Pulwama to Balakot – Myths, Realities and Challenges

The larger strategic picture of evolving subcontinental geopolitics remains blurred in some of the myths, realities and challenges that merit a review

Issue: 2 / 2019By Lt General A.B. Shivane (Retd)Photo(s): By Dassault Aviation
Time and again, the iaf Mirage 2000 has proven its mettle

A lot has been spoken and written on the “Indo Pak Dynamics 2.0” and the global impact, post the Pulwama terrorist attack 2019. However most of the discourses have missed the wood for the trees to see the larger strategic picture and geopolitical realities. The journey from Pulwama to Balakot and beyond has certainly recalibrated, though not necessarily brought a paradigm shift in the global geostrategic canvas in general and Asia in specific. The narrative of “Naya (New) Pakistan” being exposed by the reality of “Ubharta (Rising) India” and its transmuted strategic culture is a reality but possibly insufficient to turn the tables of Proxy War. All the same it has been a welcome curtain raiser of the hopeful evolution of a National Defence Strategy for India. The Indian response was befitting but impact limited to possibly a welcome breather and an uneasy calm. India “Hit Hard” and “Hit Where it Hurt”, but perhaps not enough to make the hurt last. The logical path for India thus lies in not allowing the hurt inflicted to heal till its mutilation brings about peace and tranquility in the region. Meanwhile the journey from Pulwama to Balakot has exposed the continental real politik’s and the emerging global geopolitical canvas which must define India’s way ahead.

Emerging Continental Strategic Security Canvas

The transactional trajectory of Indian response strategy from Risk Aversion and Strategic Restraint of 26/11 to Risk Aligned and Symbolic Retribution post Uri to Risk Acceptance and Strategic Coercion post Pulwama, has incrementally reformatted the Asian strategic security calculus and global security paradigm. Pakistan was only an irresponsible enabler whose Pulwama misadventure acted as a catalyst to demonstrate to the world emergence of a rising India, which the world had not anticipated. In the bargain Pakistan exposed chinks in its armour and its strategic vulnerabilities, irrespective of playing the card of de-escalation well. Balakot marked India shedding its status quo and past strategic inertia on matters of national defence and strategic autonomy. Its new normal exhibits certainty of response even in the fog of adversary’s traditional deniability with uncertainty of intensity and medium, irrespective of the strategic restraints. It demonstrated the nations resolve, strong political will and multi domain military capability for a comprehensive punitive response to national security threats. It effectively showcased its superior military capability and professional acumen, creating incremental space for escalatory force application, irrespective of the professed low nuclear threshold fallacy of Pakistan. Indeed, it has shed its self-imposed restraint of inviolability of erstwhile sacred spaces, sanctity of minimum force application and differentiation between non-state and state actors. India has strategically dislocated Pakistan psychologically, physically, temporally and functionally. Does this mark the evolution of Indian Cold Start Strategy 2.0 with preemption, dislocation and disruption as its operational tools and maneouvre warfare as its war fighting philosophy? Only time will tell but not much remains to debate its merit.

The challenge however lies for future Indian governments to sustain and balance this new defence strategy and its escalatory matrix, with other facets of national strategic security and economic growth

At the diplomatic level from non-alignment and strategic heteronomy to proactive multi alignment and strategic autonomy is the new mantra. Balakot was a major diplomatic success at the global arena in successfully exposing Pakistan’s proxy war and showcasing India’s resolve to preserve and safeguard its national interests independently. Indeed, India has evolved as a mature and major global player who demands respect and recognition in the comity of nations. Economically too, its enmeshed geo-economics and stature as one of the largest growing economy, is driving incremental multilateral engagements even with Pakistan’s all-weather ally China, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. From sixth largest global economy to among the top three economies over the next decade is seen as a reality by the world. India’s geography, natural resources and economic growth trajectory are increasingly seeking global attention and integration. Its strategic location and geo-economics as the driver of geopolitics is thus a foregone conclusion. India has emerged far more important to the world than a rogue Pakistan, irrespective of Afghanistan new great game and Chinese hegemony.

The challenge however lies for future Indian governments to sustain and balance this new defence strategy and its escalatory matrix, with other facets of national strategic security and economic growth. Hyper-nationalism by way of public pressure and political compulsions cannot be the sole driver of strategic decision making. Nationalism is a positive attribute, but hyper nationalism at times tends to keep the nation perpetually in conflict, suppresses constructive criticism and surpasses socio-economic responsibilities. National defence is the most critical facet but only one subset of national security and economic growth which must also prosper. The real danger however lies in mixing national defence with politics, public emotion and vote banks, more so with 2019 being an election year. “Nation Above All” and not “Politics Above All” must define the strategic culture of the world’s largest democracy.

Myths, Realities and Challenges

Having said that there are some myths, some realities and larger challenges that get blurred in such strategic confrontations with clutter of hyper nationalism, self-assuring perceptions of nations and political discourses. So also, is the case of the journey from Pulwama to Balakot and beyond. India deservingly takes pride in the transformed retribution strategy and resolute national resolve. Pakistan on the other hand takes solace in the traditional deniability, follow up ceremonial counter strikes as a face saver and the perceived global appreciation of conflict de-escalation. However, the larger strategic picture of evolving subcontinental geopolitics remains blurred in some of the myths, realities and challenges that merit a review.

Myth No. 1: Balakot Bombing will Eliminate the Specter of Proxy War

Balakot was an important landmark event, but the reality is that, by itself it is insufficient to dilute the legitimacy of the Pakistan Army and the bonhomie with its strategic assets to wage proxy war against India. Proxy war has a much larger historic baggage and strategic dimension than just destruction of terrorist camp. India-Pakistan animosity is deep-rooted in incompatible national identities, divergent geopolitical interests and conflicting strategic culture since their birth. The quest for equality, revisionist culture and primacy of Pakistan Army as the guardians of the ideology of the state are the foundational edifice of proxy war against India. Thus, Balakot may have raised the cost of proxy war but it is inadequate by itself for India to stymie the proxy war. Besides Pak sponsored proxy war helps China to hedge India and thus has larger than Pak dimension and support. Militarily India must widen the asymmetry in sub conventional, conventional and strategic domain with Pakistan which would also make sense in decreasing the asymmetry with China. The tools of information warfare, C5ISR and non-contact warfare which are presently nascent must be given due impetus by India. Pakistan must be kept embroiled on the LC by aggressive actions as part of offensive defence and internally through covert actions to bleed its resources and foster instabilities. Kautilya had wisely said “Your neighbour is your natural enemy and the neighbour’s neighbour is your friend”. India needs to exploit these leverages and coordinate with Iran and Afghanistan to create three fronts for Pakistan besides weakening its influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s political, social and religious, economic, ethnic and security fault lines present an additional prospect for creating another half front and attendant insecurity to CPEC. Diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions including blacklisting by FATF and denial of IMF loan to Pakistan by global community must be orchestrated and calibrated by India. China and Saudi Arabia would be forced to direct Pakistan to review its terror policy as they cannot be a permanent fund provider. India’s aim must be to cripple Pakistan’s fragile economy till it takes verifiable and concrete actions against home grown terrorist organisations. The present situation thus presents an opportunity for the world to reform or perish this rogue nation.

It is now time to review India’s traditionally deferential policy towards China through a realistic and larger prism of strategic alignment to contain Chinese hegemonic growth

Internally Pakistan needs to reflect on its vision, its ways and means to be the “Naya Pakistan”. It must decide that either it becomes a mature and respected democratic entity with a thriving economy or it continues to dig its own grave into a debilitating contradiction of its internal and external conflict. It must address its chronic insecurities, revisionist culture and grand ideological ambitions that generate high level of conflict for itself, the region and the world. Its trajectory cannot be based on these revisionist policies which threatens the very existence of its own state. It’s time to for Pakistan as a nation to question the present narrative and change the fundamentals. The people of Pakistan must empower themselves and become the Center of Gravity of Naya Pakistan. In the meantime, India must not loosen the noose. Pakistan has to be tackled on multiple platforms by India and the world players, comprehensively through a “Strategy of Compellence” by military humiliation, diplomatic coercion and economic strangulation. It may be a long wait but the opportunity to stymie Pakistan abetted proxy war by a comprehensive national strategy by India is now or never.

Myth No. 2: Curbing Pak Proxy War will Change the Narrative of J&K

The reality is that there is a problem of Kashmir which has an external dimension and a problem in Kashmir which has an internal dimension. Both these dimensions are conveniently harmonious yet exclusive in their genesis and treatment. Thus, eradication of one may act as a catalyst but not necessarily change the narrative of the other. Stymieing proxy war is to do with denying both physical and cognitive space to Pakistan and their revisionist ideology of Fractured India. However, the main challenge for India lies in the addressing the internal dimension while denying space for the external dimension. Kashmir needs a new narrative and bold policies complementing the kinetic measures. Kashmir cannot be seen predominantly as counter terrorism through a security lens, ignoring the larger challenge of insurgency without addressing the apprehensions and distrust in the cognitive domain. The problem in Kashmir is to do with lack of integration in J&K and integration of people in One India ideology. The psychological barriers of Banihal and Zojila must dilute the geographical perceptions while enhancing the demographic expanse. The elimination of terrorist must be complimented with the perception management and the arduous process of good governance with centrality of youth being the primary stake holders. The process of counter-radicalisation must begin with detoxification of educational system, clamp down of terror funding, terminating political ambivalence and restoring the demography of the state. It may be a tall order and time consuming but realities cannot be pushed under the carpet. We need to recognise that Kashmir needs a radically new narrative that may finally involve revoking Article 370 and 35A to fully integrate it with India. The Indian constitution and a Presidential decree allows for the same provided we exhibit the same strong political will, hard decision making and whole of the nation approach as exhibited for Balakot.

Myth No. 3: Wuhan Bonhomie has Mellowed Pak - China Tango

The reality is that in the world of geopolitics there are no permanent friends or enemies but only national interests. China’s foreign policy stances are inherently contextual and long term interest-driven, rather than by adherence to principles. So, was the dragon’s journey from Dhoklam to Pulwama to Balakot and beyond. Chinese incremental prodding at Dhoklam, India’s perceived “China Reset” at Wuhan and the reality of backstabbing by Chinese “Pakistan Pre-set” at UNSC on designating Masoor Azar as a global terrorist are stark realities. Pakistan is certainly far more strategically important than a competing India for China. Chinese great wall will always block international isolation of Pakistan for preservation of its national interests. India needs to realise the limits of its relationship with China and recalibrate its China narrative. The Chinese technical hold in the UNSC committees shows that China-Pakistan nexus is strong and will continue to grow in the future as well. Certainly, China cannot allow its economic interests by way of its signature project CPEC to fail, nor can it see threats to its CPEC workers or internally allowing Xinjiang to boil by antagonising Pakistan terror outfits. It cannot also fathom India’s rise and global recognition especially in the Indo Pacific and as such encourages Pakistan’s pugnacity against India. China also see’s Afghanistan through the lens of Pakistan, especially the new great game to dominate the geostrategic and economic space post US withdrawal. Thus, China’s military might, expanding economic interests, geographical proximity cum boundary disputes, and assertive policies pose challenges to India’s security and global interests. It is now time to review India’s traditionally deferential policy towards China through a realistic and larger prism of strategic alignment to contain Chinese hegemonic growth. Let realpolitik communicate to China that Wuhan bonhomie and dragon backstabbing cannot go hand in hand. Indeed Pak-China tango will continue to be on the front stage of global geopolitics while the Chinese checker will continue to keep India engaged. In turn India’s Chanakya Niti must checkmate the strategy of Sun Tzu.

History presents an opportunity to India, Pakistan and the world. It must not be lost. The proxy war must end once for all. Peace, tranquillity and prosperity for all must prevail in the subcontinent. Kashmir must indeed become Jannat-e-Kashmir for India and be fully integrated as J&K in India, as have other states of the Union. In the meantime, the nation must be patient, united and ready to sacrifice temporary calm for lasting peace. Is it a dream or a reality? Only time will tell.