India was in a triumphal mood after the air attack on Pakistani territory on Monday. For almost all sections of Indian opinion, Monday’s event has been a matter of celebration. For military analysts, the attack signified a leap of faith they’d long clamored for – challenging Pakistan’s ‘bluff’ that under a nuclear overhang, Islamabad could wage an asymmetrical war and bleed India incessantly without fear of retribution.
The patriotic Indians laud the Indian Air Force for hitting so deep inside Pakistan without suffering any losses. This is the first time India has done such a thing since the Bangladesh war in 1971. Large sections of the Indian public savored Monday’s attack as sweet revenge for the fedayeen attack in Pulwama a fortnight ago.
In particular, for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which rules India, this development has come as god-sent opportunity to burnish Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bid for a second term, which had been looking uncertain.
But, what next? Herein lies a paradox. Almost everyone agrees that a one-off attack is not going to force Pakistan into a rethink of its time-tested policy of using terrorist groups as ‘strategic assets.’ Pakistan may simply rework its terror tactics.
The big question is, now that India has moved up on the escalatory ladder, will Pakistan follow suit? New Delhi has christened the military operation as “intelligence-led … non-military pre-emptive action.”
The wordplay is supposed to signal that the operation was aimed at pre-empting future terror strikes and undertaken on the basis of actionable intelligence, aiming at targets that are non-military, while also making sure there was no civilian casualties.
Delhi seems to estimate that Pakistan will be hard-pressed to give a matching response within these tight parameters India adhered to.
But then, this is not a boxing match. And Pakistan has chosen to view the Indian operation as an act of “aggression,” which of course gives Pakistan infinite latitude to choose the scope of its retaliation.
This is also the unambiguous signal Prime Minister Imran Khan is conveying by his move to call a meeting of the National Command Authority, which controls Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, from the remarks of top civilian and military officials in Islamabad, a Pakistani retaliation is certainly in the making. As the custodian of the Pakistani state, the army is obliged to react.
It must be particularly galling for Imran Khan too, an ethnic Pathan himself, that Indian jets hit his political citadel of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Suffice to say, Pakistani retaliation can happen anytime, any place and in a manner of its choosing. The Pakistani army spokesman forewarned: “We will surprise you.”
The ruling elite in Delhi hope that Pakistan might decide to ‘de-escalate,’ which means passively accepting the Indian blow by indulging in some token retaliation only.
Of course, such eventuality would significantly boost Modi’s image as a strong man who could browbeat Pakistan, and as somebody who can come to the rescue of the national honor.
It may even enhance his chances of victory in the poll in April-May. In fact, the opposition parties are showing signs of nervousness.
On the contrary, if there is a full-bodied Pakistani retaliation, and if that is going to cause significant damage and destruction, it could put Modi in a quandary – and place India in a quandary.
The point is, India’s diplomatic offensive to pressure Pakistan, isolate it and to force it to back off may run into headwinds in the prevailing regional and international environment.
All three big powers – the US, Russia and China – see the need to engage Pakistan constructively for their own reasons of self-interest. Besides, the Afghan endgame is evolving. And Saudi Arabia and the UAE have just cemented Pakistan’s inclusion in the anti-Iran ‘Arab NATO.’
Equally, Delhi must remain alert that a high octane diplomatic campaign may draw the UN’s attention to the unresolved Kashmir question. Indeed, the specter of a nuclear flashpoint in South Asia can only add to the concern that international security is under imminent threat.
This is where the dilemma lies for the Modi government. As much as Monday’s brilliant military operation is being projected as a demonstration of steely resolve in strategic terms, the best thing to happen now will be a ‘de-escalation.’
But, ironically, that will mean a climbdown unless India’s expectations of a full stop to Pakistani support for militant groups are realized – for which Pakistan must cooperate, and which it won’t so long as the Kashmir issue remains unresolved.
The thing about climbing the escalation ladder is that it is somewhat like the initial exhilarating sense of grandeur in riding a tiger. Diminishing returns and attrition appear eventually.
Editor’s note: At the time of editing, Pakistan had claimed to have shot down two Indian Air Force jets, but there had been no confirmation from India.