Originally Published 2016-01-15 10:10:16 Published on Jan 15, 2016
Suspending talks is surrendering to Pak Army strategy

In the aftermath of the terror attack in Pathankot, the pressure on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to suspend dialogue with Pakistan is mounting.  Even if he resists the pressure this time, the India-Pakistan dialogue will constantly be at risk because the Pakistan Army and its Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) can sponsor more terror attacks until it becomes politically impossible for the Modi government to continue the dialogue.  As long as India’s only response to terror attacks is to suspend talks, the Pakistan Army will hold the upper hand.  Suspension of talks does not impose any cost on the Pakistan army; indeed, it is what they seek.  India needs to develop alternate counter-measures so that it has options other than suspension of talks.  Indian decision-makers need to understand the Pakistan army’s support for terrorism as a rational and usually effective strategy if India is to develop such counter-measures that increase the costs and reduce the benefits to the Pakistan army in using terror as a strategy.

It is not that India should never suspend talks with Pakistan.  But suspension of dialogue is more likely to be effective when it is part of a strategy, usually one that puts pressure on key actors involved directly or indirectly in the dialogue.  Unfortunately, for various Indian governments over the last two decades, suspending talks with Pakistan has not been a demonstration of strategy but rather of the lack of one.  It has been a demonstration that India has no other options, of Indian helplessness, of the incompetence, unpreparedness and lack of imagination of Indian decision-makers and policy-planners.

The Pakistan army’s sponsorship of terror attacks are not designed to weaken India: clearly, these are, at best, pinpricks that do very little damage to India because of India’s size and power.  They are designed more for their political effects, the pressure they put on the Indian government.  For such limited objectives, these pinprick attacks work brilliantly.  They are effective because the Indian leadership, which is in any case risk-averse, is terrified by possibility of nuclear escalation in any confrontation with Pakistan, which makes this a risk-free strategy for the Pakistan army.  This is particularly so for perfectly-sized terror attacks such as in Pathankot: they are not provocative enough for India to go to war (even if the Indian state was a bit less risk-averse) but sufficiently large enough to put public pressure on the Indian government.  In essence, the Pakistan army risks very little in such ventures and benefits a great deal.

How can India counter this combination of low cost and high benefits?  One strategy would be to attack the benefits side of this equation.  What if the Pakistan army gets no benefit from such attacks? There might be three ways to prevent them from benefiting from such attacks.  One would be to make Indian defences so tight that terrorists are not able to succeed in their mission, India’s main choice so far.  The problem with this approach is that it is impossible to prepare sufficiently tight defences that will always work, especially in protecting the numerous vulnerable civilian targets.  The Indian state’s general incompetence adds to this problem.

The second would be to continue talks irrespective of such attacks. As I said earlier, these pinprick attacks do not affect India’s power or prospects very much. But this requires Indian political leaders to go out and make the very difficult case that terror-attacks are indeed pin-pricks that we can ignore and that the benefits of ignoring them is far greater.  This is not an easy case to make when blood is spilt but will become well-nigh impossible if civilians are targeted.

In fact, the whole mantra of ‘uninterruptable’ talks recognise that there are powerful constituencies in Pakistan that are opposed to the talks and that suspending talks only plays into their hands.  But what advocates of ‘uninterruptable’ talks fail to recognize is that it is politically impossible to continue talks if terrorist attacks continue. The primary task of any government is to provide security to its people.  Its failure to do this strikes at the root of the legitimacy of any government, demonstrating its weakness and incompetence.  No government can afford to ignore this, especially in the divisive, take-no-prisoner politics in India today.  The Modi government could be politically brave and ignore the Pathankot attack and they might get some fig-leave of a statement from the civilian government of Pakistan about cracking down on cross-border terrorism. But this will not be sustainable if there are more terror attacks.  And if the Modi government continues the dialogue, it will in all probability face more, and more severe, terror strikes.

The third way to deal with the benefits side of the equation is to continue talking even while responding with other counter-measures.  If India develops such other counter-measures, it will not be under pressure to stop the dialogue, immediately eliminating the main benefit that the Pakistan army seeks.  This has the additional benefit of increasing the cost to the Pakistan army, thus addressing the other side of the cost-benefit strategic calculus.  The fear of escalation is of course a problem here but this can be overcome with conventional war options that will not trip over Pakistan’s nuclear threshold, particularly military options to retake parts of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK).

But additional lower-level options should also be considered, including copying the Pakistani tactic of using proxies.  The great benefit to these options is that because these are covert operations, they do not carry the risk of escalation that so paralyzes the Indian establishment.  In essence, India can turn the tables on Pakistan through covert support to insurgencies within Pakistan.  It is not necessary that these insurgencies are actually successful: just as Pakistan objective in sponsoring terror against India is its political rather than substantive effect, India’s support for such action should also be motivated by political message it sends rather than any real damage that it can cause.  In other words, all that is needed is for the Indian government to demonstrate that it can retaliate.  Such retaliation will provide it sufficient cover to continue the dialogue with the civilian government in Pakistan.  It is, of course, always possible that the Pakistan army will force the civilians to suspend the dialogue with India, but if so, it will only demonstrate who has real control in Pakistan.

India might attempt to make use of the various rebellions within Pakistan, particularly the relatively more active one in Balochistan, for such purposes.  This would allow India to retaliate to terror attacks in India by sponsoring attacks on the Pakistan army in Balochistan.  This has at least three benefits.  First, and most importantly, knowledge that India is responding will reduce the public pressure on the Indian government to suspend dialogue with the civilian government in Pakistan.  Second, it punishes the Pakistan army for sponsoring terror attacks, delivering at least some measure of justice for the victims in India, again reducing public pressure on the Indian government.  And third, such action might even deter Pakistan from sponsoring future terror attacks because it carries with it an implicit threat to expand Indian support to the Baloch insurgency.  Thus, such response is not an issue of vengeance but rational strategic calculus that targets both the low cost and high benefit that the Pakistan army currently derives from using terror against India.

Actively supporting the Baloch insurgency provides multiple secondary benefits too that go beyond countering Pakistan army’s support of terrorism.  First, it ties down the Pakistan army in an unpopular domestic insurgency, the kind of war that no regular army likes fighting.  Second, it will help India build up a covert network within Pakistan with which it can hunt down its tormentors in the Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, the D-Company and other assorted groups.  At the very least, this will reduce the sense of sanctuary and safety that these groups appear to feel in Pakistan and complicate their planning and operations.  Third, it will dramatically increase India’s human intelligence network within Pakistan.

Thus, the Pakistan army’s use of terrorism needs to be seen as rational and strategic.  It is easily understandable because it is a low risk, no cost and frequently effective effort.  It would be foolish for Pakistan to give it up – and they won’t – unless India is able to change the strategic calculus by either increasing the risks and cost or reducing the benefits and effectiveness or both.  India can do this at low cost and low risk by supporting domestic rebellions within Pakistan especially in Balochistan, essentially copying Pakistan’s effective strategy.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.