Ever since the Pakistan link in the Mumbai attacks was traced, many strategic analysts have been rooting for punitive action against Pakistan - also referred to as pre-emptive strikes and hot pursuit. This is not the first time such suggestions have been mooted. After the parliament attack in December 2001, India launched Operation Parakram to mobilize its troops along the international border with the assumed intention of a frontal response to Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.
International pressure later forced India to withdraw its troops through a costly de-mobilization effort running into months. The fear then was an Indian attack would force Pakistan to use nuclear weapons in the event of a conventional defeat. Many believe the operation was planned as a conflict escalation posture short of actual war to pressure Pakistan on its terror infrastructure and test its nuclear resolve. However, unlike the scenario in 2001 when terror camps openly operated in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), their current spread and locations is unclear, which would directly inhibit scope for surgical strikes.
There are three modes of action on this front - pre-emption, prevention and hot pursuit. A pre-emptive strike is undertaken based on credible intelligence to preclude an adversary from launching an imminent attack. Preventive action, on the other hand, is anticipatory use of force to degrade the capability of an adversary for future attacks. India has rarely planned such operations for the fear of violating sovereignty of another country and inviting global outrage. Security planners have but considered the 'hot pursuit' method which entails pursuing a terrorist group inside Pakistan after a major terror attack.
However, despite the clamor many a time, India has generally been reluctant to rely on these methods due to fear of a nuclear retaliation as Pakistan's redlines for a first-strike has been ambiguous. After initially declaring that a major conventional defeat with India would trigger its nuclear response, Pakistani officials later elucidated a lowered threshold to include economic strangulation or political destabilization. It is this ambiguity on Pakistan postures that has consistently inhibited an Indian response to Pakistan's proxy war and restrained India from crossing the Line of Control (LoC).
This status quo prevails even today, thereby rendering an Indian action militarily possible but politically not feasible. By all means, even a single sortie by an Indian aircraft would be sufficient to provoke a Pakistani response as Islamabad would be under severe domestic pressure to respond to an Indian aggression, which may not necessarily be limited to a low-intensity conflict like in Kargil.
Second, there is a strong possibility of a military coup in the guise of a 'weak' government unable to deal with the Indian threat. It would be suicidal to give an opportunity for the Pakistani Army to assume charge again and rejuvenate its proxy war campaign against India. Strengthening the hands of a civilian government in Pakistan, though not at India's expense, seems a better option considering that the Zardari-Gilani regime is the only visible hope for the peace process.
Third, by embarking on a military strike, India would be playing into the hands of the Al Qaeda-Taliban combine, which yearns for an India-Pakistan war in order to neutralize the military pressure in Pakistan's northern frontier, where U.S. forces have initiated drone and missile attacks on these groups. An India-Pakistan conflict would force Washington to shift its focus towards the region and also encourage the Obama presidency to meddle in Kashmiri affairs.
Besides these impediments, the real challenge lies in the Indian Army preparedness for a conventional war with Pakistan. Even a supposedly low-intensity conflict in Kargil heavily bled the Indian forces, which were short in not just men and machines but also suitable strategies. Though the Indian Army would project its Cold Start doctrine and its swiftly-mobile strike missions for surgical strikes, even such missions need backup through heavy mobilization on the lines of Operation Parakram so as to absorb the aftermath of the surgical strikes, when a full-fledged conventional war is likely to erupt.
However, it is unlikely that any political leadership will risk such responses as India's military capabilities are tailor-made for posturing and power projection. Despite aspiring to be a great power, India has a traditional reticence to use military power even when critical national security interests are threatened. A preventive action against Pakistan was reportedly planned in 1982 when none other than Indira Gandhi considered and rejected a plan to stop Pakistan's budding nuclear programme by striking the Kahuta facility, on the lines of the Israeli attack on Iraq's Osirak facility. Had India shown such belligerence then, the nuclear blackmail by Pakistan might not have been so acute.
The genesis of our current predicament lies in such lost opportunities and lack of political resolve for punitive strikes, especially during the 1990s when glaring evidences existed on militant camps in PoK. Neither then nor after the parliament attack has India gathered the courage to embark on such adventures. The biggest stumble always was Washington's refusal to heed Indian calls on Pakistan's terror sponsorships until 9/11 happened. The change of heart in Washington on using military actions now might be an opportunity, if India uses it wisely.
Rather than taking the plunge, India should encourage Washington to lead punitive actions against Pakistan if it does not comply with the timeframe on action against its terror groups. In fact, the U.S. campaign in Pakistan's northern frontier could be emulated if India can facilitate platforms for US drones to target terror targets in PoK or elsewhere in Pakistan, provided they exist by the time of such attacks.
(A. Vinod Kumar is Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)