Rebalancing counterterrorism

The town of Balakot, which was targetted by the Indian Air Force on Feb. 26, 2019.   | Photo Credit: Satellite image: Google, DigitalGlobe, Landsat / Copernicus, CNES / Airbus via Reuters

How should India respond to the next terrorist attack sponsored by Pakistan? Future attacks are inevitable — the sponsorship of cross-border terrorism is a core tenet of Pakistan’s security strategy, even as Kashmiri militancy is increasingly dominated by radicalised locals. The BJP-led government has repeatedly declared that it will emulate Israel’s apparently successful strategy in responding to cross-border terrorism. But the government’s fetishisation of Israeli counterterrorism mischaracterises Israeli strategy. New Delhi risks overemphasising the showy but narrow role of military punishment, and it elides other elements of strategy, which Israel itself has embraced, that are critical to counterterrorism effectiveness.

India’s military responses in 2016 and 2019 were framed as attempts to impose costs on the Pakistani terrorist groups and their Army backers. But such minor actions have marginal material impact on the target; at best they may have killed fighters and temporarily damaged a training facility, although even those claims are contentious.

Uses of punishment

Strategies of punishment work when an actor can impose sufficiently heavy costs on the enemy such that the enemy is dissuaded from attacking again. But the Pakistan Army and its terrorist proxies have already shown a willingness to absorb enormous material costs, as their wars with India showed — and their anti-India ideology has only hardened over time. Minor cross-border military action will not exact a cost sufficient to change the adversary’s preferences or strategy.

Punishment can have other uses. Most particularly, it serves a domestic political purpose, shoring up popular support for the government — and the Modi government did use its national security credentials after Balakot to win the 2019 election. And as Israel has shown, it can be used to eliminate specific enemy capabilities, such as weapons manufacturing, although such tactics only work if they are enabled by exquisite intelligence and targeting, and even then the destroyed capabilities are likely to be reconstituted.

Punishment, then, never affords a resolution to a rivalry. At best, it allows the punisher to manage the ongoing conflict, and communicate diminishing patience with the adversary. On the other hand, it can also carry the risks of inadvertent escalation, especially if the punishment actions themselves are escalatory, like the Balakot strikes. And they can create a commitment trap, binding the government to a policy of retaliation, lest it be seen as weak in the next crisis. Thus, the next crisis will be shaped by the Balakot crisis and, with each side thinking it can safely escalate force, could be more dangerous.

An effective counterterrorism strategy

A more effective counterterrorism strategy goes beyond punishment. As Israel itself has shown, counterterrorism requires a balance, including at least three other lines of effort. First, it requires effective denial operations, to make terrorist attacks more difficult for the enemy. At the tactical level, this means simple adherence to security procedures — the attacks on the Pulwama and Pathankot air force base, for example, were costlier because of sub-standard force protection measures. Beyond security, this means addressing the grievances of the local population, which drive radicalisation. This requires managing trade-offs: heightened security measures since August 5 may help to control the population, but likely also exacerbate radical anti-India sentiment in Jammu and Kashmir.

Second, it requires shaping operations to incentivise the adversary to limit its attacks. Israel can use carrots and sticks in occupied territories, including economic development programmes or harsher security restrictions, but India lacks such leverage over the Pakistani Army and terror groups, and must rely on international actors. Thus counterterrorism must be synchronised with wider foreign policy, using harsh action through the Financial Action Task Force, or productive bilateral talks with China, to isolate Pakistan and make its strategy of supporting cross-border terrorism less appealing.

Third, it requires cultivating resilience, to reduce the political impact of terrorism. The BJP’s 2019 election manifesto declared a “zero tolerance” policy on terrorism. Such policies only serve to sharpen public fears and box-in their governments to respond aggressively to the next attack. Despite all its counterterrorism experience, Israel still suffers terrorist attacks, but most can be absorbed without generating public hysteria.

There is a place for punishment in counterterrorism, but the Modi government’s single-minded celebration of it yields primarily political benefits, rather than security. Effective counterterrorism requires a more comprehensive strategy. It requires a constant process of evaluation and adjustment – Israel does not have all the answers and relies on trial and error for different contexts. India should learn from Israel’s tragic experience, but make sure to learn the right lessons.

Arzan Tarapore is a non-resident fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research, and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University

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Printable version | Mar 7, 2021 12:38:16 PM |

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