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#88, 30 August 2003

Coercive Diplomacy: Operation Parakram: An Evaluation

Report of the IPCS seminar held on 8 August 2003
Aisha and Prafulla Ketkar, Research Officers, IPCS

Chair:PR Chari

Speaker:Maj Gen Ashok Mehta

Discussant:Lt Gen VK Sood

The moderator for the session, P R Chari, initiated the discussion by stating that Operation Parakram cannot be dubbed either as an ‘outstanding success’ or a ‘great failure’ as the truth lies somewhere in between. While ceding the floor to the main speaker Lt. Gen. Ashok Mehta, he suggested the discussion look into two important issues: i) Feasibility of limited conventional or nuclear war in the subcontinent and ii) State of reforms in the defence apparatus

Maj Gen Ashok Mehta

Last year India embarked upon the path of ‘coercive diplomacy’ through Operation Parakram. The venture was undertaken in the name of ‘self-defence’, which provided adequate justification in the post 9/11 environment. But to judge Operation Parakram as a failure or success would be wrong, as it was an untested venture. However, coercive diplomacy failed due to the mismatch of India-US diplomacy and India’s failure to think through the end game.

Operation Parakram, the name given to the 10 month-long mobilization and deployment of troops along the LOC, comprised of 3 distinct strands namely Diplomacy, Conventional Military and Nuclear. The aim of the Operation was to curb proxy war and end terrorism. The mobilization was intended to back diplomacy; hence the entire exercise was an attempt at coercive diplomacy. The Operation pressed into service the Indian Army and Air Force. The big picture sketched out for the Operation consisted of 4 essential ingredients and 1 assumption. The 4 ingredients were:

  1. Application of military pressure for meeting political ends
  2. Backing coercive diplomacy with regular diplomacy;
  3. Asserting the importance of war as an instrument of last resort;
  4. Reiterating the primacy of political will.

The underlying assumption on which Operation Parakram was based was the unflinching support and cooperation of the US to end CBT (Cross Border Terrorism).

On the question of how close the two countries came to war, Gen. Mehta said that it was touch and go on many occasions with special reference to six strategic opportunities that came India’s way. While the first two opportunities, pre 9/11 and post 9/11, were prior to the December 13 attack on the Indian Parliament, the others came in the wake of the attack on Parliament. 16 December, 9 January and 9 June were some of these critical occasions. December 16 saw passions run high after the Parliament attack, making war with Pakistan seem inevitable. January 9 provided an opportune time for India to initiate an offensive against Pakistan, which was preoccupied with the Taliban on the Durand Line. US assurances and Musharraf’s speeches defused the volatile situation. Musharraf’s 12 January and 27 May speeches need special mention. While the former was seen as a statement of intent that helped defuse the January 9 crisis, the 27 May speech embodied a guarantee to end cross-border terrorism and thereby facilitate defusing the June 9 situation. However, by June 9, the surprise element was lost. What followed in later months were incessant deliberations about the future course of action. September-October provided the much needed window closing incentive that brought to an end the 10 month long deployment. The military was convinced of the feasibility of undertaking a successful short duration, limited war under the nuclear threshold. Lack of political will proved to be the stumbling block.

On the reasons for not going to war with Pakistan, the General said that they ranged from costs-benefit analysis to lack of courage. Here are some of them:

  • The costs and risks of going to war outweighed the gains accruing from it.
  • India did not have the stomach for war, especially with the US failing to act as a force multiplier.
  • Gujarat riots opened another front for India.
  • Going to war would signal the failure of coercive diplomacy.
  • The Government was not as certain as the military was on the efficacy of going to war.
  • As for the reasons for the failure of Operation Parakram, they are:
  • Coercion was not calibrated. Issues like who is coercing whom and to what ends, were not deliberated beforehand. Last step, i.e. deployment, was taken first.
  • The entire Operation lacked synergy and packaging
  • Absence of an exit strategy. This resulted in the futile threat of war for a period long beyond its relevance.

On the issue of US involvement the speaker said that the US played an ‘intimate and intricate’ role in the entire crisis. It shifted between being Musharraf’s messenger to being his guarantor. The US’s objective was to prevent the outbreak of war between India and Pakistan, which it considers as a ‘nuclear flashpoint’, at all costs. It deterred India from following in its footsteps as in Afghanistan by stating that India was not the US and Pakistan was not the Taliban and hence India should show restraint and solve the differences by dialogue.

Operation Parakram had positive as well as negative fallouts. Among the positive ones were:

1.Professional benefits for the Army. There was no loss of morale.

2.Infiltration came down considerably; by as much as 53% according to one estimate.

3.For the first time the complicity of Pakistan Army and its support to jehadi elements came under international scrutiny.

4.The Operation dispelled doubts of nuclear instability in the region. Between 22 May - 8 June, as many as 7-8 signals were exchanged between the two countries to present a nuclear showdown.

The negative fallouts of the Operation included the following:

1.Pakistan was emboldened by the episode. It felt they had deterred India. However, according to the speaker, India was in reality ‘self-deterred’; and only slightly deterred by the US.

2.India felt let down by the US in its mission of tackling CBT.

3.India failed to achieve strategic space as well as strategic autonomy.

The end result was that,

  • US strategic presence increased in the region.
  • Pakistan continues to be a frontline ally of the US.
  • 13/12 stalemate continues.
  • The only positive result has been the initiation of a peace dialogue between India and Pakistan.

Among the lessons learnt was the fact that coercive diplomacy is most effective in an asymmetric situation. Between equals, conventional diplomacy works best. Finally, Operation Parakram cannot be compared to Operation Brasstacks. While Operation Brasstacks was a training exercise, Operation Parakram was a real operation, but not put to test. Hence to state that it was a success or a failure would be incorrect.

Lt Gen VK Sood

Operation Parakram, an enormous exercise in logistics, was intended as an attempt at coercive diplomacy, without its perquisites.  Coercive diplomacy is meant to back ones’ demand on an adversary with the threat of punishment for non-compliance, which is potent enough for the adversary to comply. It comprises four essential variables:


2.Means used for creating a sense of urgency.

3.Defining the threatened punishment for non-compliance. Threatened use of force marks the threshold.

4.Use of incentives for compliance.

Efficacy of coercive diplomacy depends on:

  • Adversary’s motivation and commitment and,
  • Adversary’s assessment of the credibility or potency of own threat.

According to the Gen. Sood, Musharraf never took India seriously, especially after January, when India lost a golden opportunity to embark on an offensive against a distracted Pakistan, which was waging war against the Talibans on the Durand Line. The two biggest flaws that proved to be the undoing of Operation Parakram were:

  • Lack of political will: This was the reason for India’s inability to wage a war against Pakistan, as also for Pakistan ignoring the threat. Despite the mobilization being initiated in December, no political directive was provided to the Service Chiefs for execution as late as in August 2002. On the contrary, the Chief of Army Staff was asked to draw up a directive in August to extricate the Army from the imbroglio.
  • Lack of exit strategy: Exit strategy for the adversary as well as own self is of paramount importance to the success of any operation. Operation Parakram lacked this basic component. Only at the time of demobilization was some objective ‘contrived’; and put forth as reasons for pulling out which was termed ‘strategic relocation’.

Other shortcomings noted included:

  • Late and unrealistic assessment of US help - This aspect should have been looked into before embarking on the mission, not after, as was done in this case.
  • Wrong move - During Kargil, military action followed conventional diplomacy. In Operation Parakram, it was the opposite, ensuring its doom from the very beginning. The goal of achieving a ‘Kargil in reverse’ required the use of air power, which could then have a cascading effect and escalate the crisis. However, salami slicing or surgical strikes would have served the purpose and prevented further escalation.
  • Loss of credibility is equivalent to loss of war, which India had to suffer by undertaking this unsuccessful Operation. Deployment without the ability to use force is ‘puffery’, which India indulged in. Though there was no long-term and permanent damage to the morale of the Armed Forces, there was certainly great disillusionment among the younger officers as a result of this Operation.


  • Some of the issues and queries that were raised in the ensuing question and answer session were as follows:
  • Gen VP Malik: Gen. Malik’s basic premise was that India is, at least at the psychological level, a ‘non-military’ nation. Therefore no military action should take place without national support. On Operation Parakram, the General was of the opinion that it was lack of a clear aim (e.g. putting an end to CBT or demanding the handing over of the list of 20) and political objectives that resulted in the fiasco. On the larger issue of the efficacy of coercive diplomacy, he believed that any long drawn out coercive diplomacy will erode defence credibility and capability, thereby proving ineffectual. This is all the more pertinent for a country like India, which is an amateur in the field of coercive diplomacy, as seen during the Sri Lankan crisis. Pointing to the disconnect at two levels – between military personnel and diplomats on the one hand and political leadership and military leadership on the other, Gen. Malik blamed this on the lack of comprehensive understanding of each others compulsions that led to eventual failure of these operations. According to the General, post-Pokhran II has heralded a new situation in which the military man is entrusted with the task of providing different options to political masters. The General had coined the term ‘strategic relocation’ for describing what was to be the escape route from Operation Parakram.

  • Gen. Vohra:  Gen. Vohra dwelt on the place of war for middle level countries like India. He was of the opinion that India is not in a position to overwhelm Pakistan through exercises in coercive diplomacy. Punitive action and surgical strikes are two feasible options against Pakistan.

  • Anand Verma: Mr. Verma was of the opinion that India’s capability of engaging in coercive diplomacy is a myth considering its poor record in the past. Coercive diplomacy is not India’s cup of tea as India lacks the essential ‘killer instinct’ to carry out such tasks. This was proved beyond doubt during Operation Brasstacks, which had a hidden political agenda, but failed because of the lack of will power on India’s part. He strongly believed that Pakistan will never give upon Kashmir, nor stop its proxy war. Dependence on US good offices to remedy the situation will also prove futile as being an ally of Pakistan, the US is bound to fail us, as seen on many occasions in the past, when India’s national interests clashed with those of Pakistan’s. In a situation where neither coercive diplomacy nor good offices will yield results, the only solution is to make India overwhelmingly superior to Pakistan in all respects.

  • Air Commodore Jasjit Singh:In Jasjit Singh’s view use of force includes questions of credibility, capability and communication. It also calls for an immaculate selection of time, method and limits. Operation Parakram was India’s first venture in offensive defence. Its failure was because of the stalemate that it permitted. He made two important observations: i) political will sans national will in a democratic set up will result in failure as seen in the case of Operation Parakram, which failed to muster consensus within and outside government. ii) One cannot ignore the international environment or global opinion while making a choice of strategy and application of force.

  • Ambassador Salman Haider: Amb. Haider, at the outset, dispelled the popular assumption that all government departments work in opposition to each other. He said that there is a harmonious and constructive relationship among various government agencies. On the question of war, his conviction was that no self- respecting government would ever go to war on emotive issues.

  • Lt Gen BS Mallik: Gen BS Mallik stated that Pakistan thought that India backed out, because of its own weakness, and hence there was no need to make any concessions. However, the Europeans are of the view that coercive diplomacy achieved a lot. It established a connection between CBT and deterrence. Moreover, it has shown that the cost of CBT can be raised to cause internal failure.

  • Dr Salma Bawa: Dr Bawa blamed the lack of a politico-strategic decision-making culture as the root cause of India’s dismal performance in Operation Parakram. She was critical about India’s dependence on outside players, like the US, for assistance, despite having grand illusions of becoming a global player. She lamented the lack of synergy between the defence and political leadership in a democratic setup like ours.

  • Brigadier Subhash Kapila: Brig Kapila felt that India had no scope for coercive diplomacy in Operation Parakram, as it lacked the three essential components required, namely, i) political will, ii) war preparedness and iii) strategic vision. The US will never allow India to impose its will on Pakistan. He questioned the role and effectiveness of advisory bodies like the NSAB (National Security Advisory Board) and NSC (National Security Council). On the issue of diplomacy, the primacy of PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) over Foreign office was questioned. The two suggestions made by Brig. Kapila were: i) Need for constructive political engagement of the armed forces with the leadership and ii) evolving other options, apart from the use of force, in dealing with Pakistan.

  • Kalyan Raman:He blamed the lack of a well thought out course of action as the main cause for the failure of India’s tryst with coercive diplomacy.  Negating the allegation that coercive diplomacy fails between nuclear weapon states, he cited the example of the USA and the USSR during the Cuban missile crisis. Appreciating the sanctity of the LOC, which India maintained during the Kargil crisis, he suggested the need for crossing the international border at other points to punish Pakistan.

  • Arpit Rajain: Arpit felt that the attack on the Indian Parliament was violation of the highest threshold, which compelled India to undertake a game of bargaining in the form of Operation Parakram. But for any bargain to work the response of the party targeted (in this case Pakistan) is crucial. One of the main reasons for the failure of Operation Parakram was India’s lack of credibility in the eyes of Pakistan. According to him, the US factor was a big factor in the entire crisis.

Some of the other issues that found mention during the discussion were:

  • How does one use military force to achieve political objectives in a nuclearised environment?
  • How can a limited war be kept limited, when two nuclear powers are involved?
  • How can a limited war be fought in pursuit of limited objectives?
  • There was speculation that the change in US support might be a result of the change in India’s stand from short, surgical strikes to deep, penetrating attacks.



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