India, Pakistan, and the Problem of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice

The National Interest website has posted my essay questioning whether the deterrent signals India is sending toward Pakistan these days are all that relevant to the gravest terrorist threats India faces from that direction.

India’s commando raid into Myanmar the other week has generated a great deal of debate about the propriety of New Delhi’s chest-beating and its utility to the specific challenge of jihadi attacks emanating from Pakistani soil.  Some criticize the Modi government for seeking domestic political gain while embarrassing the regime in Myanmar which clearly wants to keep its anti-militancy cooperation under wraps.  Others question the wisdom of highlighting operational details about an instrument of state power that should properly remain in the shadows.  And still others doubt whether a similar special-forces mission can even be undertaken against Pakistan-based targets.

Unexamined in the discussion, however, is the critical question of whether the deterrence signals India is transmitting are even applicable to the threats emanating from Pakistan.  The bombastic attitude in New Delhi these days fails to differentiate between jihadi groups over which Pakistan has some control and uses to its own strategic purposes as opposed to the large number of outfits that operate in defiance of the Pakistani state and see triggering unintended conflict between New Delhi and Islamabad as a way to advance their own interests.

Last fall Reuters quoted an Indian security official as acknowledging that “It has been clear for some time that there is no [jihadi] group that is fully within [Pakistan’s] control. They are all itching for independent action, some want to have a go at us immediately.”  Yet so far, Mr. Modi’s government shows no evidence of even recognizing the resulting deterrence conundrum.   But the failure to do so could well lead to military conflict neither country intends.

Indeed, the challenge of preventing mass-casualty attacks by Pakistan-based jihadi groups may not even be one well addressed by threats of punitive retaliation – either in the military realm or by suborning terrorism inside Pakistan as the Modi government has suggested (see here and here).  Rather, the priority might better be placed on bolstering India’s domestic counterterrorism apparatus, whose woeful state was laid bare by the November 2008 Mumbai attacks (see here, here, here and here) and whose repair remains unfinished (see here, here and here) more than six years later.

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India and the Limits of Effective Deterrence vis-à-vis Pakistan

By emphasized the resort to covert action in response to another major attack on Indian soil from Pakistan-based militants, did India’s defense minister implicitly acknowledge the sharp limits of conventional deterrence vis-à-vis Pakistan?

Read the rest of the essay via The Diplomat.

See here for an earlier post on the problems of Modi’s hard line toward Pakistan.

[UPDATE, June 9: The Indian army today carried out an airborne commando assault on two militant camps in neighboring Myanmar.  The operation, which reportedly inflicted “significant causalities,” was in response to a militant attack a few days ago that killed nearly 20 Indian troops in Manipur, a state in northeastern India that is afflicted by insurgents sheltering in Myanmar.  The Indian action was also motivated by “specific intelligence” pointing to more imminent militant attacks.

Some analysts argue that the Indian strike “is not likely to go unnoticed in the neighborhood” and will have a salutary effect on Pakistan’s behavior.  This is most probably not the case, however, since today’s operation was launched with the permission of the Myanmar military and focused on targets located a few kilometers inside that country.  In contrast, a cross-border raid aimed at Pakistan-based jihadis would be a much more difficult and risky undertaking, so much so as to give pause to Indian political leaders.]

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