The strike

The wee-hours 26 February strike by twelve IAF Mirage 2000 aircraft on Pakistan’s Balakot Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) militant-training camp, is a fitting response to the Pulwama carnage conducted and claimed by JeM, with the tacit support of Pakistan. The ability of India’s air warriors to detect, acquire, effectively strike at and neutralize any target is admirable and undisputed. So also, the military capability of the Indian Army or the Indian Navy are beyond question. That said, there are some points of concern.

Avoid scaling up

The fact that the IAF’s target was a JeM training camp and not Pakistan’s military infrastructure nor a civilian habitation, gives Pakistan some leeway to bluster and limit its military response. India’s statement that this was a pre-emptive strike not amounting to an act of war, may also keep the temperature from shooting up.

Pakistan cannot deny that the Balakot air strike took place because satellite pictures would show it up. But its military spokesperson says that the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) scrambled after detecting air space intrusion by IAF, and forced the IAF fighters to head for home after “releasing their payload” without causing damage. This face-saving statement of IAF’s ineffective air strike due to PAF’s alertness etc., even while threatening an “appropriate response” to the air strike, may indicate that Pakistan’s military response may be limited. Every intelligence agency on the globe would know that the IAF strike on the JeM camp at Balakot was successful, and India trying to prove it to Pakistan would be unnecessary, even provocative and avoidable chest-thumping.

Pakistan’s predictable response to Indian Army’s “surgical strike” on militant launch pads 11 days after the September 2016 attack on India’s Uri military camp, was that no strike ever took place. The chest-thumping that followed in trying to prove its success did little to reduce the levels of violence in Kashmir, and may actually have increased it. Subduing the enemy is necessary, but humiliating the enemy never pays.

Pakistan’s military (and the government which it virtually controls) knows India’s military capability as superior to its own. Denying or trivializing India’s military effectiveness serves the purpose of relatively raising Pakistan’s military effectiveness in the eyes of its own public.

The “ace” up Pakistan’s sleeve is the threat of nuclear response – which China will hopefully scotch – although calling Pakistan’s bluff carries unacceptable risks. However, China may not hesitate to make military incursions along our Himalayan border to divert India’s military effort and political attention away from Pakistan. Thus the onus for not ratcheting up the level of military operations or border tensions with Pakistan may rest with India. Notwithstanding, the imponderables of international politics and Pakistan’s characteristic intransigence dictate that there is no substitute for being ready for war, even while making political and diplomatic efforts to prevent it.

Joint operations

The world over, every country with credible military capability has a military officer with command and control authority over the combined forces of the army, the navy and the air force. He renders single-point military advice to the national political executive for joint operations. In the Indian context too, effectiveness in full-fledged military operations will be based upon the capability of the three defence services to conduct joint operations.

The Cabinet Committee for Security (CCS) is effectively India’s apex security body, with the National Security Council (NSC) as a virtually parallel body. However, the concept of national security both in the CCS and the NSC fails to distinguish between internal security, which is the turf of the Ministry of Home Affairs, and external security which is the turf of the Ministry of Defence.

The national security advisor (NSA) is the source of single-point advice to the prime minister on all security matters and that post, earlier held by a bureaucrat, is currently occupied by a police officer. The PM is in the unenviable position of receiving military advice from the chiefs of staff committee (CoSC), comprising the chiefs of the army, navy and air force, or the NSA who has little if any military experience at the top levels of military command.

It is no secret that India’s joint operations capability is limited to an operational theatre, and at the national level it is lacking. This is precisely because there is no overall tri-services military commander.

But reverting to the context of our preparedness for an escalation of military operations against Pakistan, the possibility of China’s entry into the threat assessment cannot be discounted. Today, there is possibly no measure more urgent on the PM’s table than to immediately create a post of Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) and appoint a military officer who is senior to all three defence chiefs, to take the initial step towards credible joint operations capability.

Regardless of who takes the credit for this vital strategic move, it will serve our country’s external security and sovereignty well. The reason for successive governments up to the present not creating a CDS post are clearly bureaucratic.

Fighting with what we have

Just like our joint operations capability, India’s current armament, ammunition, equipment and logistical situation is undoubtedly known to all foreign intelligence agencies. India is sure to take all appropriate political and diplomatic measures to avoid escalating the present military confrontation with Pakistan.

Needless to say, our armed forces will surely “fight with what we have” as they have done in the past and will continue to do, according to the Indian military’s best apolitical tradition. But an escalation of hostilities to the level of (even limited) war will surely be catastrophic in more senses than one. For one thing, it will inevitably result in the promulgation of national emergency and cancellation of the forthcoming general elections. For another, it may bring China into the fray, to make threatening military deployments or incursions at several places along the length of the Himalayan border, to divert India’s military effort from dealing with Pakistan. The so-called “two-and-a-half front war” may become a harsh reality, and magnify the current military anaemia.

The K-imbroglio

At the heart of the India-Pakistan divide is the Kashmir problem. India rightfully claims that Kashmir is an integral part of India and that the western part of Kashmir presently occupied by Pakistan (hence named as Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir) is also a part of India. Thus, Kashmiris are Indians.

The K-problem has defied solution primarily because of the political failures of successive governments at the state and centre over the decades up to the present.

In modern times, history indicates that seeking a police-military solution to a socio-political problem is a chimera. Independent India’s experience in Kashmir as also in our northeastern states, confirms this.

Punishing Pakistan for its thinly veiled and vehemently denied involvement in militant and terrorist activities in Kashmir by military measures is unlikely to even begin to solve the K-problem. There is no silver bullet solution to the problem.

A human chronic disease can be cured by degrees using calibrated incremental steps, always recognizing that healing is a natural biological process, with medical treatment merely assisting in the curative or healing process. The use of antibiotics is essential especially as an immediate measure.

So also, India’s chronic K-problem needs honest and sustained socio-political efforts at state and centre. Immediate measures like limited military operations may be inescapable but can only provide short-term change. The police-military is a political antibiotic, the continued use of which has created resistance to the antibiotic and reduced its efficacy.

The NSC would do well to strategize on long-term measures to address the socio-political problem and heal the body-politic of an increasingly alienated population. Only this can lead to lasting peace and harmony in the troubled valley. It is admittedly difficult but surely achievable with honest politics and a generous dose of statesmanship.

S.G.Vombatkere was commissioned as an officer into the Madras Sappers in 1962. In 1993, the President of India awarded him the Visishta Seva Medal (VSM) for distinguished services rendered during military service in the cold, high altitude region of Ladakh. He retired from active service in 1996 in the rank of Major General.