The outburst of national anger that followed the Pulwama terror attack earlier this month put pressure on the government to “do something" to give Pakistan a bloody nose. On 26 February, the Indian Air Force (IAF) crossed the Line of Control (LoC) and bombed three Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terror training camps, both in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) and inside Pakistan (Balakot), though only the last was officially confirmed.

Retribution is important, for game theory suggests that a tit-for-tat policy is the best way to guarantee long-term good behaviour by the offending party. However, while planning retribution, we should not forget the economics. We cannot win this war of attrition by focusing on retribution that makes things costlier for us rather than them.

Terrorism is Pakistan’s chosen method to bleed us primarily because it is cost-effective. Just one suicidal jihadi Kashmiri cost us 40 CRPF men—a “cost-benefit ratio" of 1:40. The 26/11 Mumbai attack took nearly 170 lives for the loss of 10 jihadis, a ratio of 1:17, with additional benefits accruing from the nature of the high-profile targets chosen for those attacks. The 19 9/11 hijackers killed nearly 3,000 people, a cost-benefit ratio of 1:157. Though we have computed only the human costs here and ignored the logistical costs incurred by the jihadis and those whom they attacked, the point is that terrorism is attractive precisely because it is so cost-effective.

Unfortunately, those whose duty it is to fight terrorism forget the cost element when planning defence or retribution against mindless violence. If we continue doing this, we are going to lose the war.

Consider how America has bankrupted itself in trying to fight jihadi terror post 9/11. If today it is no longer the world’s sole superpower, it is because of how it responded to those attacks on the twin towers. According to Brown University’s Costs of War Project, Uncle Sam will have spent close to $6 trillion between 2001 and today, and this total includes the cost of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, homeland security, the cost of caring for injured soldiers, and the interest paid on funds borrowed to fund the war on terror. In 2001, the US economy had a gross domestic product (GDP) of around $10 trillion, which means its commitment to eliminating terror involved spending 60% of its then GDP to do so. This has been the true cost of trying to spend too much to prevent American deaths.

In Kashmir, we have been pouring thousands of crores to contain terrorism and separatism. Nobody disputes the need to keep Kashmir in India or to fight terrorism in the valley, but this year, thanks to the Pulwama attack, for the first time, the number of security forces killed exceeded those of terrorists killed in the ratio of 43:29, according to data computed by the South Asia Terrorism Portal till 15 February. In the previous five years, the ratio was in favour of our security forces in the range of 1:2 to 1:3. The IAF air strike on Jaish camps in Balakot may have changed this human cost-benefit ratio again, but we have to compute economic costs too.

There is little doubt that security operations in Kashmir have cost us big in terms of resources. According to a report in a national newspaper, Kashmir, with just 1% of the national population, gets grants equivalent to 10% of the total given to all states. In the 2000-16 period, Kashmir got 1.14 trillion in grants and much of it went for security.

Wars on terror cannot be fought on the basis of emotional responses and security assessments alone. They have to be fought on economics too. We need to ask ourselves whether we are being suckered into ever-expanding commitments even as we obtain a lower bang for every buck we pour into the state in the name of security. Clearly, we don’t have a robust strategy as yet.

The logical thing to do is to, first, make a realistic assessment of overall costs and benefits, and then shift resources in such a way that it lowers the cost to our security forces, increases the costs to terrorists, and makes terror less and less affordable for Pakistan, the ultimate bankroller of terror in this region.

The strategies could include the following: making much higher investments in intelligence-gathering, both human and electronic; increasing the level of political commitment to bleed Pakistan economically by making countries that bankroll it pay a price in terms of access to Indian markets; promoting low-cost independence movements in Balochistan and other parts of Pakistan; and raising a smaller force of highly trained search-and-kill groups that can target terrorists inthe valley without causing collateral damage to the rest of the population in the state. The Army and the CRPF need to move to the periphery of the battle in Kashmir in stages.

A full-scale war or extended and repeated special operations inside Pakistan can be costly and will ultimately result in a stalemate. The IAF may have surprised the Pakistanis this time, but the next time it could be different. We need to fight the war by other means, too. Some elements of a low-cost strategy have been listed above. There should be more. Ultimately, it is the economics that matters.

R. Jagannathan is editorial director, ‘Swarajya’ magazine.

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