Creating policy options on Pakistan

India must realise that threats from Pakistan are real and will not diminish with the status quo.

The recent sentencing of David Headley by a Chicago court in connection with the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks should serve as a timely reminder to the Indian government.  Though the government is significantly invested in a “peace process” with Pakistan, threats to India’s national security have not diminished as a result of that process, and the infrastructure and support systems for terrorism continue to exist in Pakistan.  India is in need of policy options on Pakistan to mitigate short- to mid-term threats to India’s security.


Pakistan’s leaders have built a state security apparatus that is avowedly inimical to the existence and prosperity of India.  This apparatus does not abjure provocation through either military or non-military means under the cover of nuclear deterrence.  And while elements of Pakistan’s political leadership may or may not harbour such ill will towards us, their ability to be an effective counterweight to the military security apparatus on issues relating to India is debatable.

So if Pakistan does not eschew terrorism and continues to provoke India, what are India’s options and how should it respond?  There are effectively three courses of action available to the Indian government. One, do nothing beyond the usual issuances of démarches, threats to terminate dialogue, or withdrawing our high commissioner from Islamabad  However, these responses neither deter Pakistan, nor address a growing national mood for punitive action.  The diminishing returns of pursuing such a course of action are apparent.

Two, military and diplomatic confrontation.  But military confrontation carries with it certain inherent risks. Calls for “surgical air strikes” or limited strikes against targets across the Line of Control do not take into account the fact that they could lead to a series of escalatory steps, resulting in a larger conflict.  From an Indian standpoint, larger conflicts are generally counterproductive because global focus invariably shifts from the initial act of provocation to the prospect of war between two nuclear-armed states.  Unless Pakistan indulges in significant military provocation (e.g., Kargil), an escalatory military response from India may not be advisable.

Indian diplomatic offensives have yielded results in the past, though the lessons learned were quickly forgotten by Pakistan.  Calls to have Pakistan declared a state sponsor of terror will need to take into account U.S. attitude towards Pakistan.  For example, the George HW Bush administration made recommendations in 1992 that would have resulted in Pakistan being designated a state sponsor of terror.  But this is unlikely to happen in environments (like the current) where there is U.S. dependence on Pakistan on crucial foreign policy or national security objectives.

The third course of action involves developing capacities for non-military punitive action. The challenge for India, though, is that this will require both capacity-building, as well as sustained political will even through the course of democratic transition.  India can pursue these options, while remaining committed to a “peace process” with Pakistan.  Indeed, the deniability implicit in their design will allow India’s actions to speak louder than its words, which would be a welcome reversal in trend.

First, India must build capacity for offensive covert operations in Pakistan.  It has been suggested that India’s covert operations capabilities were terminated during the term of IK Gujral in 1997 and have not been revived since. Covert operations are important because they can provide a state the ability to punish an aggressor, while maintaining plausible deniability.  India’s objectives for such operations can range from targeting specific individuals (e.g., terrorist leaders) or entities inimical to India.  Of course, Pakistani responses to these operations are always a possibility, but the red lines and costs for such provocation would have been made clear to Pakistan.

Second, India should develop capacity for offensive cyber operations against Pakistan.  Cyberspace provides India a considerable array of options through repudiation. These operations can range from the simple defacement of Pakistan’s Internet-facing infrastructure to more sophisticated denial-of-service attacks targeting military and civilian satellite and communication networks.  Attacks could also target Pakistan’s Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems, which are used to manage a range of industrial processes from power generation to oil and gas.  Indeed, the makers of Stuxnet used sophisticated malware to great effect and wrecked havoc on SCADA systems in Iran and other countries.

Third, as upper riparian to Pakistan, India has the ability to control the flow of river water from the Himalayas to the Indus Basin in Pakistan.  Now, deliberate prevention of the flow of water into Pakistan is a violation of the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), which India has honoured even in times of war imposed by Pakistan on us.  But moral grandstanding during times of provocation are the last resorts of the helpless and weak-willed.  The IWT stands in relative isolation as a rare example of international water cooperation, but Pakistan cannot take the integrity of the treaty for granted while continuing to attack India with impunity.  Thus, impeding the flow of river water into Pakistan — with or without state deniability — must be an option India retains and exercises in response to acts of extraordinary provocation from Pakistan.

Fourth, India can do a better job highlighting Pakistan’s poor track record in protecting minorities.  Pakistan is riddled with internal fissures and its minorities — the Shias, the Ahmediyyas, Christians and Hindus — have come to bear the brunt of targeted violence, often orchestrated with the complicity of the state. Pakistan responded with massive military force to quell insurgencies in FATA and Balochistan.  Its Hazara population has been repeatedly targeted by terror groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.  India’s domestic and international NGOs, human rights groups, and TV and print news media must be encouraged to highlight these issues to domestic and international audiences.  While this isn’t “punitive action,” per se, it can be used to great effect to bring additional pressure on Pakistan.

Finally, while India must continue to focus on economic growth and reducing poverty, it must also realise that threats from Pakistan are real and will not diminish with the status quo.  India cannot be expected to continue to ‘absorb’ body blows from Pakistan, in the interest of a greater good.  This would be a morally irresponsible position for any democratically-elected government to take.

Photo: Jack Zalium