Non-Military Preemptive Strikes Challenges South Asia’s Security Order
A terrorist attack on India’s security forces near the Kashmiri capital Srinagar on 14 February 2018, in which at least 42 security personnel died and scores of them were injured, is at the helm of the recent military tension between India and Pakistan. In response, at least 12 Mirage fighter jets were used to target a Balakot-based center of Jaish-e-Mohammad in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The terror attack in Indian-administered Kashmir was staged by a young suicide bomber, who before exploding himself had released a video showing himself with a flag of Pakistan-based terror outfit Jaish-e-Muhammad. The group is proscribed by the UN Security Council and listed as a terrorist group in 2001 for having close links with Al Qaeda. Previously, the group was accused of having staged terrorist attacks on Indian parliament on 1 October 2001, and a suicide attack on the Jammu and Kashmir legislative assembly building in Srinagar.
The group is headed by an Islamic cleric Masood Azhar who was in an Indian jail before he was handed over to the hijackers of Indian Airlines Flight 814 in Kandahar on 31 December 1999. Masood Azhar and his group JeM is known for staging anti-Indian activities from Azhar’s bases in Pakistan. Security analysts believe his bases are not just educational centers but also militant-training facilities.
Jaish-e-Mohammad did not own the video statement of the suicide, leaving the room for Pakistan to claim that the act of violence was a reaction of Kashmiri people against Indian atrocities. Indian officials were quick in demanding the Pakistani government to take immediate action against the terror group. The Pakistani side, nevertheless, wanted “actionable” evidences in order to prove the bomber’s Pakistan linkages. At the same time, Pakistan also underscored that the suicide bombing shows the frustration of the Kashmiri people under “Indian occupation”. The Pakistani statement condemned the “heightened acts of violence” and rejected “any insinuation that seek to link the attack to the State of Pakistan”.
However most of the Islamic countries including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and United Arab Emirates, promptly disapproved and condemned the attack. The Western countries, notably the US, UK, Germany and France clearly demanded that “Pakistan must not provide safe haven for terrorists to threaten international security.” The Indian officials spoke with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval spoke with his American counterpart John Bolton, who supported “India’s right to self defence.
US Support for “Right to Self Defence”
The US support for India’s right to self-defense is the one rare policy statement from the US which was limited for its NATO allies and Israel. The statement hinted that India might undertake a unilateral action against terrorists across the border. Traditionally, India is seen partnering with Russia on its security affairs, including being a major client of Russian arms, accounting 62% of total arm import from Russia in 2013-2017, according to an Indian newspaper, the Hindu. However, in the same period, India’s arms import from the US has risen to 550%, amounting 15% of total arm imports. With 11 percent share in Indian imports, Israel has become the third largest arm supplier to India. While Pakistan’s arms import from the US has dropped by 76%. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has pursued a policy of diversifying India-Russia relations beyond military cooperation, as Modi seeks closer security partnership with the Western countries. Analysts have found that India-Russia strategic cooperation is on a steady decline. For the US, India remains a pivot country in its reprioritized Indo-Pacific policy. India under Narendra Modi is not just looking towards Pakistan, but also seeking closer partnership in the US-led Asia Pacific strategic cooperation. This is seen as a departure from India’s policy to maintain equi-distant relations with all major global powers and not seeking an alliance with any of them. The US support to “right to self-defence” which is interpreted as a right to cross Pakistani borders in order to eliminate anti-India militant groups or threats, can be a worrying source of destabilization if India insists on unilateral actions across the border. In the last few years, Israeli counter terror strategies have become more popular among India’s right-wing elites and think-tankers who overlook the political nature of Israel-Palestine problem.
For Prime Minister Modi’s chief strategist Ram Madhav India has, by carrying out airstrikes across the border, in a way “joined the league of countries like Israel", as quoted by a prominent Indian news magazine India Today. Ram Madhav and his think-tank is responsible for developing India’s counter terrorism policy that is similar to that of Israel’s. He has been inviting top Israeli security officials in his annual Counter Terrorism Conference. In Israel, major media outlets, for example, Haaretz, quoted multiple sources claiming that “five Mirage jets armed with Israeli-made Spice 2000 smart missiles” were used by India against Pakistani targets. The jets were fitted with technology invulnerable to jamming or deflection, according to newspaper’s sources. Another Israeli newspaper The Jerusalem Post, drawing similarity between Kashmir and Golan, explains how India and Israel face similar challenges and choices. Both India and Israel now echo the same narratives as to why using cross border air strikes and pre-emptive actions are justified.
In previous attacks, India’s strategy has been focusing on containing Pakistan strategically and diplomatically, which resulted into a serious isolation of Pakistan aftermath of the Mumbai terror attack in November 2008. However the strategy of containing Pakistan has been in question as terror attacks have returned since the BJP-led government has come to power in 2014. The BJP government and politicians have been questioning the Congress era counter-terrorism policy as weak and ineffective. The Israel-styled preemptive strategies found more popularity among India’s think-tank community. The Bharatiya Janata Party, known for its extremist, militaristic and politicized interpretation of Hinduism popularly known as “Hindutva”, has found Israel the perfect model to fight against terrorism.
But this alone does not explain India’s assertion on its right to act against Pakistan. Experts believe that India for a long time, has been in process of evolving an alternative strategy to confront with terror groups across the border. Cold Start Doctrine, that can target non-state hostile elements inside Pakistani territory within a limited time and resources. The Tuesday airstrikes that surprised the world, has also demonstrated that India’s erstwhile reluctance to be the first to act. India media widely reported the operation after the operation’s success was announced. Indian media had also reported that as over 300 terrorists were eliminated, the official sources nevertheless abstained from giving any specific number. The Pakistani side is yet to offer its own version of the exact damage and casualties.
Within 24 hours after the Indian preemptive strikes, the Pakistani side vowed to give the response on time and place of its choosing. The Pakistanis were questioning as how the Indian jets undetectably entered, attacked and exited from Pakistani air space. By the next morning, Pakistani military claimed to have shot down two Indian jets, MiG-21 and claimed to have detained an Indian pilot who had managed to eject from his jet and fell on Pakistan-administered Kashmir. The pilot in Pakistani custody had altered the game of perception that India’s Modi has started by publicising his military operations inside Pakistan. In the second day of the conflict, Pakistani media was in triumphal mode and Indian media was more conciliatory seeking for the release of the pilot. Indeed, the captivity of the Indian pilot was going to be the biggest failure of Narendra Modi who is facing a tough re-election in April this year. In hyper nationalist countries like India and Pakistan, the war of perception is often far more crucial than the actual war itself particularly in times of national elections.
With Pakistan Air Force securing the captivity of an Indian pilot, international diplomacy came into full swing. Pakistan managed to demonstrate its ability to act swiftly and decisively against the hostile objects inside Pakistani airspace. That altered direction of India-Pakistan conflict and international community rushed for mediation in order to calm down both the side. Western countries, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Turkey spoke to Pakistani leadership. By next morning, President Donald Trump announced from his summit with the North Korean President in Vietnam that “attractive news” will come from India and Pakistan. In a rare display of diplomatic reach-out, the Saudi ambassador conveyed important message from the Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman. The Saudi Foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir was dispatched to Islamabad to meet with Pakistani leaders. The Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval spoke with his US counterpart John Bolton twice and Pompeo spoke with his Indian and Pakistani counterparts. The hectic parleys indicated that Modi had sought the help of his Western and Gulf friends in order to secure the release of his pilot, whose prolonged captivity in Pakistan would have changed the direction of election campaign in India. Indian authorities, nevertheless, denied any attempts of international mediation in securing the release. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan while addressing at the Parliament’s joint session announced his decision to release the Indian pilot as a gesture of peace. The announcement was globally welcomed and seen as a positive step towards gradual calm.
But the main challenge for Imran Khan was the responses that his country received from Western countries and the Gulf countries’ leaders. The American’ support to the preemptive strikes is a big surprise for Pakistan. The Gulf countries’ failure to disinvite Indian foreign minister from attending Foreign Ministers’ Council of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and China’s milder support were seen as policy failures.
India-Pakistan military tactics have faced difficult situations where Indian side tried to upgrade its response under the so-called doctrine of “Cold Start” or as dubbed in Indian official statements “Preemptive non-military” strike has emerged from a prolonged military and policy deliberation by India’s security establishment. The humiliation inflicted by the strikes inside Pakistan, the failure of Pakistani interception capability and Pakistan’s failure to receive a swift international support on violation of its sovereignty must be an alarming lesson for Pakistan. Pakistan’s boycott of the OIC Foreign Ministers’ Council may pave the way for re-evaluation of Pakistan’s relations with the Arab and Islamic countries. The popular political sentiments have gone against the OIC whose host country UAE was a valued partner of Pakistan. Pakistan’s Imran Khan, who is heading a weak coalition government, has to respond many questions, including: how to rein the militant or non-state groups operating from the Pakistani soil; how to respond India’s “Preemptive non-military” strikes in future; and how to neutralize India-led Pakistan-Containment diplomacy.
As Pakistan reserves and has used its right to respond any violation of its sovereignty, the international community has been once again caught by the fear of serious military escalation in South Asia between the two nuclear powers. Both Pakistan and India have failed to agree on a bilateral or regional arrangement to address terrorism. Moreover, India’s use of unilateral steps across the borders do not only violate the sovereign rights of Pakistan but also affect the normal environment of stability and security in South Asia. Reaching to a multilateral, regional or bilateral mechanism to address terrorism and conflicts has to be the only mechanism to be used against cross-border counter-terrorism efforts. This requires states to find an agreeable definition of terrorism, that clearly demarcates between acts of terrorism and internationally recognized disputes such as Palestine or Kashmir.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect IRAM’s editorial policy.