Shrewd move: India’s surgical strikes delivered the right messages to multiple audiences at once

India seems to be making progress in identifying and implementing strategies that will more effectively pre-empt and deter terrorism over the long run.

For the moment at least, India’s decision to launch “surgical strikes” across the Line of Control seems to have passed the Goldilocks test: neither too hot nor too cool, too hard nor too soft, too large nor too small. It was just right. The strikes plugged a big hole in India’s policy repertoire and simultaneously delivered the right messages to multiple audiences at once. Rarely has New Delhi managed such a shrewd response to terrorist provocation.

Facing political and strategic compulsions to respond to the Uri attack with force, Prime Minister Narendra Modi correctly judged that business-as-usual policies (such as cross-border artillery fire and diplomatic gestures) were unlikely to convince his Indian constituents that he was truly a tougher leader than his predecessor. Although some of Modi’s staunchest supporters might still prefer an outright war with Pakistan, surgical strikes – along with the way they were announced to the world – were sufficiently novel and robust to sate domestic appetites.

Unfortunately, managing India’s agenda with Pakistan is even more complicated than its domestic politics. A successful Indian strategy would need to end cross-border (or cross-LoC) terrorism and thereby set the stage for a negotiated path to normalisation. But as George Perkovich and Toby Dalton argue in their perfectly timed new book, Not War, Not Peace? Motivating Pakistan to Prevent Cross-Border Terrorism, to accomplish this end, New Delhi must compel Pakistani generals to shift course, primarily by convincing them that terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba bring more pain than gain. This has proven to be an extremely difficult task, and not just for India. Exhibit A: the United States has failed repeatedly since 2001 to compel Pakistan to turn forcibly against Taliban leaders who took up residence inside Pakistan after their overthrow in Afghanistan.

No one should expect that one round of surgical strikes could tip Rawalpindi into a fundamentally different approach with LeT or similar outfits. Even so, the strikes were smartly designed to hit militants that Pakistani leaders profess not to support, and in a manner that Pakistan’s generals were likely to downplay. In both respects, they resemble recent American strikes against Taliban leaders inside Pakistan, such as the one that killed Taliban chief Mullah Mansoor last May.

The Goldilocks test

Killing terrorists on Pakistani soil reinforces the message that India is not primarily engaged in a post-colonial territorial dispute with its smaller neighbour, as Pakistan would have it, but is determinedly defending itself against violent extremists in a conflict that affords little moral ambiguity. In an ideal world, this message would resonate with Pakistan’s own leaders, given that they are in the midst of a counterinsurgency campaign against groups whose animating ideologies are not, in fact, terribly different from the groups attacking India. So India is right to try to drive a wedge between the Pakistani state and anti-Indian terrorist groups, even if the effort does not yield immediate benefits. A sustained campaign of this sort could conceivably bear fruit over time, at a cost short of all-out war.

India’s surgical strikes also deserve praise for not forcing Pakistan into an immediate escalation of violence. Pakistan has decided to reject India’s version of events, presumably because the alternatives – admitting India’s success and coming up with a suitable military response of its own – were judged even more difficult or risky.

In addition to their other virtues, India’s strikes play exceptionally well in Washington, DC. As compared to the many other military actions New Delhi could have taken, United States officials can hardly criticise preemptive counter-terror missions that bear more than a passing resemblance to America’s own strikes inside Pakistan. Moreover, this episode unfolds just as US sympathies are clearly tipping in India’s favour. American attitudes began to shift after the September 2001 attacks. Whereas past generations of US policymakers viewed South Asia through the lens of the intractable Indo-Pakistani dispute (and Kashmir in particular), now they tend perceive India as a fellow victim of global terrorism. Mumbai was a particular turning point in the development of this narrative which, of course, is reinforced by other strategic, people-to-people, and ideological connections that draw India and the United States closer together day by day.

This is not to suggest that India must bleed at the hands of terrorists to win American affection. To the contrary, it is India’s unreserved commitment to fighting terrorism that opens the door to closer US-India security cooperation, including sales and co-production of sensitive military technologies of the sort the United States now shares with close democratic partners like Israel.

Looking to the future, India should take care not to surrender the moral high ground that it enjoys in Washington with respect to Pakistan. Surgical strikes against terrorists are smart in a way that veiled threats to foment insurgency in Balochistan are not. As Perkovich and Dalton correctly point out, it is not in India’s interest to have people think it is engaged in the same sort of ugly proxy war games as Pakistan.

Ultimately, policymakers in New Delhi must appreciate that the utility of surgical strikes – or any similar approach – will be judged by whether they begin to reshape the cross-border security dynamic in India’s favour. Although it is possible that we will remember these strikes as a single-shot tactic or even as the precursor to a new round of devastating violence, their initial successes offer encouraging reasons to hope that India is making progress in identifying and implementing strategies that will more effectively pre-empt and deter terrorism over the long run.

Daniel Markey is Senior Research Professor in International Relations and Academic Director of the Global Policy Program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. He is the author of No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad.

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