The attack by militants on an Indian air base in Pathankot in 2016 was followed by a spate of eerily similar attacks emanating from the Pakistani side of the Line of Control (LoC) that separates India from Pakistan. The militants had the same intention each time: to attack security personnel and military infrastructure in India. In the multiple terror attacks that have followed since Pathankot (namely, in Kupwara, Gurdaspur, Pampore, Khwaja Bagh, Pulwama, Poonch, Uri, Udhampur, Nagrota and Pampore, a second time), Indian security personnel have faced a war of attrition and seemingly insurmountable odds against an unconventional enemy that sneaks in through hostile and unfriendly terrain.

Persistent cross-border terrorism from the Pakistani side of the LoC has continued unabated, specifically targeting military bases and personnel. For the Indian soldiers, manning a challenging melange of dense forests, hilly terrain and snow, where more than one-third of the barbed-wire fencing is damaged by snow each winter, has proved physically lethal and mentally tiring. Under these circumstances, “surgical strikes” conducted by the Indian military in September last year, on militant launch pads across the LoC, appeared to be an unprecedented response from New Delhi to cross-border terrorism. But did the strikes serve their purpose?

India’s Lowering Threshold

India’s declared nuclear policy of “no first use” and “credible minimum deterrence”, together with its conventional non-aggressive foreign policy inspired by its leadership of the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) and, to some extent, the bilateral ceasefire agreement that was signed in 2003 between India and Pakistan, went a long way in shaping India’s traditional policy of strategic restraint towards Pakistan.

For years, things had come to such a pass that cross border firing, ceasefire violations, terrorist infiltration from across the LoC, and even attacks on security personnel in Jammu and Kashmir had become the new hackneyed normal for New Delhi. These were complemented by terror attacks on Indian military bases near the border and the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks in which more than 160 people lost their lives and many more were injured.

This strategy of persistent limited escalation through trained and equipped terror elements from across the LoC suited the Pakistan intelligence agency’s (ISI) motives and, by extension, the Pakistan military’s too. Much of Pakistan’s motives behind continued limited escalation lay in testing India’s retaliatory threshold. India’s lack of punitive retaliation after small skirmishes caused Islamabad to assume that New Delhi wouldn’t retaliate. The logic in Pakistan was that if India did not retaliate after the Mumbai attacks, there was little possibility that it would do so in the case of low-intensity terror attacks.

This strategy has often been tacitly and sometimes overtly backed by Islamabad’s threat of using nuclear weapons against India. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has grown rapidly over the last few years and is currently assessed as arguably the fastest growing nuclear weapons stockpile in the world. The threat of nuclear weapons has long been used by Pakistan to make up for its conventional military deficit apropos India.

A change of thought was crucial on India’s part in effecting an appropriate response to the rise in militancy in the border areas. What has irked the Indian side most is the rather definite support and involvement of Pakistan’s state institutions in tolerating, supporting and even furthering cross-border terrorism. To that extent, the surgical strikes undertaken as a response by the Indian government to sustained militant attacks from the Pakistani side of the LoC had a new purpose: to reset the quantum and manner of India’s response to cross-border militancy. Its intended goal, however, seems far from having been achieved.

Paradigm Shifts Signalled by the Surgical Strikes

In the line of successive attacks by Pakistani militants on Indian military bases and facilities, the Uri attacks in which 19 Indian soldiers lost their lives proved to be the metaphorical last straw. In a marked shift, India decided to evince a lowered threshold for its stated policy of ‘strategic restraint’ vis-à-vis its western neighbour and arch-rival Pakistan. After cautious and near circumspect approach towards its nuclear neighbour, the Modi government in New Delhi decided to back its pre-victory electoral rhetoric with actions on the ground by conducting surgical strikes against at least seven terrorist launch pads functional in the part of Kashmir occupied by Pakistan (PoK).

The overnight surgical strikes conducted in the PoK by the Indian military and its subsequent assertion that it could do so again in the future, if need be, are moves that can be read as a new Indian doctrine against Pakistan. The Modi government unveiled a new approach towards dealing with Pakistan which appeared to have transitioned from strategic restraint to offensive defence. This came on the back of several diplomatic feelers by India to Pakistan, frustration with several terrorist attacks on the homeland, and Pakistan’s continued and blatant denial of terrorist ‘launch pads’ on its territory.

By denying the surgical strikes, the Pakistani military and establishment looked to achieve two objectives: for one, it negated the idea of any violation of its sovereignty by India, and hence tried to establish a rhetoric of conventional military parity with India by preventing any questions that would have arisen on Pakistan’s military readiness, had Islamabad acknowledged the strikes; second, it sought to quell any aspersions about the undeniable links between its military/intelligence and cross-border terrorism in India. Any claims by Pakistan acknowledging the surgical strike by India would have led to an implicit corroboration of its complicity with terrorist groups.

New Delhi’s decision to conduct an operation against militants in PoK comprised strategic thought on various counts. For one, the strike drew a red line that defines India’s intermittent irregularity in conventional retaliatory capabilities vis-à-vis Pakistan, with a latent caveat that such a response is a vibrant possibility in the future.

Second, India’s claims of having photographic evidence of the operation would be another tool that New Delhi could employ to bolster its latest strategy of isolating Pakistan internationally. India’s vigorous anti-terror diplomacy directed against Pakistan has surfaced on various international platforms this year, both bilaterally and on multilateral forums. The Goa Declaration in the 8th BRICS summit and the Heart of Asia conference, both hosted by India this year, reflected India’s terror concerns. This appeared to be India’s follow up strategy on the surgical strikes to initiate international action against Pakistan.

Third, India has indicated that its latest doctrine would not be to counter Pakistan’s nuclear rhetoric verbally but through decisive actions intended to bolster border security and missile defence. In April 2016, satellite-monitored laser walls were activated along the Indo-Pak border in Punjab, to check militants and intruders from crossing over to the Indian side of the border. Post the Uri attacks, India has also focussed on the construction of bunkers on its side of the border to protect its soldiers from heavy mortar shelling and sniper fire from across the border. These strategies signal newer ways of fortifying military positions by India in border areas.

Strategy Going Forward

While the cross-border strikes were a timely recalibration of India’s policy response to cross-border terrorism from Pakistan, in retrospect, it has failed to be the intended deterrent. India’s cross-border action has been followed by irresolute and heavy firing from the Pakistani side of the LoC, mainly targeting civilian areas near the border. Although India has responded in equal measure, low intensity strikes continue from across the border, even as the winter has impeded security forces in the mostly mountainous region contiguous to the LoC.

However, New Delhi’s challenge will be in preventing the surgical strikes from being a one-off event. For this, the posturing and rhetoric will have to be backed by action from New Delhi. The key to any such future strategy would rest in India’s ability to project force along the border, bolstered by effective intelligence on potential terror activities and improvement of border security through strengthening ‘the five-layer safeguards’—an elaborate plan approved by New Delhi to completely stop infiltration from across the border. The Indian military is up for a technological leap with CCTV cameras, thermal image and night-vision devices, battlefield surveillance radar, underground monitoring sensors and laser barriers that will be placed along the border to track any threat from the other side of the border. Christened the Comprehensive Integrated Border Management System (CIBMS), the multi-layered border protection system also includes other measures, such as installing 200,000 floodlights all along the 2,900-kilometre long border. The Indian military also intends to replace border patrolling by CIBMS, which in turn will be backed by quick response teams.  

Increasing cross-border militancy has also had the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs think of completely sealing India’s border with Pakistan by 2018. It remains unclear as to what portions of the over 3000-kilometre border—running from Gujarat to Jammu and Kashmir—will be sealed. Whether wire-fencing or concrete, completely sealing treacherous areas contiguous to the India-Pakistan border will be near impossible.

Further, India’s strong ballistic missile defence capacity, being built gradually since 1999, will prove crucial in undercutting Pakistan’s strategic strike capabilities from across the border. In its quest to build its own ‘Iron Dome’, India has successfully tested the Barak 8 surface-to-air missile defence system and the Ashwin missile. More importantly, New Delhi signed a deal with Russia for acquiring five S-400 Triumf air defence missile systems. India seeks to create an effective ballistic missile defence system through a two-tier protection near its border by employing both low-altitude and high-altitude interceptor missiles.

India should also focus on increasing international isolation of Pakistan—the US being a potential game changer in that strategy. As clarity grows on Pakistan’s role in abetting international terrorism, there is increasing reluctance from the US in siding with Islamabad. In 2016, the Pentagon blocked $300 million in military reimbursements to Pakistan under the Coalition Support Fund and has made $400 million subject to effectiveness review for the next slot.

Although Prime Minister Modi and President-Elect Donald Trump are likely to find some common ground vis-à-vis Pakistan on Islamist terror, even such a strategy is riddled with immense challenges. India’s attempt to isolate Pakistan internationally has been impeded by growing China-Pakistan cooperation through the China-Pakistan Economic Cooperation (CPEC). China has already blocked India’s efforts to include the Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Maulana Masood Azhar’s name in the United Nations sanctions list.

China’s Pakistan policy can be attributed to India’s own growing proximity towards the US, together with its growing military strength in the region. Two recent examples are India’s positioning of the Brahmos missiles near its eastern borders with China and the fourth successful test of its AGNI V missile capable of reaching most Chinese cities. Increasing Russia-Pakistan bonhomie has further compounded New Delhi’s troubles vis-à-vis its neighbour. This intricate web of geopolitical rift lines in Asia show the limited likelihood of international action in curbing functional terror networks inside Pakistan, including the dreaded Haqqani network.

Perhaps, New Delhi’s best bet lies in a multifaceted approach that seeks to reduce Pakistan’s strategic relevance through enhanced participation in Afghanistan. New Delhi ought to also shape international discourse on terrorism emanating from Pakistan by furnishing the evidence that it has collected over the years. New Delhi must also isolate Pakistan regionally through proactive leadership to foster cooperation among the rest of South Asia, promoting sub-regional groupings that exclude Pakistan such as the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) alliance and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor.

Vivek Mishra is Assistant Professor in International Relations for Asia at the Netaji Institute For Asian Studies and was formerly a Fulbright-Nehru Doctoral Research Scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War & Peace at Columbia University.