Michael KreponModi Chooses Strategic Restraint

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, like his two predecessors, has opted for restraint in the face of provocations by violent extremist groups that have found safe havens within Pakistan. Modi publicly announced – at a political conclave, no less — that the attack on a military encampment at Uri, resulting in 18 Indian fatalities along with the deaths of four attackers, will not prompt a detour from India’s pursuit of economic growth. Far more spectacular acts of violence – against the Indian Parliament in 2001 and in 2008 against the central train station, luxury hotels and a Jewish center in Mumbai – elicited the same response from Prime Ministers A.B. Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh.

Those in India calling for military strikes have once again been left frustrated. Modi has bigger fish to fry and besides, Pakistan loses ground when an Indian Prime Minister declines to opt for a military riposte. Pakistan’s diplomatic campaign to focus on serious human rights abuses against Kashmiri Muslims has also suffered. After the Uri attack, the narrative has shifted once more to groups within Pakistan that engage in cross-border violence.

Islamabad’s first line of defense – that New Delhi cannot prove complicity between the attackers and Pakistan’s security apparatus – misses a central point. At issue here is not whether India can prove complicity to Pakistan’s satisfaction, but whether authorities in Pakistan have followed through on pledges to stop cross-border terrorism. Pakistan has lost the presumption of innocence due to a mountain of evidence accumulated in past attacks. This slate will not be wiped clean unless and until Rawalpindi moves publicly against familiar suspects. But moving against anti-India groups while Kashmir is on the boil is unlikely.

The burden of proof shifted from India to Pakistan as a result of Kargil, the Parliament attack and Mumbai. Pakistan’s leaders gave pledges to clamp down on violent extremist groups during past crises, but these pledges were ephemeral. No one can reasonably expect Pakistan to be able to stop every cross-border attack, whether in India or Afghanistan, but it is hard to give Pakistan the benefit of the doubt absent public evidence that Rawalpindi has broadened the scope of its counter-terrorism campaign.

An even weaker line of defense within Pakistan is the contention that shadowy Indian agencies killed their own jawans to shift the focus away from Indian human rights abuses in Kashmir. This dark speculation is based on the twin presumptions that Rawalpindi’s timing would not be so inept and that it can control extremist groups enjoying safe havens. These assumptions have been questionable in the past and are unconvincing now.

The suffering of Kashmiri Muslims is worthy of the world’s attention, but other parts of the globe are in far worse shape – and they, too, receive scant concern or do not generate remedial action even when in the spotlight. Washington and other capitals do not have the means or the inclination to improve governance in South Asia, whether in Kashmir, Baluchistan, or elsewhere. International attention will always focus more on triggering actions for the next crisis on the subcontinent than on the reasons for Kashmiri disaffection. It has been a very long while since the United Nations Security Council voted on a Kashmir resolution, but it will vote with alacrity to help defuse another India-Pakistan crisis. This deck was shuffled long ago and Pakistan holds a weak hand. Its worst cards are the hardest to discard.

This isn’t over – far from it. Every cycle of violence over Kashmir feeds on itself. Indian authorities in Kashmir keep repeating the same mistakes, as do decision-makers in Pakistan. Modi’s declaration of strategic restraint invites violent extremist groups to up the ante in solidarity with their beleaguered brethren. The Line of Control across the Kashmir divide has been reinforced. Soft targets beckon elsewhere. A familiar pattern is emerging that is reminiscent of the run-up to the Parliament attack, which was preceded by a string of increasingly deadly and bold attacks.


  1. Maverick (History)

    It is interesting that PM Modi has chosen restraint over the “strike-now” posture of his most vocal supporters. Either PM Modi is completely disconnected from the feelings of his supporters or his supporters’ feeling are divorced from the national security realities he faces.

    Pakistan has no counter for an IAF airstrike in Azad/Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. No amount of PAF exercises can compensate for their inadequacy in this arena. The view in New Delhi appears to be to use the threat of an IAF alpha strike as an escalatory cap/freezeout.

    On the lower rungs on the escalation ladder are long range recon patrols and artillery barrages on the LoC against the PA’s AWS operations.

    A long range recon patrol is attractive as it has the least logistical footprint, but then if you think of the risks involved politically and diplomatically when the thing goes pear shaped, then it is not as attractive. I think this sort of thing has happened before – IIRC the LRRP was disavowed to provide sufficient political and diplomatic clearance for the GoI’s subsequent maneuvering. I suppose the men of the LRRP knew what they were getting into but it was quite unpleasant really.

    The barrage against AWS is often passed around like it is somehow still viable. I think it only really worked back in 2002-2004 when the PA’s MSR to the 80th Inf Bde at Minimarg lay through the Neelum Valley. The barrages forced the routes to be shifted north via the Astore road and that increased the costs quite a bit for the PA posture in the region. The main problem with this IMO was that the PA basically vacated the positions and let the civilians face the brunt of the barrages. The barrages were long and the collateral was terrible. Most people in the know in Delhi found the entire idea distasteful. You see in India’s thinking the residents of the Neelum valley will still Indian citizens and harming them was not very acceptable unless they behaved in a specifically hostile manner. After some reassessment the Neelum valley was de-emphasized and the focus shifted to AIOS and anti-AWS operations along the southern LoC. These measures had questionable effectiveness as it really actually increased the demand for local intelligence on the Pakistani side and that in turned pushed them towards more infiltration. After all their local intel comes largely from this infiltration.

    There is very little room on the escalation ladder, but I find PM Modi’s supporters (especially the internet kind) don’t understand these details. It is not a surprise to me that he is choosing a path that is more in tune with the realities on the ground. I don’t know if his supporters can withstand that level of contact with the realities. Some people find it much easier to live in a world of fantasy.

  2. Maverick (History)

    Prime Minister Modi has cancelled the Permanent Commission meetings and the his trip to the SAARC meeting in Islamabad. This is a very high card to play in the game at this stage, it is an escalation to talk about water supply issues when both nations are so close to a shooting war.

    Some people think this is Prime Minister Modi’s way of appeasing his followers who are increasingly unhappy about his lack of overt action against Pakistan. This kind of thought might lead Pakistanis to believe that he is not serious about doing anything against Pakistan. This is NOT the case. Even if he is only doing this to appease his followers’ anger – this relatively minor step can pose an existential threat to Pakistan.

    By suspending the meetings of the Permanent Commission which allows India and Pakistan to make adjustments in the water distribution from the Indus Water Treaty, Prime Minister Modi has completely taken the military aspect out of the India Pakistan discussion.

    No Pakistani military operation will be able change Pakistan’s lower riparian status. Without the periodic meetings of the Permanent Commission, Pakistan will not be able to get for more water from India through military means. The entire Pakistani Army at this point is effectively shut out of the discussion.

    The Pakistan Army could seize control over the two main dams and the water distribution networks inside Pakistan, but after a few months of receiving phone calls from irate customers and constantly having the dispatch EME regiments to patch broken canals and dig borewells, I am guessing they will not be able to sustain the commitment and maintain any kind of internal discipline. I suspect even the Pakistani Army knows this fact.

    The Pakistani national strategy so far on the Permanent Commission has (very wisely) been to haggle over India’s rights to construct dams in Kashmir in exchange for releases of water from rivers further south. These southern rivers feed Pakistan’s most fertile areas where water is becoming increasingly scarce. The sub-conventional option in Kashmir (maintained at great political and diplomatic costs by the Pakistan Army) was really just about giving Pakistan some sort lever with which to haggle about India’s dam construction in Kashmir. By shifting the focus to the water issue directly – Prime Minister Modi has basically said that the military really has no role to play in the Indo-Pak discussion on development issues.

    Without an assurance of additional water from India, Pakistan’s agricultural sector will become prone to speculative dynamics in the market. Such speculative dynamics will hit the Pakistani agricultural sector hard. It is already suffering the adverse effects of a export related trade fluctuation. This will cause a lot of pain inside Pakistan where it already hurts.

    Today we are seeing a lot of fights break out over water rights inside Pakistan. Drawing water out of a canal or well is becoming quite a bit harder than it used to. Further speculation about the security of water supply will cause neighboring farms inside Pakistan to turn on each other. This will break up the intricate fabric of biradaries and castes that holds things together.

    I feel Pakistan needs to play its cards equally carefully otherwise it will slip into a civil war over water distribution.

  3. Maverick (History)

    There are news reports of cross border strikes by IA special forces. These appear to have been aimed at “Launch Pads”. In the vernacular of Indian counter-terrorism, the “Launch Pad” is the point in the infiltration chain where module crossing the LoC (line of Control) from Pakistan meets with its Army handlers and local guides. On the Pakistani side, the colonel commanding the local formation and the brigadier responsible for that sector are directly informed about the launch. The handler is usually a captain or at most a major in the ISI.

    Only the local guides know the local terrain to penetrate the AIOS (Anti Infiltration Obstacle System) that India has constructed on its side of the LoC. Once the module makes it across the AIOS it is usually met by UGWs (Underground Workers) of various Kashmiri separatist groups who host the module as it services its mission goals. Both the UGWs and the local guides typically are residents of India’s part of Kashmir.

    If the accounts by surrendered or captured infiltrators in India are to be believed, the “Launch Pad” is not a constant structure but rather a concept which can move as per the needs of the local terrain. It is usually in a well covered area to prevent surveillance by Indian OP/LPs on the LoC. The “Launch Pad” can seem close to the LoC on a map but given the terrain – it is usually positioned in a way that approaching it from the Indian side is difficult.

    In a manner reminiscent of the old East German Arbeitsgruppe Grenzen, most launches are usually accompanied by a distraction or a deception exercise. This deception exercise can be an artillery attack or an exchange of small arms fire with Indian positions at a nearby location, or it can be a fake launch which only pretends to approach the AIOS but doesn’t actually cross it. This deception element has ensured that the problem of the “Launch Pad” has vexed India’s national security types.

    The exact number of launch pads attacked by India recently varies between five and ten. I feel this reflects the impreciseness of the nature of intelligence regarding these targets. It is extremely difficult to get accurate information about the transit of a module so close to the LoC. Careful increases in India SF strength have ensured that should any intelligence be received, there are sufficient resources to carry out the necessary strike on such a location.

    That being said there is a very high likelihood of such strikes being completely ineffective as there is great difficulty pinpointing the infiltration attempt. The low effectiveness of such missions has traditionally discouraged their popularity in India’s strategic options packages. Some people have supported a few exploratory strikes as part of a symbolic or public diplomacy exercise. So far this idea has not secured much traction in India.

    The decision to make these hard targets the focus of a determined military strike reflects the Modi Administration’s desire to take whatever steps are necessary in this regard. It is not so much about the actual military damage caused but about the psychological impact of India demonstrating its resolve to take on the entire machinery of Pakistan’s sub-conventional operations.

    In my opinion this is a significant shift in India’s thinking about the problems caused by cross-border terrorism.I think these measures will carry the complete support of India’s public. These are not the actions of a New Delhi government that is running out of viable options, but rather the product of a very forceful, determined thought process that seeks a very specific policy goal.

    I suspect the real goal here is to either get Pakistan to drop sub-conventional options altogether or to get Pakistan to accept a weakened negotiation position in all future discussions on water resource distribution in the subcontinent.

  4. Maverick (History)

    I don’t think it has been very hard to detect a buildup of infiltrators on the Pakistani side. There are only certain seasons when infiltration is possible due to terrain and weather factors. Per the testimony of captured infiltrators, usually the modules are disguised as “Mujahid” Battalions and it should not be too hard to tell when the size of that “Mujahid” Battlation grows by a company or so. When the number of human beings in a permanent structure rises, it leave unmistakable physical signatures that can be “seen” in various ways. What has however been much harder to detect is the “Launch Pad”.

    News reports are saying that satellite imagery was used to detect the launch pads. If this is true then it would be most curious. No public domain reports state that India’s Cartosat spy satellite has IR capabilities or that it has the resolution to see densely forested regions. Without IR capabilities and resolution it would be difficult for a satellite to see through the forest cover. I am skeptical of such reports. Scheduling satellite coverage is a pain, and synchronizing it something as elusive as a launch pad would be quite an achievement even if the necessary multi-spectral high resolution component was actually available.

    I feel it is more likely that a UAV system modified to accommodate a LWIR camera was used to carry out the necessary surveillance. If the data was collected over a long enough time period, then a pattern would likely emerge in the data and that could be used for targeting the launch pads. The Indian Army has recently signed a contract to purchase LWIR thermal imagers (the CATHERINE series) from Thales. IIRC there were a number of experiments with other systems and suppliers going back about ten years. I strongly suspect that the LWIR imagery completely altered the tactical balance between the infiltrator and the defender on the LoC.

    Another issue that most likely factors into this is the change in India’s SF philosophy. Like most armed forces, India’s military leadership viewed SF as an oddity. There used to a lot of papers published in Indian military and strategy journals about how the leadership in India don’t understand the concept of a “SF” or special force and consequently they don’t employ it correctly. Many observers in India would routinely say that the Pakistani Army has a better grasp of these concepts than India does. All those views became very hard to ignore after Kargil.

    India’s leadership viewed the SF as a very expensive affair. There was a reluctance to put more resources into building large numbers of these units without clear purpose. The SF community was a motley crew spread thinly over dozens of cantonments without a clear command structure. That began to change rapidly in the last decade. In this time all Parachute regiment battalions in the Indian Army were brought up to the “SF” standard. Additionally major SF training and hosting facilities like Manesar were expanded and new dedicated special units like the IAF Garuds were raised.

    It was never clear to me if these increases were aimed at keeping pace with India’s need for faster response times or if India was mirroring Pakistan’s increase in the strength of its SSG and SOTF(Spider) units. Though the move attracted negative reviews from the traditional SF community in India, it proved quite beneficial for the security of the AIOS.

    The newly trained operators basically serviced breaches in the AIOS. With helicopter support, they drastically reduced the response time to a breach in AIOS. The core idea here seemed to be that when the module crosses over, it is most vulnerable before the UGW it contacts has time to “settle” in the mehmaan (guests). If the module could be intercepted at that time, then its effectiveness would be severely degraded. Just after the breach, the module would need time to rest and recuperate, that was the point at which a strike could neutralize it. By creating SF capabilities that were positioned within one hour of the breach point, the Indian Army changed the dynamics of infiltration.

    The recent raid may have used these “new” SF units in an offensive capability. I would be careful to distinguish this situation from random incidents of “aggressive patrolling” which typically only altered the parts of the LoC that were drawn with a “thick pen”. These “new” SF units seem to be going several kilometers into heavily defended Pakistani territory.

    If the IA can now mount several synchronized explorations of the Pakistani defense lines like this, then the tactical implications for the Pakistani LoC posture are quite grave. The “launch pads” are within easy approach from nearby Pakistani formations. The possibility of a IA SF strike on a garrison is not out of the realm of possibility. While the diplomatic impact of such a raid would be bad, the attack itself would enjoy an unusual level of deniability as neither the Indians nor the Pakistanis would be willing to admit it had happened. The Indians might simply assert that they have struck a “launch pad” and killed a few infiltrators and the Pakistanis would deny it. But then the Pakistanis would struggle to explain how an entire garrison strength of men suddenly died in the middle of the night.

  5. Maverick (History)

    I am still chewing through the scarce details that I can find to see where the real meat is. I confess I am struggling here – I can’t find an actual end point here even though I know what it should look like.

    The Indian Army seems to be saying to the Pakistani Army – “We can infiltrate behind your lines and disrupt the launch operations, we can get behind you and disrupt your logistics with minimal overhead. The QRFs necessary for this kind of thing are pre-positioned near the LoC and what seem to be defensive AIOS support formations today – tomorrow could just as easily be offensive capabilities”. That is a very delicate point I am sure the Pakistani Army would appreciate and I am sure they would get the sub-text here – that the IA can move the “thick pen drawn” line by as many km into Pakistan controlled territory as it desires.

    The Modi Administration for its part appears to be saying to the Pakistanis (not specifically the army) – “Unless you agree to an end to cross border terrorism – you are not allowed to ask for *more* water”. Again everyone in Pakistan appreciates the water issue and they all know that Pakistan Army can’t really secure that aspect of their nation. So again, one can be certain that all Pakistan will be listening when Prime Minister Modi speaks from now on.

    But here is where I am stalled. If we assume that the main aim of all this is the publicly stated objective of an end to cross border terrorism, we have to ask ourselves if the combined posture of the Indian Army and the Modi Administration actually leads to that end. That is where I am not seeing a clear path.

    Anyone would welcome an approach that demilitarizes the conflict and shifts the focus to a developmental race as opposed to a who-kills-more race, but then why indulge in an overt display of military prowess (that everyone knows resides in India) ? what is gained by putting the Pakistani posture on the LoC under duress at this time? This looks like overkill.

    And then if one goes a step further – instructing the BSF DG and the DGMO to go tone deaf when the Pakistanis ask for flag meetings on IA operations etc… that is indistinguishable from openly inviting a war.

    The Pakistanis historically have turned to sub-conventional options when they have largely accepted that there is no way to “conventionally” achieve their national security goals. Now if one shuts down the Kashmiri space for Pakistani sub-conventional options and simultaneously puts pressure on their ability to source sufficient amounts of water for their agricultural sector – how are they going to make any progress towards their national security goals? Isn’t one just driving them towards higher cost options by shutting down their lower cost packages? Isn’t this just going to make them more desperate and eager to pull 26/11 style stunts?

    Let us assume for the moment that the Pakistani national security machinery completely divorces itself from the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). This will simply lead to a civil war inside Pakistan. This will undo the last three years of work by the Pakistan Army which had largely pushed the violence out of Pakistani high-productivity eastern population centers and into Pakistan’s lower productivity sparsely populated North Western borderlands. A split with the LeT and JeM would bring the war back into the homeworlds of the Pakistan Army and back into the lands its Generals own and draw sustenance from.

    Why would they agree to light their own homes on fire? especially right after they have gone to such lengths to put out fires and sanitize their localities? In what version of reality does the Pakistan Army deliberately set Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore, Multan and Karachi on fire just to appease India? Especially right after they just put out most of the fires that had started when Musharraf agreed to help the US fight the Taliban on Sept 12, 2001? and just when their options for keeping an eye on India need to be expanded?

    So – call me stupid if you will – but India – is this really going to go where you want it to?

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      I appreciate your commentary, but I don’t follow the logic of your conclusion.
      Pakistan’s military leaders have swept aside civilian-led governments when core interests have been challenged. Over time, when leading the government, public disaffection grows because of the state of the economy, social services, education, etc., In due corse, a military man on horseback decides to hand these batons back to civilians.
      I don’t see the Pakistan military’s core interests being challenged by civilian leadership. Nor do I detect an appetite to run the country’s economy, electricity and… you name it. Rawalpindi has its hands full with the portfolios it controls. Why seek other portfolios that are nothing but headaches?

  6. Maverick (History)

    I think I finally understand what is happening. The pieces are slowly fitting together. I have been a fool not to see it earlier.

    Pakistan is being slowly nudged into a place where a military coup becomes inevitable.

    There is a peculiar cycle at work inside Pakistan’s politics. When civilian rule takes hold for a good period of time, the military becomes anxious – they begin to fear that their needs will be forgotten and the civilian “corruption” will overwhelm their own institutionalized variety. This phenomena is so deep seated in the construction of the Pakistani state, that you can set your clock by it. Once the military’s anxiety levels are high, it seeks avenues to manufacture national security crises where it can accuse the civilian leadership of being insufficiently supportive of the needs of national defense. Once that accusation is laid out, the civilian leadership regardless of their past is seen as an Indian provocation and it’s political stock becomes totally toxic. Pakistani people openly come out in support of the military every single time.

    Some pragmatic elements of India’s national security community know this cycle exists. They also know that there is no way to stop the clock. I suspect that they are seeking a path that ensures India’s interests are not compromised in the transition. I can understand if someone like Ram Madhav wants to see India taking a hard stance after the Uri attack, it is difficult for me to believe that someone as experienced as Gen. Dalbir Singh or Ajit Doval will support that hard stance. To move the needle with people like Gen Singh and NSA Doval – you need something substantial. I suspect that “thing” is the inevitability of a coup in Pakistan.

    I also personally feel a coup is overdue in Pakistan. The Indian decision to make substantial changes to their nuclear materials stockpile, the increase in the number of Indian nuclear capable bases and the growing emphasis on the Arihant submarine have added up to a silent but tectonic material shift in the ground situation.

    The Pakistan Army would obviously like to be in a position to control all aspects of Pakistan’s response to this shift. A coup is the natural vehicle for that kind of control as it politically desensitizes the situation and allows the Pakistan Army to make the necessary changes with little or no direct accountability. Decisions are taken and if anyone objects – they can simply be shot.

    The threat to cut Pakistan’s access to more water is still somewhat ambiguous. The Pakistan Army could be forgiven for thinking that it can simply have a coup – seize control of IRSA and just instruct the bureaucrats to supply water to Pakistan Army favored farms.

    The whole ending cross border terrorism story is a canard – whatever is going on is India jostling for a position of leverage in the Pakistani coup that is looming on the horizon.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      I hope you are wrong about a military coup. Pakistanis should stop focusing on India as a supposed “enemy.” There is no combination of terror, conventional force, or nuclear threats that can force India to give up its portion of Kashmir. The military (and supporting civilians) should admit to this basic fact and stop sponsoring coups. Fortunately, there is no “cycle” that makes a future coup “inevitable.” For the first time in Pakistani history, there have been two freely elected governments without a coup. Let’s keep up the good trend – and no more coups!

      India is not out to invade or conquer Pakistan. India simply wants Pakistan to stop with its terror tactics. For a long time, India has wondered what sort of military response would be sufficiently punishing without sparking a nuclear war. The conventional wisdom for almost two decades has been: Pakistan sponsors (or permits, or refuses to punish) terror attacks on India. India should not respond militarily because: Any Indian attack would (or could) lead to Pakistani first use of nuclear weapons, which in turn would (or could) lead to an Indian full scale nuclear attack on Pakistan, followed by a Pakistani full scale nuclear attack on India. This would be very bad news for India, Pakistan, and the world at large.

      If India has finally found a low-level military response that can punish terrorists without sparking a nuclear war, then good for India. Pakistan should be punishing the terrorists of its own initiative, and should stop making nuclear threats against India. The notion that Pakistan should extend its nuclear umbrella to protect terrorists attacking India is about the most perverse (and highly trivial) use of nuclear weapons that one could possibly think of, this side of complete insanity.

  7. Maverick (History)

    Dear Mike,

    I apologize for the stream of conscience posts. I used to be much better at just getting what India was doing, but now I struggle to form a coherent picture.

    If India pushes the water issues as it main negotiating plank in discussions with Pakistan’s civilian leadership, then the Pakistani army will have to admit that it can do nothing to change India’s control over the waters.
    That admission will effectively put the civilian government and the military on a collision course as the civilians will want to see the military back off on its aggressive behavior in the hope of getting more water out of India and the military for its part will state that whatever it is doing – it is critical to securing Pakistan. A natural clash will occur as it did during the Kargil crisis.

    Dear Jonah,

    You are correct when you say that the period between bouts of martial law is steadily increasing and hopefully it will continue this way but I don’t think one can guarantee that. One does not know which way the situation will swing, so a reasonable approach would be to say – why take chances? prepare for the devil you know. There is a pragmatic side to that calculation – if you are prepared for the coup – then you won’t be left re-working the policy structure when it happens.

    As long there is no clash between the military and the civilians over the “core” issues (nuclear weapons decision making or who gets the “lion’s share” etc…) there is no reason to have a coup but if a clash develops on some or all of these points, the pendulum swings towards a coup.

    I am not sure that I see anything in these raids that really punishes the terrorists enough to make them stop attacking India. At best it may be that the IA has successfully stopped the PA from getting through to its infiltration totals for this season.

    Anyway lets hope for the best – perhaps the situation will simply freeze out and there will be no further escalation.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Obviously, there are no guarantees for Pakistan’s future, or any country’s future. In a democracy, the civilians run the military, not the other way around. If the civilian leaders make different choices on military matters, including the nuclear weapons, the military must obey, not sponsor coups.

      If another coup attempt ever does occur, the people of Pakistan still have a choice: They can refuse to support the coup, and even actively resist the coup. Sometimes resistance results in turning back the coup. Would-be coup plotters need to account for the possibility, even likelihood, of coup failure. The military is not all-powerful, even in Pakistan.

      So long as neither country chooses to make war, the situation will likely fizzle, even if they do not make peace. Let’s hope for peace.