The strategic implications of India’s cross-border raid

The government’s challenge will be to quickly consolidate psychological and military gains from this conflict and use intelligence and political methods to prevent the need for such operations in the future.

In a classic study on the evolution of co-operation in the early 1980s, political scientist Robert Axelrod demonstrated that the best way to ensure desired behaviour in an adversary is to engage in tit-for-tat. This seems juvenile, even repugnant to many civilised people. Yet, counter-intuitive as it may be, tit-for-tat strategies are known to bring about peace and stability among irreconcilable adversaries who do not trust each other.130507-A-DK678-010

With this week’s cross-border raid by Indian special forces against militant camps, the Modi government has given it back to the NSCN(Khaplang) and KYKL guerrillas for their unprovoked ambush of Indian army troops a few days earlier. That the retaliation is heavier than the provocation is calculated to signal New Delhi’s new determination—both to the militants and to the Indian people—to take the fight to the enemy. If the militants get the message and desist from further attacks, then this chapter has ended for now. If they do not, and decide to up the ante, New Delhi will be faced with tougher decisions on escalating or deepening the conflict.

As the raid has shown, India’s armed forces have adequate capacity to not only retaliate successfully but to dominate the adversary. However, if the conflict draws on, other factors: political and diplomatic costs, co-operation from the foreign governments, public perception and conflict economies will begin to take the shine off. The militants know this, and we should not be surprised if they try to regain psychological advantage by trying to draw the Indian armed forces into more fighting. The Modi government’s challenge will be to quickly consolidate psychological and military gains from this conflict and use intelligence and political methods to prevent the need for such operations in the future.

What about the wider implications of this attack? First, militant groups operating on India’s frontiers and within India will have to reckon with the risk that New Delhi will more readily employ military force against them. Also, public opinion is largely supportive of the government taking a muscular approach to conflict management. Therefore, it is likely that they will have greater pause for thought before crossing thresholds of violence.

Second, it should be noted that New Delhi’s act was a punitive, retaliatory strike and not an unprovoked armed intervention in an ongoing conflict. It is an act of “offensive defence” which implicitly lays down a red line: New Delhi will not act with force if the line is not crossed (and, conversely, act decisively it it is). This position opens up space for negotiated settlement, albeit on terms favouring the Indian government.

Third, we should not immediately expect the Modi government to take an interventionist approach in conflicts in India’s subcontinental and maritime neighbourhood. New Delhi’s response to the arrest and incarceration of former Maldives’ pro-India president Mohamed Nasheed and the provocative rhetoric by President Yameen’s officials has been hands off, with a mild diplomatic rebuke at best. We should not therefore expect this week’s operation to indicate a new willingness in New Delhi to militarily intervene in neighbourhood’s domestic or international conflicts that do not have a direct bearing on India’s defence.

Fourth, there has been rhetoric–some deliberately employed by the Modi government’s politicians–suggesting that New Delhi could do the same vis-a-vis Pakistan should the need arise. Many analysts, especially Pakistani ones, have countered this by drawing attention to the nuclear angle and to the fact that unlike the Myanmarese government, Islamabad will not countenance an Indian military operation, even a limited targeted one involving special forces, on its soil. They are not wrong in this contention.

However, the Modi government’s highly publicised cross-border raid challenges the comfortable conclusions drawn by the Pakistani military-jihadi complex that they can carry out terrorist attacks against India with impunity, secure in the knowledge that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons will limit New Delhi’s response. India’s national security requires communicating to the malcontents in Pakistan that if New Delhi exercises restraint, it is by its own choice. India could very well choose to respond with force, putting the ball in Pakistan’s court on whether it is Rawalpindi/Islamabad that now wants to escalate the conflict.

This is obviously risky. The Modi government is hinting that it is prepared to take such a risk. For instance, it is common knowledge that both Pakistani and Indian troops cross the Line of Control to carry out minor tactical operations. The next time a terrorist attack is traced back to Pakistan, New Delhi might well decide to let special forces cross the Line of Control deeper into Pakistani-held territory. The Line of Control, after all, is not an international border. No Indian prime minister, not even Narendra Modi, wants to be in a situation where he has to order this. But he just might. Pakistan, for its part, no longer enjoys the patronage and sympathy of the West as it once did. The generals in Pakistan, like everyone else in India’s neighbourhood who play around with guns and lives, should rework their calculations.

Finally, while the Modi government deservedly basks in the afterglow of a prompt and effective military operation–the first such in years–it should realise that this will not happen every time. Public memory is short and reaction to adverse outcomes severe. It is important, therefore, to have a measure of sobriety and composure in public messaging, once the immediate celebrations are over.