THOSE WHO QUESTION the truth behind the Indian Air Force’s spectacular air strikes on terror camps deep inside Pakistan are unable to explain why Pakistan’s reactions were filled with confusion and contradictory statements— like they were after the US raid on Abbottabad—including that of their Prime Minister Imran Khan; the sheer audacity of the Indian air strikes had especially left Pakistan’s brass hats stunned. The inaction by India against several Pakistan-sponsored terror strikes over the past three decades—with the exception of the commando raids cross the Line of Control (LoC) in 2016, that came to be known as ‘surgical strikes’—had lulled Pakistan’s military establishment into believing that ‘war was not an option’ for India, since it could escalate into a nuclear confrontation. But India’s air strike has blown a hole through the Pakistani article of faith: that their nuclear arsenal was a protective shield against all their adventurism on Indian soil.
In hindsight, there is reason to believe that Delhi’s reluctance to respond with military force either after the Jaish-e-Mohammad attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001 and the massive military mobilisation thereafter or the Lashkar-e-Taiba attack on Mumbai in November 2008 had further emboldened Pakistan’s military hawks. Even during the Kargil conflict (1999), the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had drawn the line for the armed forces to respect the sanctity of the LoC. But Pakistan has repeatedly shown it doesn’t deify the LoC. Had Vajpayee (in 2001) and Manmohan Singh (in 2008) given our armed forces permission to respond on the lines that Modi did recently after the Pulwama attack in February, with at least air strikes on Pakistan’s terror machinery in the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (since all of Jammu and Kashmir, including PoK, is legally Indian territory), Pakistan would have had to rethink its strategy of using terrorism as an extension of its foreign policy.
And though India’s ‘strategic restraint’ then did get New Delhi universal applause, we also lost many more Indian lives in the bargain. This inimical guarantee of India’s reluctance to cross the self-imposed restriction gave immunity to the Pakistani ‘deep state’ that continued to bleed India. But the Indian air strikes on Balakot have changed that narrative forever. It has pierced through Pakistan’s nuclear umbrella, which had been used to push terrorists into India and use their so-called Jihadi soldiers to keep India on the back foot while the Pakistani armed forces strutted about their country as the ‘guardians of the state’. Their blackmail had held out for three decades even after thousands of Kashmiris and Indian soldiers had become victims of Pakistan’s ‘proxy war’ to wrest the Kashmir Valley away from India.
With the air strikes on Balakot India also has at least two other firsts to its credit. It is perhaps the first time a nuclear- armed country has resorted to the use of air power at targets in the territory of another nuclear-armed country. The other is the downing of a Pakistani F-16 fighter jet by a vintage 1960s model MiG-21 fighter. This has stunned the West and the US arms lobbies that want to push India into a deal to buy upgraded F-16s. Hence, their silence or denials about the F-16 being used by Pakistan a day after the Indian air strikes, as a face-saving attack on Indian military brigade headquarters near the LoC. India’s swift response to the Pakistani air armada led to the F-16 being shot down in aerial combat. Pakistani denials are both to save its face at home and to pacify the US, which apparently needs to give permission for the use of its equipment against another US-friendly country. The question India might want to ask itself is against which all countries could it use the $15 billion worth of military arms and platforms that New Delhi has recently bought from the US?
War is an expensive option and the Pakistani brass knows that the cost to them would be unbearable. While the Kargil conflict had cost an estimated Rs 5,000 crore a week, a current war would cost each side about Rs 6,000 crore a day
What makes Pakistan even more nervous is what India could do now—hence their excessive use of drones to keep a watch on Indian troop movements along the border—since the Indian military briefing where the missile parts of the F-16 were displayed. India has made it known that its forces are ready for all responses beyond the LoC with mechanised forces (that is, tanks and armoured fighting vehicles) and the Indian Navy is prepared to respond at various levels too. It may be noted that with a nuclear-powered submarine, India’s nuclear triad is now in place, and it gives Pakistan little room for manoeuvre. But unlike India, Pakistan’s options are limited and predictable. The Pakistan Army has repeatedly followed virtually the same plans every time. They envisage the use of irregular forces—a model fine-tuned by General Ayub Khan first in the 1960s—before they launch regular troops, all led by their army officers, into India, with an aim to wrest the Kashmir Valley from India. They did so in the 1947 and 1965 wars and again during the Kargil conflict. And they’ve done the same all these years in J&K in the hope that the ground will be readied for their regular troops to roll in.
In the mid-1980s, Pakistan’s military establishment led by General Zia-ul-Haq had concluded that it was impossible for Pakistan to win a conventional war against India or even to liberate parts of Kashmir to fulfil their long-standing ambition to avenge their humiliation, following the fall of Dhaka and the large-scale surrender of the Pakistan Army in 1971. The only other way Pakistan could ‘do a Bangladesh’ on India was to go beyond the established military narrative of fighting a conventional war like in 1965 and 1971. This was a plan Zia named ‘Op-Topac’, unveiled by him just before he passed away. It has become the basis of Pakistan’s longest-running military operation in J&K. It aims at the annexation of the Valley through an insurgency, alienation of the locals and their radicalisation, backed finally by a military invasion. The strategy of the Pakistan military establishment is to bleed India through cross-border terrorism, and by telling India and its leadership that if India’s military response did push Pakistan into a corner, then Pakistan wouldn’t hesitate to use all its nuclear bombs. In recent years, this claim has included the threats of the use of tactical nuclear weapons—that cover a limited area of a few kilometres—if Indian troops were to advance deep into Punjab, their strategic heartland and the home of most of Pakistan’s generals and its army.
But India knows that Pakistan’s generals are anything but stupid, and so, they wouldn’t blow themselves up. The essence of nuclear weapons is their ability to deter conflict and the chest-thumping assertions by Pakistani politicians that they have an equaliser against a bigger and superior Indian military shows they are ill-informed. Studies and war gaming over the past decades (in think-tanks abroad) have confirmed that the military brass of both India and Pakistan are most unlikely to even consider the use of their nuclear arsenal at the height of a military confrontation, as the Kargil conflict had shown. Moreover, war is an expensive option and the Pakistani brass knows that the cost to them would be unbearable. While the Kargil conflict had cost an estimated Rs 5,000 crore a week, a current war would cost each side about Rs 6,000 crore (roughly $1 billion) a day. Thus a week-long military campaign would wipe out all that there is in Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves. For India, such a cost to finally put Pakistan’s generals out of the terror business still might just be worth it.
What makes Pakistan even more nervous is what India could do now, hence their excessive use of drones to keep a watch on Indian troop movement along the border
However, for Pakistan the annexation of Kashmir through any means remains its long-standing ambition, not only as an article of faith and a binding adhesive for a country that is so deeply rooted and doctored in anti-India narratives, nothing short of the absorption of the Kashmir Valley will be acceptable to its public now. But more than Kashmiris, it is the waters of the Indus and its tributaries that were always coveted by Pakistan’s policymakers. Pakistan is hugely dependent on the waters of the Indus river system and recognising this vulnerability, Jawaharlal Nehru had signed a heavily one-sided Indus Waters Treaty with President Ayub Khan of Pakistan in September 1960. It gives Pakistan 80 per cent of the waters of Indus and its rivers, though it still complains of being squeezed by India, which strangely hasn’t even effectively used the 20 per cent of its waters that are its due. But now, following the Pulwama attack, the Indian Government has finally announced its intentions to at least do that, hoping this might put pressure on Pakistan to mend its ways. The waters of the Indus and its rivers however are not just needed by Pakistan but also by China, which now has begun building huge dams on the Indus in the PoK.
China’s strategic goal is to be, eventually, the most powerful country in the world, or at least on a par with the US. And the one way it intends to achieve that is through increasing the production of microchips that already control everything from mobile phones, pacemakers to geostationary satellites. To produce these in abundance, China needs enormous amounts of water—a 30-cm silicon wafer requires almost 10,000 litres of fresh water—and that China plans to get from the huge dams it is now building on the Indus in the PoK as part of the China- Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), that is China’s strategic gateway via the PoK and Pakistan into West Asia and Africa. Also, China occupies over 25 per cent of the territory of J&K and thus has been party to the dispute over Kashmir. No wonder then that Beijing still gives Islamabad the necessary diplomatic support, especially in the UN.
But the assumption that China would come out in support of Pakistan militarily, if India were to respond with more military action—after having exhausted all other diplomatic, economic and geopolitical options—is misplaced, even though China has made major investments in Pakistan through the CPEC and in the Gwadar port, plus in a few large dams on the Indus in the northern areas of the PoK. China has always been careful not to go against the vast tide of global opinion beyond a point, unless its own agenda is challenged, as in the South China Sea. No wonder it has now given its consent to a broad UNSC admonishment of Pakistan and its terror apparatus. Also, in the past China did not intervene in Pakistan’s favour either during the 1965 and 1971 wars or during the Kargil conflict, and may not do so now either. Even then, India’s long-term counter- terrorism strategy must build in diplomatic and trade measures to penalise China, which enjoys trade benefits in India.
But neither Indian air strikes nor pressure such as the threat of pulling out of the Indus Waters Treaty will be able to immediately discipline Pakistan. Islamabad’s weakest point is its current economic plight and it is looking for bailouts from the International Monetary Fund, despite grants from China, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, all of whom enjoy leverage over Pakistan. China and Saudi Arabia have strong ties with Pakistan’s military establishment, the main culprit in creating, nurturing and sponsoring terrorism against India, as also in Afghanistan and Iran. Thus to clip their wings, an Indian diplomatic drive against Pakistan must seek to stall any aid to this rogue state and convince the world to tighten the noose around Pakistan’s generals and check their vested interests in their country and abroad, like in the US and UAE. Unless that is done with sufficient vigour, Pakistan’s generals, like Myanmar’s, will continue to prosper, while their country slides deeper and deeper into a dark hole. And India alone cannot do that even if it resorts to another set of air strikes.