There is only one reason India’s recent raid into Myanmar has captured everyone’s imagination – its implications along India’s western border with Pakistan. This obsession with the Islamic Republic hinges on the fact that it has, for three decades, aided terrorists against India and harboured them on its soil, even protecting them with the threat of nuclear retaliation against India. Naturally, the Indian media and commentariat have wondered – egged on by the ambiguously suggestive wording of statements by some government sources – if last week’s cross-border raid is a template for future Indian counter-terrorism operations, especially along the western border. Criticism has come along two axes – the veiled references to Pakistan, a much graver threat, and to the publicity the military operation has received.
Upon news of India’s incursion into Myanmar breaking, Pakistan’s interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, made a rather banal remark when he warned India that “Pakistan was not Myanmar.” Indian security officials would be the first to testify that the latter is a friendly neighbour that has a long history of cooperation with India in matters of cross-border terrorism and narcotics trafficking while the former is a well-armed, hostile, nuclear state sponsor of terrorism that still struggles to find a raison d’etre that is not in opposition to India. Any references equating the two theatres have simply been misunderstood; rather, they most likely were to suggest that the differences between Myanmar and Pakistan will no longer tie Delhi’s hands against provocations from Rawalpindi.
Guilty for their sins of omission in the development of the Pakistani bomb, Western governments have now taken to urging Delhi to act with prudence in its dealings with Islamabad despite the incessant and almost daily provocations from across the border. While they continue to sell weapons to the Islamic Republic, they simultaneously appeal to Delhi’s wisdom and forbearance with its irksome and unstable neighbour and cast Indian military modernisation as destabilising. Delhi must think for itself whether these recommendations have yielded any positive results over the past so many decades.
In responding to Pakistan, India must learn from its neighbour. Islamabad has shown Delhi how useless nuclear weapons become at lower thresholds of conflict. Delhi must therefore lower its threshold of conflict to below the Pakistani nuclear tripwire. It is almost certain that a massive military incursion by India, however limited and short, would trigger Pakistan’s nuclear tripwire; it is questionable how it would respond to small yet intense raids a la Myanmar, and it is beyond doubt that Islamabad would struggle to justify a nuclear response to “forceful persuasion” of terrorist leaders to give up their trade or an upswell in the yearning of its Baloch or Pashtun population for liberty. Were India to emulate its western neighbours and engage in such pursuits, the upside is that there is little that Rawalpindi can do in retaliation that it is not doing already.
Such operations take a high degree of skill and material sophistication which is, by all indications, presently beyond Indian capabilities. Nonetheless, the Myanmar mission indicates a change in thinking and direction in Delhi and though it serves as no template for operations across India’s other borders, the political intent is quite clear: the tepid security legacies of PV Narasimha Rao and IK Gujral have been jettisoned for more pragmatic measures. There has always been a constituency in India urging the strengthening of Pakistan’s civilian institutions by bestowing legitimacy through engagement. However, India can only do so as far as Pakistan’s own security apparatus is willing to do the same – one cannot become Ashoka without fighting Kalinga.
If India does resort to conflict below Pakistan’s nuclear threshold, some of it will have to receive some publicity despite the thick veil of secrecy that shrouds security affairs in India. Some ascribe prudence or noble motivations to it as discretion being the better part of valour but the likelihood of it being the government’s reluctance to share information with its citizens is higher. Public displays of covert planning are as vital an ingredient of deterrence as weapons systems for deterrence is ultimately a psychological weapon. If the enemy perceives India to be strong or is certain of repercussions in case of misadventures, an additional pause is given to its planning. One of the best examples of this is Charles de Gaulle’s myth of the French Resistance during World War II; another is Italian diplomacy of the early Cold War when Italian bureaucrats and politicians leveraged their close and sometimes clandestine relations with the United States and the CIA for enhanced prestige within Europe and the North Atlantic alliance. Such behaviour actually created another component of national identity and bolstered Rome’s actual relevance on the international scene.
Undoubtedly, some of India’s operations will never be acknowledged, others will only be whispered in shadowy corners, and a limited handful will become the stuff of legends; only the security agencies should distinguish between the three. The lessons from Israel’s intelligence agencies are there to be seen: out of the hundreds of operations run in the neighbourhood, a small handful like Wolfgang Lotz, Eli Cohen, Thunderbolt, and the Wrath of G-d were enough to create the illusion of an unforgiving and invincible Israel. In an era where media has become another theatre of war, it would be a myopic for Indian planners to disregard the advantages of publicising a few, well chosen operations.
Albert Einstein is credited with defining insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Inhis book, Through the Looking Glass, Appu Soman chronicles over a decade of diplomacy between India and Pakistan and how little it has yielded. Restraint is a virtue, India’s commentariat seems to have forgotten, only if one is thought to have other options. The Myanmar operation may not be a template for Pakistan, but it was certainly the announcement of a change in thinking at Raisina Hill. Let the word go out.
This post appeared on FirstPost on June 15, 2015.