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Strategies for Pulwama-like attacks trace back to ISI HQ: Christine Fair

C Christine Fair | Photo: Wikimedia Commons
in an interview that terrorist attacks like Pulwama will continue because this is the only way Pakistan can show India that it is not defeated, no matter how powerful India becomes. Edited excerpts:

Do you think successive Indian governments’ strategic thinking has been to bide time and avoid a large confrontation with Pakistan in the interest of economic growth?

Indian governments do not say so. Unlike the US, India does not have a written National Security Strategy (NSS). Each American President has to issue an NSS and this is the standard by which informed citizens can monitor the budget and other applications of national powers. Few countries have NSS documents. These are helpful documents, as they effect a public debate and provide a road map for the elected government.

So, though one could not be certain, one could infer a general avoidance of confrontation from the Indian government's behaviour. And, it seems to be a constant since the post-Kargil time.

India understands that if it can keep focusing on its economy, it can continue increasing its defence allocation in real terms, with its overall economy continuing to grow. That will allow India to outgrow the Pakistan threat.

For its part, Pakistan understands that it has an army that cannot win the wars that it starts, and nuclear weapons that it cannot use, so it must demonstrate that India's hegemonic goals are not unchallenged. This means Pakistan must attack India through proxy actors under its nuclear umbrella, just to demonstrate that India has not defeated it or forced it into accepting the status quo.

In other words, these terrorist attacks will continue because it is the only way Pakistan can show India it does not stand defeated, no matter how powerful India becomes.

As for India, there is some value in its strategy: More people die of roads accidents in a day than those from terror in a year. But, car accidents cannot be a political issue; terror attacks can be.

But, with India's people and polity growing less and less tolerant of terrorist attacks, how long can such a strategy remain viable?

This, I cannot say. But I agree with your general observation. Indians have been exceedingly tolerant in ways that Americans have not been. It also seems that Indians can tolerate attacks on civilians more than they can on their armed forces. When Pakistani proxies attack the armed forces, there is a sustained outrage and calls for a response are more forceful.

What would possibly be the consequence if India stuck to its earlier strategic behaviour?

There is nothing inherently wrong in that strategy. However, by not imposing costs upon Pakistan for its actions, India is doing nothing to compel Pakistan to stop.

India, like all democracies, needs a discussion about what is in its best interest — continuing with a strategic restraint, tolerating terrorist attacks in favour of growth, or attempting to deliver a final solution to the Pakistan problem. That latter would require a decisive defeat of Pakistan, like in 1971, and dismantling of its army. Is it even possible given the constraints of a short war and nuclear weapons? I doubt.

Is there a middle way — perhaps a strategic restraint, avoiding any big confrontation, but also incorporating elements of sub-conventional deterrence? That might be optimal; it would preserve the economic utility of a strategic restraint and also punish Pakistan for its misdeeds.

India does need to respond. And the response that best satisfies the democratic demand for retaliation while diminishing Pakistan's second-mover advantage would involve air strikes using stand-off weapons from India's side of the line of control.

That might require some form of limited conflict. How does India strike a balance and still achieve a meaningful outcome?

This is difficult to answer. But, Kargil taught both India and Pakistan that a limited war is possible. Essentially, Kargil motivated the Indian defence establishment to develop a limited-war doctrine, which evolved into the debated notion of ‘Cold Start’. But, the key here is a decisive victory within the constraints of a short war. I'm not sure if India has this capability.

India also seems to have a terrible habit of boasting of capabilities it does not actually possess. Pakistan takes these boasts at face value and begins developing counter-measures. So, by the time India has an operational ‘Cold Start’ doctrine, Pakistan has already begun fielding battle-field nuclear weapons to vitiate a ‘Cold Start’. I really wish India learnt secrecy and valued it.

Did India’s surgical strikes after the Uri attack indicate a slight, if any, shift in its strategic thought — perhaps towards not linking economic growth and confronting Pakistan?

No. Previous governments had also conducted surgical strikes. They just didn't go public with them, much less inspire a Bollywood film with possible electoral benefits.

Given the high level of casualty, and its timing, could the Pulwama attack have been approved at the level of a major or mid-level military officers attached to these groups? Or does the chain of command go all the way to the top?

Such attacks go back to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) headquarters. This was an attack with a strategic value. Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) is not a freelancer. This was planned and resourced in advance. It is not easy to learn to drive a suicide vehicle. And, the vehicle was assembled locally. There is much to be discovered about this attack. But, this goes all the way to the top.

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You earlier described Pathankot and Gurdaspur attacks as carefully calibrated probes to test India's red lines. Does Pulwama also fall in that category?

Let me preface my argument by saying that I have no interest in India's domestic politics, or in who does or does not become the prime minister. This particular attack might have had India's elections in mind. Prime Minister Narendra Modi galvanises Pakistanis against India far more effectively than any other political party or leader. Pakistan's deep state makes ready use of this to argue for the salience of the ‘Two Nation Theory’. And it also motivates the recruitment and fundraising for Pakistan's myriad terrorist groups. Thus, Pakistan has an incentive to do things that might influence the coming elections.

If the previous attacks were probes to gauge the government’s strategy or will, what were they for?

Pakistan's army is understood as an ‘international insurgent’. To win, it need not defeat India. Rather, it only needs to demonstrate that India has not imposed its will upon it. In contrast, to defeat Pakistan, India must indeed impose its will upon it.

The best way for Pakistan to demonstrate that it has not been coerced by India is to use proxy elements against India, because this has the advantage of denial and deception, without blunting lethality.

What to expect next with regard to Pakistan's strategy?

Pakistan has an array of proxies that it can use. At one level, Pakistan engages in balancing them off of each other. Currently, Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) is engaged in domestic activities. JeM, along with the Afghan Taliban, is an important syphon with which to remobilise the Pakistan Taliban as "good terrorists" again. If Pakistan can mobilise Deobandi militants to fight in Afghanistan or India again, there are fewer terrorising Pakistan.

In the near term, I expect to see more of JeM than LeT. Also LeT does not do suicide attacks. When LeT conducts its fidayeen assaults, the goal is to kill only Indians. If an operative can live to fight another day, that is fine. The highest imperative is not getting caught. In contrast, JeM — like the Taliban and other Deobandi groups — does actual suicide attacks, where the primary goal is to die. Suicide attacks captivate and terrorise citizens in ways that LeT's high-risk operations tend not to.

Also, Pakistan's proxies deliver nearly the same warfighting quality at a lower price. A JeM or LeT fighter is about as qualified as someone between the rank of a junior commissioned officer and someone who can qualify as a candidate in Pakistan’s military academy. Their training is devised by the army but is shorter. However, unlike regular soldiers, these proxies are trained to die in the operation, and there is no retirement or family benefit to be given. In contrast, India sustains a huge, immobile force comprising multiple institutions — many not well protected and requiring inordinate resources to field and sustain.

Will any diplomatic measure to "isolate Pakistan" work? Or will the international community impose equivalence on Pakistan and India, and call on New Delhi to talk to Islamabad?

The US abandoned this 'false equivalence' long ago. In several past years, the US has demurred from its usual bromidic calls for "both sides to resolve all outstanding disputes through dialogue, etc". Now, it is clear that Pakistan is responsible for the attacks and reiterates India's right of self-defence. All of this is good news. But I doubt Washington will actually do more, given President Donald Trump's need for Pakistan to give him a less embarrassing withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The interviewee is a Provost's distinguished associate professor in the Peace and Security Studies Program at Georgetown University's Edmund A Walsh School of Foreign Service. She earlier served as a political officer to the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan in Kabul

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