No exception need be taken for an Indian Air Chief to liken the regional security situation to a ‘volcano’ in his speech at the Air Force Day parade. He said, ‘“(The) current security scenario is like a volcano and may test your skills any time without warning. These times require swift action and commitment.” It can be inferred that the Air Force’s task of executing ‘surgical strikes’ in case of the next grievous terrorist provocation weighs on its Chief’s mind.
The occasion is meant to show case preparedness of the force to under-grid deterrence. This helps with deterring such a terror attack only in case the linkages with the Pakistani Establishment are assumed to be significant. That two serving military officers with the ISI figure on the red corner alert for their involvement in Mumbai 26/11, suggests that such linkages exist. The Establishment would not like to chance an Indian reaction. They would therefore keep such linkages under control.
What of the non-state actor and unauthorized linkages? Deterrence is meant to impact this player indirectly, by ensuring that the Establishment maintains surveillance, if not control, over the non-state actor. That no incident has occurred for the past nearly two years indicates that the strategy is working to an extent. When queried during his meeting with the press after his speech, the Air Chief clarified that his mention of ‘volcano’ was due to the security situation appearing as ever ready to ‘explode’. This implies that the threat persists, in effect, that even as the Establishment may be impressed by India’s preparedness, the non-state actor may be less so.
This owes to the non-state actor having acquired an autonomous agenda and capability. The linkages with the state are now only in so far as the state is useful in furthering mutual interests. Were these interests to diverge markedly, the non-state actor could embark on its own. This message has been broadcast to the Pakistani Establishment over the past two years through bomb attacks across Pakistan, the latest one being in Karachi. This explains Pakistani reluctance to rein in the non-state actors targeting India.
While the Establishment can be taken as being suitably deterred, it does not automatically follow that India is safer. The non-state actor can, under certain circumstances, instead use India’s hair trigger preparedness for its own purposes. Take the scenario in which it triggers an Indian military retaliation, now made more plausible by the Air Chief. It may not necessarily see the outcome as averse to its interests.
Pakistan may absorb such a strike or hit back. In case of the former, the right wing can make headway accusing the Pakistan Army of having ‘bangles’ on, the ultimate insult in South Asian culture to manhood. In case of the latter, it could still hope to profit from any escalation internally by exploiting uncertainty. If floods can expose the government, military operations would certainly be more telling.
Mumbai 26/11 was taken to have an Establishment signature since Pakistan wanted to divert Obama’s pressure by a South Asian crisis. This time Pakistan has managed to ward off similar pressure to act in FATA, coincident with operations resulting from the ‘surge’ across, citing the floods. Therefore, not having any reason, it is unlikely that this time round the provocation would have links into the Establishment. Therefore, if India were to execute retaliatory ‘surgical strikes’ at a minimum, it would be playing into the hands of non-state actors.
In other words, India’s quandary is that what is deterrence for the Establishment, serves to embolden the non-state actor. This then calls into question the military response option.Military retaliation has utility if it can induce Pakistan to finally act against anti-India non-state actors.
From the double-game with which Pakistan warded off US threats in respect of the Taliban earlier, it is evident that India cannot succeed. Instead, a lurch to the right may occur in Pakistan, quite as planned by the non-state actors in collusion with their partners in the Establishment. This way India would create a threat where none currently exists.
The limitations of the military option should logically then bring to fore other options India has. Hardliners would suggest India pay Pakistan back in the same coin through intelligence operations. It can at best exact a price. Chaos in Pakistan is useful only to the extent India is willing to clean up, along with the international community. This is not so. Besides, precedence elsewhere and in India proves that getting off the ‘intelligence tiger’ is usually difficult.
The second policy option suggests itself, that of progressing the peace process. Externally, the latest stand-off in the UN with Pakistan, and internally, not taking the eight points initiative further, such as by appointing the promised interlocutors, indicates that this lacks urgency. Inattention may yet prove the Air Chief prophetic.
Musharraf’s revelations to Barkha Dutt bare the motives of Pakistani proxy war. It is instrumental yet. Outsourcing Indian security to the Pakistani Establishment, in terms of controlling the non-state actors, requires at a minimum, engaging with it.