India’s new template for counterterrorism

Do the Balakot strikes signal a new strategy?

Kapil Patil

Government and governance, International relations, National security | Asia, South Asia, The World

1 April 2019

After a long period of being on the defensive, India has finally begun to take an active stance against Pakistan-based terror groups while placing the onus of a potential nuclear conflict on Islamabad, Kapil Patil writes.

On 26 February, the Indian Air Force carried out an airstrike on terror camps belonging to Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), the Pakistan-based Islamist militant group near Balakot. The strike came 12 days after JeM claimed responsibility for attacking an Indian Central Reserve Police Force convoy in the Pulwama district in Kashmir that led to the death of 40 personnel.

The very next day, Pakistan launched a retaliatory airstrike in which, according to Indian authorities, both sides lost an aircraft each and Pakistan captured the pilot of India’s Mig-21 bison jet, Abhinandan Vathaman. These tit-for-tat attacks raised great concern amongst the international community which feared a nuclear conflict in South Asia.

Although things quickly de-escalated with Pakistan immediately releasing Vathaman, the crisis triggered an intense debate: did the Indian Government launch airstrikes merely to assuage domestic outrage, or has New Delhi finally found the missing piece to its counterterrorism strategy?

More on this: India's options for tackling terrorism

India has long borne the brunt of cross-border terrorism, but has never truly held perpetrators accountable for their actions.

Since both their nuclearisation in the summer of May 1998, the two South Asian neighbours have frequently come close to the brink of catastrophic stand-offs. The Kargil Conflict in 1999, for example, saw Pakistan’s Army, emboldened by its de facto nuclear capability, launching covert military operations within Indian territory.

Similarly, after terror attacks in 2001 on India’s parliament, the government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee ordered a full-scale mobilisation of troops along the border. Moreover, the series of terror strikes in major Indian cities as well as on military bases over the past two decades has led to growing calls to punish Pakistan.

Indian policymakers, however, have remained wary of launching a military offensive in fear of such conflict escalating into nuclear warfare. As a consequence, New Delhi hasn’t been able to deter jihadi groups and insurgency in Kashmir from launching terror strikes against its territory.

Over the past three decades, India has practically remained silent and has largely refrained from undertaking any overt military action against its attackers.

But since 2016, when it initiated a series of surgical strikes against a terrorist group based in the then Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, the Indian military appears to have been slowly overcoming its fear of ‘uncontrolled escalation’. Ultimately, it’s beginning to help its large conventional military power realise its full potential.

More recently, India has been sending a clear message to sponsors of jihadi terrorism in Pakistan. In what is seen as a major change in attitude, the Indian Air Force has been employing Mirage 2000 aircraft in Balakot to bomb terror camps suspected of housing JeM terrorists, trainers, and senior commanders.

More on this: War of words

India is unambiguously demonstrating its resolve to strike Pakistan should it fail to remove the terror camps that reside within its territory.

More importantly, the strikes signify India’s strong determination to hold Pakistan accountable for its alleged attacks despite knowing the potential risks involved.

They also reflect New Delhi’s confidence in its military to address Pakistan-based terror groups engaged in sub-conventional warfare and to punish those who have been nurturing and supporting them. The airstrikes apparently saw the Indian military deftly suppress Pakistan’s air defence, denying it the opportunity to even react. As a result, New Delhi successfully avoided any nuclear escalation during this period of conflict.

Some have suggested that the Balakot airstrikes were merely a means for the Modi Government to assuage its domestic audience in the lead up to the upcoming elections. Previous governments, however, namely the National Democratic Alliance government led by Vajpayee, have shown that there is no direct causal link between such pressure and meaningful military action.

On the contrary, the Modi Government seems to have taken a calculated risk to break free from constraints posed by a hypothetical escalation. It has even prepared itself for possible reactions from the international community by arguing Pakistan’s complicity in aiding and abetting terrorism. Pakistan’s military is currently under the spotlight for facilitating jihadi groups against India.

Had India responded to the terror strikes in 2001 or in 2008, it would have possibly been spared from the more recent of those that have in total claimed more than 21,000 Indian lives between 1988 and 2019. Risk aversion has not only restrained India from deploying air power, but has also enabled Pakistan-based terror groups to carry on with impunity.

More on this: How to build peace in South Asia

Critics may highlight the ‘non-military’ nature of the airstrikes and question whether they will have any influence at all. It must also be noted, however, that the speed at which the situation in Islamabad de-escalated might say something about Pakistan’s readiness to defend itself against India’s military.

In all probability, it appears likely that Balakot will not be a one-off airstrike. If anything, it has encouraged the Indian Military to explore new ways of dealing with its problems with Pakistan.

New Delhi finally seems to be consolidating a strategy that combines military action with other tools in its statecraft artillery while slowly learning the ‘intricate art’ of deterring sub-conventional threats under a nuclear overhang. By placing the onus of nuclear escalation on Pakistan, India seeks to limit its options.

To what extent the new strategy will change India and Pakistan’s relations remains unclear. What can be said for sure, though, is that New Delhi will no longer be a passive victim of terrorism.

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