NEW DELHI – The New Year’s terrorist siege of a major Indian air base was the equivalent of the 2008 Mumbai terror strikes. In both cases, the Pakistani gunmen were professionally trained, heavily armed and dispatched by their masters for a specific suicide mission. In Mumbai the terrorist proxies struck civilian sites while in the latest case their assigned target was a large military facility.
According to former White House official Bruce Riedel, who served as a senior adviser to the last four American presidents, the “Pakistani intelligence service is behind the attack” on the Pathankot air base in an effort to thwart a rapprochement between India and Pakistan following Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise Christmas Day visit to Lahore.
After the widespread anger and indignation triggered by the recent Paris and San Bernardino attacks, a Mumbai-style strike on civilian targets was not a credible option for the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, especially because such an attack would risk Indian retaliation. So, the ISI chose a military target, orchestrating the attack through a terror group it founded in 2000 — Jaish-e-Muhammad.
That a strategic Indian air base came under a four-day siege represented a bigger hit for the terror sponsors than the earlier coordinated attacks on soft targets in Mumbai. And this hit occurred without the international spotlight and outrage that the Mumbai attacks drew.
It was not an accident that the strike on the military base, which left all six attackers dead but also killed seven Indian soldiers, coincided with a 25-hour gun and bomb siege of the Indian consulate in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, by the same terror group. The twin attacks were designed as a New Year’s gift to India. Had the attackers succeeded in taking some hostages, India itself could have been brought under siege.
How did India come out from the crisis? Put simply, not looking good.
Leadership is the key to any country effectively combating the scourge of terrorism. India, however, has faced a protracted crisis of leadership for more than a generation since 1989.
Narendra Modi’s 2014 election reflected India’s desire for a dynamic leader to end political drift. Yet since Modi’s victory, cross-border terrorists have repeatedly tested India’s resolve.
The strike on the base constituted an act of war, presenting Modi with his first serious national security challenge. His leadership, however, was found wanting in nearly every aspect — from leading from the front to reassuring the public.
For almost the first two days of the siege, Modi chose to travel in south India. The only statement he made seemed to signify euphemism as escapism. Just as he called the Paris strikes an “attack on humanity,” he said the Pathankot siege was by “enemies of humanity” (he could not bring himself to even say “enemies of India”).
Operationally, the action to kill the terrorists stands out as a textbook example of how not to conduct such a mission. Despite New Delhi receiving advance intelligence of the attack, the terrorists not only gained entry to the base, the operation to flush them out was poorly conceived and executed, without a unified operational command.
War needs good public relations. But the Modi government doesn’t appear to even have a peacetime communication strategy. During the Pathankot siege, officials gave confusing and conflicting accounts.
The crisis, if anything, highlighted the government’s strategic naivete. While the fighting was still raging inside the base, New Delhi supplied Islamabad with communication intercepts and other evidence linking the attackers with their handlers in Pakistan. This was done in the fond hope that the terror masters would go after their terror proxies, despite India’s bitter experience in the Mumbai case where it presented dossiers of evidence to Pakistan.
More laughable was New Delhi’s disclosure on the final day of the siege that, in a telephone call from Nawaz Sharif, Modi asked Pakistan’s toothless prime minister for “firm and immediate action” on the “specific and actionable information” provided by India and that Sharif promised “prompt and decisive action against the terrorists.”
Pakistan’s generals staunchly oppose detente with India. With the army and ISI immune to civilian oversight, decisive power rests with the generals. India is no position to change Pakistan’s power dynamics. Yet the critical issues that India wants to discuss with Pakistan — terrorism, infiltration, border peace and nuclear security — are matters over which the Pakistani military has the final say.
So, how can Modi hope to buy peace with a powerless Pakistani government that has ceded authority in foreign policy and national security to the military? Modi’s Christmas gift to Pakistan in the form of a surprise visit yielded, in return, a New Year’s terror surprise for India.
No nation visited by Modi has provided a payback so quickly as Pakistan. In fact, in modern history, no head of government before Modi visited an enemy country without any preparatory work and with no results. Grabbing the international spotlight through a brief surprise visit just to have tea doesn’t befit the leader of an aspiring power.
Sadly, Modi is demonstrating that showmanship is to his foreign policy what statecraft is to the diplomacy of great powers.
The recent terror attack in San Bernardino, California, has shaken up American politics, even though it was not an act of international terrorism. In contrast, multiple cross-border terror attacks have failed to galvanize India into devising a credible counterterrorism strategy.
When the next major terror strike occurs, India will go through the same cycle again, including a silly debate on whether to talk to Pakistan or not. As Indian Army chief Dalbir Singh emphasized, “India needs to change its security policy toward Pakistan. Every time Pakistan bleeds us … we just talk about it for a few days and after that it is business as usual.”
While the Pakistani military has made the country’s government impotent by appropriating key powers, the Indian government, through inaction, is rendering its powerful military impotent to defeat terrorism.
The biggest threat to India is from asymmetric warfare, waged across porous borders or gaps in Indian frontier defenses. This asymmetric warfare takes different forms — from Pakistan’s proxy war by terror and China’s furtive, salami-style encroachments into the Himalayan borderlands, to Nepal serving as a conduit for India’s foes to funnel militants, arms, explosives, fake currency and even narcotics to India.
Yet India, far from focusing on effectively countering asymmetric warfare, has sought to prepare for a full-fledged conventional war through improvident imports of major weapons systems.
No nation can get peace merely by seeking peace. There are several things India can do short of war. But first it must have the political will and clear strategic objectives.
Defending one’s interests against a terrorism onslaught is a constitutional and moral obligation for any self-respecting country. The right of self-defense is embedded as an “inherent right” in the United Nations Charter. India did not impose costs on the terror masters in Pakistan even for the bloody Mumbai attacks. Will it allow them to go scot-free again?
Geostrategist Brahma Chellaney is a professor at the Center for Policy Research, New Delhi, and a fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy, Berlin.