO | Ajai Sahni


We have been spending next to nothing on strengthening our defence forces

The point is not the message which is to be sent, but whether we are capable of an effective and sustained campaign. You cannot wake up one fine morning and decide to go to war. You have to prepare for war.

State of preparedness

Last year, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence noted that 68% of our equipment in the defence forces was in the ‘vintage category’. It also pointed out that we do not have sufficient ammunition to support 10 days of war with Pakistan. We are supposed to have 42 squadrons in the Air Force, but have 33 which are operational, of which there are nine that should already have been phased out, which means they are being pressed into service well beyond their shelf life. So, we have roughly 24 squadrons when we should have had 42. There are comparable deficits across the board in all the armed forces. That is the state of our preparedness. If we continually invested in the defence forces, the option of war would have been real. But we have been spending next to nothing on strengthening our defence forces. We are in deficit in every aspect. Wars are not fought by men alone in the modern age. Of course, we have men out there who are willing to fight and are willing to take all the risks they are told to take. But that doesn’t mean they will prevail.

Let’s suppose we declare war. China is clearly with Pakistan and even if they just start massing troops on our eastern borders, what will we do? We have a two-front war doctrine on paper, but it is not backed by anything. Despite boastful claims to the contrary, we do not have the material capacity to fight a two-front war. Not only must we be prepared to fight a two-front war, we must have the capacity to prevail in such a war. Only then does war become an option. You can’t decide after a terrorist strike that you will go to war. You have to prepare for war. Then, if a situation like this arises, without boasting about it, you declare war.

Of course, there is this whole argument that Pakistan has a nuclear umbrella. But I don’t think that is a deterrent to war from our side. We also have a nuclear umbrella. I don’t see China trembling and saying India is a nuclear country, we must not do anything to provoke it. The nuclear issue is not an issue.

The decision is political

The capacity to prevail in a confrontation is an issue. If that is absent, talking of going to war is a waste of breath. Political leaders are running an electoral campaign, and by striking manly postures, they think they will win votes. But they are only going to be exposed. Nowhere in the world does the army decide to go to war. Political leaders do not say, we give the army a free hand. War is an act of political intent. The army fights wars. It does not decide whether or not to go to war. That decision is a political one, and this has already been made for us. It is made every year when we announce our Budget and make miserly defence allocations.

Today, even where we talk about specific acquisitions, these would only partially meet our requirements of 15 or 20 years ago, not our requirements today. So, how is war even an option? Of course, if we are forced, the armed forces will fight, but they would have to do so with both hands tied.

As told to Anuradha Raman

Ajai Sahni is Executive Director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi



IT’S COMPLICATED | Manmohan Bahadur


If we consider war, we must think rationally about its impact and the desired end result

Is the terrorist act in Pulwama an act of war? Is it akin to the 2001 attack on Parliament, which, being an attack on India’s symbol of democracy, was considered as one and Operation Parakram was launched? In one sense, the attack in Pulwama may not be an act of war because, though the number of brave Indians lost was far too many (and even one life lost is one too many), Parliament carries an indelible significance of India’s nationhood. However, the attack, if seen as a dare to India’s military power and to the Indian government’s writ, could be termed an act of war because its sheer audacity makes it a strike on India’s pride as a sovereign independent nation.

Nations cannot be reformed but managed. Germany and Japan are exceptions, but it took World War II, tens of thousands of lives, and trillions of dollars to make them democratic entities. The shrill cries for emasculating Pakistan so that it stops aiding terrorism from its soil are not grounded in reality. This also does not mean accepting the status quo of the past decades, with Pakistan-aided terrorists killing Indians on and off.

Issues to consider

Four basic issues have to be taken into account for taking a decision. First and foremost, what is the desired end state: destruction of the Pakistan army, which wields real power, or an action that buys a greater duration of peace? Second, if war is the solution, what would be the economic and social impact on India? Third, India has international support now, but would that be the case in a long-drawn-out affair? China will never dump Pakistan due to its large economic and geopolitical stakes in Islamabad. The U.S., though it has professed its strategic partnership with India, has made its exit from Afghanistan its first priority. It needs Pakistan in its talks with the Taliban and hence there are limits to its support. Russia, too, has its own interests in Kabul, especially after the American exit, and hence requires Pakistan as an intermediary. Thus, geopolitically, Pakistan has the upper hand in pulling the power strings. Finally, should cold, calculated logic decide the future course of action or should public pressure and electoral calculations be the catalysts?

The answer to the last question is simple, though vital: national interests override every other argument. The answers to the other questions are governed by the following facts. If escalation occurs through kinetic action, there would obviously be a loss of human lives — and India needs to be prepared for that. Here, the red herring of the nuclear factor needs to be removed. In terms of economic costs, the 1999 Kargil conflict made India poorer by many tens of thousands of crores (no official data are available and estimates vary greatly). More importantly, we lost 527 brave Indians trying to re-take those hills. Diversion of monies (and they would be substantial and long-drawn-out) towards fighting efforts would denude finance required for addressing the economic and social realities of India.

Some years of peace

So, is war an option? Of course it is, with the above points rationally thought through. Once the government decides to go down the kinetic path, the armed forces are ready. The ‘reformation’ of Pakistan vis-à-vis India is not possible but this may get us some years of peace. The peace dividend can be elongated by managing our diplomacy with other countries so that subsequently their acceptance of India’s just position serves as a deterrent to Pakistan’s inimical stance towards India.

Views are personal

Manmohan Bahadur is retired Air Vice Marshal, and Additional Director General, Centre for Air Power Studies

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