Indian Strategic Restraint, Revised

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After the attack on an Indian military post at Uri, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered a speech about strategic restraint, which I applauded in this space. But I also wrote, “This isn’t over – far from it.” I got that part right. Modi quickly pivoted and authorized “surgical strikes” across the Kashmir divide. India’s Prime Minister does not want another war or uncontrolled escalation with Pakistan, but neither does he accept “business as usual” after attacks by those who enjoy safe havens on Pakistan’s side of the Kashmir divide.

Quick hit-and-return operations across Kashmir’s Line of Control are not new; both Indian and Pakistani forces have carried them out in the past. What’s new is going public after they occur. If the scale of recent Indian strikes is greater than in the past – something the parties know, but I do not – then the rules of the game have changed even more.

Modi is also lining up bigger guns. He has undertaken an intensified campaign of diplomatic isolation against Pakistan, beginning with pulling out of a scheduled SAARC summit. Pakistan postponed the summit when it became clear that the only visiting dignitary might have been from the Maldives. Modi is also threatening the revocation of Pakistan’s Most Favored Nation trading status, but this would have more symbolic than practical effect, as Nawaz Sharif has been unable to reciprocate.

More importantly, Modi has telegraphed an interest in reassessing India’s commitment to the Indus Waters Treaty. His National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, is an advocate of fighting fire with fire, i.e., assisting disaffected groups within Pakistan in response to Pakistan’s longstanding indulgence, if not active support, of anti-India non-state actors. Most Pakistanis believe this is already the case, a sentiment fanned by Modi’s pointed references to Baluchistan.

Where do Pakistan and India go from here? The Government of Pakistan isn’t acknowledging India’s cross-LoC raids, which deflates pressures for an immediate response. But if some of what has been reported in the Indian media is true, a “befitting” response can be expected. Retaliation isn’t a simple matter because Rawalpindi holds a weak hand. Upping the ante by means of non-state actors would reaffirm India’s narrative while leaving Pakistan even more diplomatically isolated. When you play with fire, you can’t expect sympathy after retaliation.

India holds a strong hand, but risks overplaying it. The situation is fluid and will take time for a new normal to congeal. But Modi has laid down a marker that he will not stand idly by as the usual suspects carry out attacks resulting in rising casualty counts. The question of the hour is whether India’s response to Uri serves as a deterrent or a prompt for further escalation.

As previously noted, Rawalpindi holds terrible cards. Strategic “assets” have become significant liabilities. Pakistan has justifiably lost the benefit of the doubt after cross-border attacks against India. The Pakistani argument that collusion cannot be proven is unpersuasive because its security agencies have not shut down the perpetrators. With every cross-border raid, Pakistan’s international standing and the sympathy it receives abroad have diminished. The bind Pakistan finds itself in is the result of poor choices that have yet to be reversed. Getting out of this bind will require a new strategy, not the same old tactics.

India holds high cards, but playing them would be a losing game. Upping the ante by taking aim at the Indus Waters Treaty would be a dangerous, aggressive act. New Delhi will lose international support by undermining the most valuable form of cooperation that remains on the subcontinent. Promoting insurgency within Pakistan is another losing game. Since when has India won by equating itself with Pakistan? Besides, the more ungovernable Pakistan becomes, the more Indian security dilemmas are compounded.

India’s pursuit of Pakistan’s diplomatic isolation is a different story. Fearing encirclement, Pakistan is instead in the process of isolating itself within the region. Pakistan’s lifeblood is not only water, but also trade with its neighbors. Trade requires reconciliation, but every gesture that Modi has made toward reconciliation has been answered by an attack on Indian military posts.

A roller coaster ride has commenced on the subcontinent just as Pakistan’s top two military posts are scheduled for turnover. This can be a time for strategic reassessment or doubling down in Rawalpindi. Modi’s actions sharpen this choice, but also make it harder for Pakistan’s military to reverse course.

The most meaningful threats to Pakistan are at home rather than across borders. Non-state actors are a part of this problem. Economic stagnation is an even bigger problem. Pakistan’s water resources and exports are already in decline, and national reforms remain illusive. It is folly to presume that Chinese investments and Central Asian markets alone can secure Pakistan’s future.

Geography dictates that the future of Pakistan and India is linked, for better or for worse. This unalterable fact challenges India to refrain from playing a strong hand badly. It also challenges Pakistan to adopt a new strategy, rather than self-defeating tactics.

Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on October 3, 2016.

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