Need to set up assured deterrence against Pakistan

[ Suresh Chandra Mohanty ]

A quarter of a century back, over 500 personnel of the Indian armed forces made the supreme sacrifice,facing humongous challenges of treacherous terrain, unforgiving weather, equipment shortfall, lack of intelligence and operational restrictions, to restore the territorial integrity and honour of the nation during Operation Vijay in the Kargil sector. The tenacity, resilience, indomitable courage and sense of duty displayed by the officers and men during this unexpected adversity are part of military and national folklore. The best way the nation can pay its gratitude to these soldiers is to never allow a Kargil 2.0 to take place in any of its contemporary forms and manifestations because, as they say, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Studies and recommendations post the conflict, including the Kargil Review Committee and Group of Ministers’ recommendations have resulted in some pathbreaking structural renaissance in the national security architecture, and higher defence organisations and intelligence setup. These include the establishment of National Technical Research Organisation, the Defence Intelligence Agency, the Integrated Defence Staff, and the institution of Multi-Agency and Subsidiary Multi-Agency Centres for intelligence-sharing and coordination. The union military affairs department and appointment of the chief of defence staff were promulgated in 2020. However, seamless and synergised functioning of these organisations is still a work in progress. The evolution of an all-encompassing (military, economic, diplomatic and informational) national security strategy to facilitate intergovernmental coordination, however fluid and dynamic it may be, keeping with the rapidly changing global security framework, is the need of the hour.

It is now an established fact that Pakistan undertook such an ill-conceived misadventure with possibly three broad objectives. One: to interdict NH 1A leading to Leh and thence to Siachen to avenge its debacle in 1984, wherein India took control over the Siachen glacier. It took advantage of large gaps in the defences between Kaobal Gali and Chorbat La, a frontage of roughly 160 kms held by a brigade. During winters, some of the posts overlooking the LoC are vacated due to difficulty in sustenance. The area had remained dormant since the battle of Zoji La in 1948. Second: to impart impetus to dwindling militancy in the valley by drawing out troops which the Indian Army had to undertake to meet the new challenge along the LoC. Third: internationalise Kashmir as a nuclear flashpoint with the assumed capability to negotiate from a position of strength with the intruded land under its possession. The audacious and daring plan was masterminded by the then Pakistan chief of Army staff General Musharraf without consideration to politico diplomatic ramifications and buttressed by newfound confidence of nuclear deterrent consequent to tests carried out in 1998 in response to Indian nuclear tests. Further, the operational hollowness in the Indian armed forces severely dented its conventional asymmetry vis-√†-vis Pakistan, which presumed that any conventional response by India would be limited by time and space, especially by a risk averse caretaker government. The self-imposed operational restriction of not crossing the LoC, which the international community considered the de facto border between the two countries to garner international appreciation,only bolstered Pakistan’s belief of a subdued response. As a military strategy, a sectoral response in mountains with limited approaches only constricted available options besides being prohibitive in terms of casualties. Incidentally, concurrent deployment of conventional forces along the western borders and naval assets patrolling the North Arabian Sea acted as threat in being.

While Operation Vijay was a resounding success in eviction of intrusions causing acute military and diplomatic humiliation to Pakistan and even precipitating the sacking and exile of the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif, it did not result in any change in Pakistan’s strategy to perpetuate terrorism in India. Take the example of terror attacks on the J&K Assembly and the Indian Parliament in 2001, the Mumbai serial bombing in 2003 and 2008, Uri in 2016, and Pulwama in 2019. Though the surgical strike and Balakote aerial bombing in response to Uri and Pulwama appear to have sent a clear message of retribution, terror attacks aided, abated and sponsored by across the western border, albeit on a lesser scale,continues to take place to this day. Despite being the epicentre of terrorism, internal turmoil, economic morass and a government (sham democracy) sponsored by the military, Pakistan will continue to maintain its geopolitical relevance for vested interests as the recent engagement with the West and multiple bailout packages by the IMF (notwithstanding 15.4 percent increase in defence budget) would indicate.Whether it is the nuclear proliferation saga of AQ Khan, harbouring Osama Bin Laden, or nurturing the Taliban, which eventually forced the US to make a humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistan has continued to get away as long as it fulfils the larger geopolitical goals of the West. Its propensity to play mischief will continue till the Army continues to play an extraconstitutional role in its domestic and foreign policies. India continues to maintain a credible conventional superiority against¬†¬† Pakistan since the ’80s (notwithstanding the recent rebalancing of forces along the the northern borders)and believes that space for prosecution of war below nuclear threshold exists till substantial degradation of its war engaging potential, capture of value territory or PsW as an outcome of any all-out conflict. This has, however, not deterred Pakistan from using terrorism as an instrument of state policy backed, up by nuclear sabre-rattling against a debilitating conventional response. Post the attack on Parliament, large-scale mobilisation of troops along the western borders took place. It is a different matter that even the forces located close to the border had the capability to inflict punitive costs. This, however, did not extract any change of behaviour on the part of Pakistan.

There is, therefore, an imperative to reestablish a credible deterrence against a possible Kargil 2.0 through capability development, including infusion of technology (it can no longer be ‘fight with what you have’), training, deployment, strategic communication and, above all, an overt display of willingness for selective force application. Concurrently, the prevailing capability needs to be apportioned to mission-oriented objectives to derive politico-military end states. A terrorist act, however miniscule, which can be attributed to Pakistan’scomplicity, must invite a visible and calibrated response that should be punitive and be cost prohibitive. Layered escalation dominance through a cross-sector force application by specially designated task forces need to be instituted for multiple contingencies (escalate to deescalate). We may be overestimating Pakistan’s appetite for escalation than it is capable of. It may be recalled that during Operation Parakram, as a response to the attack on Parliament, when substantial forces were poised to slice through Pakistan’s southern flank (desert sector) in January 2002, the then president Mushrraf came down the podium to shake Mr Vajpayee’s hand as a gesture of reconciliation during the 11th SAARC Summit in Kathmandu. More recently, IAF pilot Abhinandan was repatriated within 48 hours of landing inside Pakistan territory when multiple targets deep inside Pakistan were within minutes of decimation through missile attacks as revealed by Mr Ajay Bisaria, the then high commissioner to Pakistan,in a recent interview with ANI.

The delay in use of air power during Operation Vijay due to delayed assessment of the magnitude of infiltration, varying perception of control over escalation and equipment shortcomings must be mitigated through joint planning, intelligence sharing and integrated training. Operationalisation of theatre commands is certain to ameliorate many of the shortcomings through comprehensive, coordinated and timely response matrices.

India today is far stronger economically, politically, militarily, and even diplomatically. There are vastly improved mechanisms for surveillance, intelligence, infrastructure and intergovernmental coordination. However, a reckless Pakistan, bedevilled by internal instability, cannot be expected to behave rationally, especially if coaxed by a belligerent northern adversary. Assured deterrence against such a neighbour, even with economic costs, will foreclose a repeat of Kargil. Development of deterrence may be costly; wars, however limited, will invariably be costlier.