by Palepu Ravi Shankar
Debate is raging in the political, military, diplomatic and journalistic circles regarding the Surgical Strike strategy of the current government vs the Strategic Restraint exhibited by previous governments. These strategies are either extolled or denigrated, often acrimoniously, depending upon which side of the divide one stands. Of course, Indo-Pak emotions cloud judgement and political imperatives enhance competitive nationalism. The debate degenerates to whose sari is whiter in a detergent advertisement.
Articles in leading dailies of Pakistan , our proverbial “Other Side of the Hill” make things crystal clear. Pakistan, the recipient of our strategic restraint and surgical strikes, fears both! To put it in context one must have a macro view of the core issue. The economy is the real battlefield. The perspective becomes clearer when one compares the GDPs of India and Pakistan as shown in the graph below (projected up to 2020). The Pakistani view is that “If India continues growing at its 15-year average annual rate of approximately 7.5pc and we stick to our current average growth rate, its economy — and thus its ability to spend on its military — will be more than 20 times our size by 2047”. Game set and match to India!
Let us examine the Surgical Strikes first. There are strong views that the Surgical Strikes tamed Pakistan and achieved everything. Equally there are views that they have failed to deter Pakistan having achieved little. Consider this Pakistani view “A surgical strike imposes no additional costs on the aggressor while the cost of the preparedness the victim country must maintain is quite substantial. Hence there are penalties on Pakistan. In my opinion these include negating nuclear coercion, shifting terror camps into depths, internal action against proscribed outfits, international focus and action on the Deep State jihad factory, internal churn in Pakistan, economic cost of enhanced vigilance in Pakistan, psychological effect on Pakistanis, dislocation of support to separatists in Kashmir and more.this is at minimal cost to us. When repeated in different formats over a period of time, Surgical Strikes will begin to pay. Provided there is restraint. However chest thumping provokes exaggerated downsides. Risk of retaliation and escalation is omnipresent, hardening of attitudes and coalescence of the Nation around the Deep State, minimal effect on Pak military, image enhancement of the Deep State as the ultimate Savior, out sized military budgets irrespective of other features of Pakistani economy and back to old ways after a time. All these are current and ongoing effects.
However, one thing is clear. War is not a sensible option for both countries. The respective economies dictate so. A highly exaggerated Pakistani estimate is that in a conventional war, India’s losses would exceed half a trillion dollars — at a minimum while Pakistan would lose about 10% of its GDP. India which sits in a larger glass house has more to lose than an impoverished Pakistan. Axiomatically it is opined that ‘the bigger they are, the harder they shall fall’. What is omitted is that for Pakistan, a war with India will be debilitating and could be the end of the road. They know it and want to avoid it at all costs notwithstanding their nuclear bravado. However, India must be more conscious of the fact any elevated conflict with Pakistan is at a huge social cost.
Turn to the policy of Strategic Restraint. Today there is a lot of venal criticism on the Strategic Restraint exhibited previously. The lack of cross LOC/IB reprisals, notably after the Parliament and Mumbai attacks and many more is being seen by many as a sign of weakness. Incidentally many of the current critiques extolled Strategic Restraint then! That is the kind of dishonest hypocrisy one sees in our analysts who bend with the wind. Examine this strategy in the context of the constraints of those times. Economic growth was taking off in the shadow of Lehman Brothers collapse and the ensuing global financial meltdown, the Global War on Terror and American presence in Pakistan, the Indo US strategic relationship just budding and lack of military capacity to prosecute war. The positives being that as incidents kept occurring, Indian maturity and restraint swung world opinion towards it. India’s ability to see beyond its nose contributed to the huge economic differential and lifted millions out of poverty. The dramatic fall in poverty (see graph below published by Brookings is a direct outcome of that policy which enabled economic growth,uninterrupted by war. International analysts have acclaimed that India did the right thing by sticking to the growth path and not getting involved with a conflict with Pakistan. Any cross-border activity carried a high escalation risk, since Pakistan was flying high those days. Very interestingly, Strategic Restraint as a policy is being contemplated now in Pakistan! An analysis says “A rise in military spending today means less money to educate our children, invest in our infrastructure, support our police and courts and do all the other things that we can do to correct our economic decline. This would be suicidal”. Most importantly Strategic Restraint of those days provided a solid base which enabled us to take muscular actions today.
So, is this a case for Surgical Strikes and against Strategic Restraint or vice versa? It is for both. Both strategies are complimentary and must be adopted, in a Mutt and Jeff manner to crack a tough nut like Pakistan, depending upon prevalent circumstances. So, is this a case for a political party or the other? Oh no. All carry the same tar brush. Take the case of OROP. One hoodwinked veterans by allotting a paltry insufficient sum and the other lathi charged them. So, if each of these parties extolls the virtues of one strategy vis a vis the other, they are playing on our emotions. Today national emotions favour Strategic Strikes. Yesterdays emotions favoured growth through Restraint Every strategy to deal with Pakistan has a place and time and is useful if applied intelligently. Do not get fooled. One sari is not whiter than the other.