The phrase “surgical strike” is plastered over the walls and billboards across town. The context is not the 29 September surgical strikes conducted by the Indian Army across the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan, but the demonetization exercise that started on 8 November. The script is Devanagari, not Roman. So while “surgical strikes”—whether against Pakistan or against black money hoarders—are being feted by the plebeians, the virtues of “strategic restraint” are still known to not more than a cabal. This perhaps testifies to where the two currently stand.
This is important to understand: Strategic restraint is a political concept. Any attempt to define it technically will be like stepping on a landmine. Some have argued that India still adheres, notwithstanding the 29 September surgical strikes, to the policy of strategic restraint. The implicit assumption is that strategic restraint is a technical concept and surgical strikes across the LoC—as opposed to across the international border—will not amount to discarding it. Even if the strikes are across the LoC, they will have to be, the sceptics argue, deep inside Pakistan’s territory and at a much larger scale than was seen in the last week of September. This argument is at best confused and at worst simply flawed.
First of all, the sceptics are attempting to draw the boundaries of strategic restraint post facto and hence they are able to make the neat distinctions that they would not have made if not for the events of 29 September. For example, should not the number of attack sites also be one of the criteria? Or should not the geographic spread of the attacks be a consideration when deciding which Indian action breaches the boundary of strategic restraint and which does not?
Second, Pakistan now follows what it calls “full-spectrum deterrence.” Of course, Pakistan will find the use of its tactical nuclear weapons far more justified when it is hit in the deserts compared to when it suffers surgical strikes across the LoC. But can Pakistan admit that Indian surgical strikes across the LoC will not ever open the possibility of nukes coming into the play? No, because their “full-spectrum deterrence” is as much a political construct as our own “strategic restraint”. A rational and technical definition would make a distinction between an attack across LoC and one across the international boundary. No such thing as a “full-spectrum deterrence” can exist rationally. Politically it can.
Third, the 29 September statement of the Indian director general of military operations (DGMO) on the surgical strikes itself described the area of action to be “along” rather than “across” LoC. This was meant to contain the escalation. But what was the need to contain the escalation if the surgical strikes fell well within the ambit of strategic restraint and hence would never invite escalation?
This really gets very complex, right? Exactly, my point. Any attempt to define rational and technical boundaries of strategic restraint would be treacherous. Strategic restraint is a political construct and was done away with as soon as the surgical strikes were announced to the world.
There is another popular misconception regarding strategic restraint. Some argue that strategic restraint was a well-thought out policy. But this is really not the case. In fact, strategic restraint was embraced each time after India concluded other options would prove to be escalatory and hence costly to itself. In effect, what India did was to make a virtue of a necessity and did that reasonably well. New Delhi did consider other retaliatory options ahead of restraint but Pakistan’s nuclear blackmail played an important part in keeping the Indian policymakers from moving ahead on those options.
So, did India call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff on September 29? It did but only partially. Or let’s put it this way: It proved that the bluster of Pakistan’s full-spectrum deterrence was just that—a bluster. India also framed the surgical strikes carefully—for example, as a pre-emptive attack against terrorists preparing to enter India and not as a retribution for the Uri attack of 18 September—so as to minimise the potential for escalation while achieving domestic political gains. Pakistan was allowed to deny the surgical strikes and evidence was not furnished publicly so as to increase the room for Rawalpindi to wriggle out without feeling the need to retaliate in equal measure.
This clears the way for India to retaliate using conventional options the next time the need arises as long as Pakistani forces are allowed the room for deniability. This way Rawalpindi’s patience can be probed while introducing enough new variables for the generals there to contend with. But India doesn’t need the kind of ambiguity which defence minister Manohar Parrikar has recently advocated. Speaking at a book launch on 10 November, Parrikar questioned the utility of India’s ‘no first use’ (NFU) pledge in its nuclear doctrine. He believed making the clause ambiguous will keep the adversaries guessing and benefit India. Parrikar was, however, quick to clarify that these were his personal opinions.
But there is nothing called a personal opinion of a defence minister on a matter such as the nuclear doctrine. Even if Parrikar is allowed the space for a personal opinion it does not change the fact that he is wrong in his assessment. First, Parrikar has to realise the futility of having a first use doctrine—or one which is ambiguous on this count—in India’s geostrategic environment. Compared to Pakistan, India is conventionally superior and hence it needs to expand the space for conventional warfare. There is no conceivable scenario in which India has to threaten first use of nuclear weapons against Pakistan. Even against China, India’s primary battle is geopolitical, not military. If ever a war breaks out, India possesses enough firepower and is blessed with geographical buffers that any threat to the existence of the Indian state can be ruled out. A war of such proportions, however, is unlikely, let alone a war which necessitates the first use of nuclear weapons by India.
Second, Parrikar has to understand that a clause in the nuclear doctrine ab initio is not the same thing as a changed clause in the nuclear doctrine. The change signals greater intent. India’s departure from its no first use pledge will signal to Rawalpindi a readiness to use the nuclear weapons first or in other words to threaten the survival of the Pakistani state. This will put Rawalpindi in a “use them or lose them” bind as far as its own nuclear weapons are concerned.
Not all changes to the nuclear doctrine have such potentially destabilizing consequences. For example, India’s commitment to retaliate “massively” against use of nuclear weapons—high yield or low yield—is entirely non-credible. The generals in Rawalpindi know that India cannot nuke Islamabad or Karachi if Indian soldiers were attacked using battlefield nuclear weapons on Pakistan’s own soil. If India changes this part of the doctrine to “proportionate” or “proportionate-plus” retaliation, it will make the doctrine more credible and signal such intent which can contribute to stabilisation.
The change to “proportionate” or “proportionate-plus” retaliation, if backed by building up of India’s conventional military strength, will signal to Pakistan that it is increasingly willing to retaliate to attacks by Pakistan-based terrorist groups. The threat of tactical nuclear weapons, even if real, will be dealt with according to new doctrine. This will help India call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff entirely and not restrict itself to just punching holes in latter’s full-spectrum deterrence.
My last point is on the consequences of 29 September surgical strikes. Many argue that surgical strikes had no impact as Pakistan continues to engage in ceasefire violations and there have also been reports of multiple barbaric mutilations of the bodies of killed Indian soldiers. But this is a completely wrong reading of the developments. One, neither the ceasefire violations nor the mutilations are anything new. Both have happened before without any pretext of surgical strikes. Two, such an argument ignores domestic developments inside Pakistan in its entirety. Army chief Raheel Sharif, who had built for himself a larger-than-life image, has had to suffer the dent of Indian surgical strikes during his tenure. His frustration is speaking in the form of shelling and mutilations at the LoC and the international border.
Three, for the Pakistani army, as C. Christine Fair puts it in her excellent book Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War (2014), “acquiescence means defeat.” The army in Pakistan lives to fight India. Pakistani army, in fact, cannot be defeated military. It will, however, be defeated the day it gives up fighting India. Therefore, one set of surgical strikes are clearly not enough—neither to defeat the Pakistan army nor to convince it to demobilise anti-India terror groups. A sustained military, economic and diplomatic fight will be required. And therefore the boundaries of strategic restraint will have to be breached even while observing restraints enshrined in the NFU pledge.