Last week, the Pakistani Army started shelling Indian positions along the Line of Control – the de facto border between India and Pakistan. This is a customary tactic for aiding terrorists to cross over from Pakistan – occupied Kashmir into India. What was not usual, however, was India’s response to its neighbour’s violation of the border and ceasefire agreement – Delhi ordered its Border Security Force to take all appropriate measures to subdue the enemy offensive.
Indian troops responded to the Pakistani firing on their posts with a barrage of artillery fire that has destroyed several of the Pakistani Army’s permanent positions along the LoC. Several civilians have also been killed in border towns on both sides as both armies tried to take their intimidation directly to the civilians.
Predictably, there have also been several counsels of restraint and proportionate response with concern expressed about escalation implicitly alluding to Pakistan’s low nuclear threshold.
While such analysis has been the mainstay of international and domestic commentary during every skirmish between the two South Asian neighbours, it has little to offer by way of solutions: we all understand that war is bad, that precious national resources are wasted on armaments, and that conflict escalation between nuclear rivals has horrific worst-case scenarios but what does one do, short of abject surrender and supplication, to pacify a crisis riven nuclear state that engages in asymmetric warfare?
The Modi government has refused to become a victim of escalation terror and so far responded well to the situation. By not expanding the scope of the firefight yet increasing its intensity until it delivered tangible results – the destruction of permanent posts – India has forced Pakistan to either back down or be responsible for further escalation.
This is undoubtedly an unstable situation, relying on Islamabad for peace to prevail. However, the nuclearisation of the Islamic Republic – with tacit approval from the United States and direct assistance from China – has removed the ball from India’s court in a large way.
The fear of conflict escalation to nuclear proportions is not insignificant but has been exaggerated beyond reason. It is nothing short of nuclear terrorism by Pakistan to hold the slightest Indian military action, even static defensive manoeuvres, as grounds for nuclear release. There can be little existential threat perception In Islamabad without a corresponding Indian deployment of additional troops on the LoC, cancellation of personnel leave, air force readiness, and the several other telltale signs of preparations for war. A robust response to cross-border firing or infiltration alone hardly qualifies as escalation.
In reality, Islamabad’s nuclear threshold must necessarily be higher to allow operational and diplomatic flexibility. It is unlikely military planners in Delhi take Pakistan’s stated posture any more seriously than military planners in Islamabad do India’s doctrine of massive retaliation.
The role of India’s border security forces has been ill-defined until now. With orders from Delhi ambiguous, security posts restricted their actions to tit-for-tat numerically proportional responses to Pakistani aggression. While this has served the personal desire for revenge, it has not prevented a regular recurrence of bloodshed. If India intends to genuinely deter enemy fire, it must aim to deliver punitive yet localised counterstrikes. The disturbance or destruction of the enemy’s border logistics and infrastructure will at least give pause to their activities if not their thinking. India may not allow the rebuilding of the destroyed permanent bunkers or depots, thereby exacting a cost upon the enemy for each of its misadventures.
The ability for a small and unthreatening border post to inflict punishing blows needs to be finely honed with rigorous training and superior quality equipment. It is no secret that the Indian Army suffers from low reserves of ammunition and outdated equipment due to the government’s bureaucratic sluggishness and irrational policies. Poor border infrastructure makes logistics even more challenging than it has to be. These factors reduce the credibility of India’s deterrence and must be addressed to give foreign forces a uniform experience all along India’s borders.
However, such measures can offer relief in the short to medium term at best: a game-changing play is to be ultimately found in better relations with Iran, closer cooperation with Afghanistan, and extending empathy towards the plight of the Ballochi people. Just what form the ties, cooperation, and empathy will take will be in Islamabad’s hands.
There is a lot of misplaced pride in some sections of the moral and civilisational lessons Indian culture can offer the world – restraint is the jewel that adorns Indian statecraft. Yet let us also consider that moderation is seen to be a virtue only in those who have an alternative. For too long has Delhi shown that it does not…the latest incident along the LoC is a welcome change.