India’s own experience with the idea of limited air strikes underscores the key problems. In 1981, the Indian government examined the feasibility of an air strike at Pakistan’s nuclear project in Kahuta. It concluded that while it might be possible to neutralise Kahuta, at least 50 percent of the attacking force would be lost. Furthermore, Pakistan would undoubtedly react, leading to a wider war. Interestingly, the Americans tipped off Pakistan. The Pakistanis, in turn, warned the Indians that if Kahuta was struck, they would hit Indian nuclear facilities in Trombay, located as they are amid a major population centre. In the event, Indira Gandhi decided against the idea.
Indeed, any Indian attack will draw a proportionate response from Pakistan. The Pakistani army chief has openly stated as much. This would leave India to decide whether it wants to escalate further or pull back with resultant loss of face—both equally unattractive options. The pressure at that point would likely force New Delhi to raise the stakes; Pakistan will respond in kind. Escalation is, therefore, inherent in this situation.
The assumption that a surgical strike will enable India to pressurise Pakistan without risking war is gravely mistaken. President Kennedy’s advisor, McGeorge Bundy, put it well: a surgical strike, like all surgery, will be bloody, messy, and you will have to go back for more.