A Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) suicide attack conducted and claimed by Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) on the Srinagar-Jammu National Highway (NH-44) in Pulwama District in Kashmir struck a Central Police Reserve Forces (CRPF) convoy on February 14, 2019, killing more than 40 Indian personnel. At the time the convoy included some 70 vehicles transporting some 2,500 troops from 12 different battalions. The attack brought to fore the 2016 Uri attack in which 19 soldiers had perished. In response India had claimed it had conducted “surgical strikes” to avenge the attack. The casualties inflicted in the Pulwama attack are the highest for a single attack and consequently an India-Pakistan military crisis seems imminent. As India weighs its military options, it is likely that a naval blockade may provide it with the least risky option.
Is an Indian Military Response Likely?
Crisis learning between India and Pakistan seems to have been at play in the responses to the crisis, and a predictable template has been followed by both sides. The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) convened on the morning of February 15, 2019, and chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi was attended by Home Minister Rajnath Singh, National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, and Indian Army (IA) Chief General Bipin Rawat. Modi stated that the act will not go unpunished and that a befitting reply will be given.
The Indian diplomatic machinery has gone into an overdrive to brief envoys of all capitals to highlight Pakistani role in the attack. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in its statement asked countries to help designate JeM chief Masood Azhar as a ‘global terrorist’. At the political level however the response has been scaled a notch higher by withdrawing the Most Favored Nation (MFN) status given to Pakistan. This option was discussed in the aftermath of the Uri attack but not undertaken. However, the utility of this option isn’t much, given Pakistan’s exports to India stand at a mere $490 million in 2017-18, while India’s stand at $2 billion. India has also temporarily suspended its relations with Pakistan by calling back its High Commissioner for consultations. The U.S. dependency on Pakistan for Afghanistan is. however, unlikely to help India’s strategy of isolating Pakistan internationally. In fact, Pakistan has never truly been isolated given its relations with Turkey, China, and some other countries in West Asia have always been a constant.
Pakistan’s response has followed a predictable path of first refuting Indian allegations and then pointing at Indian excesses in the state of Kashmir. JeM has claimed the attack and Masood Azhar continues to operate from Pakistan, even though this rebuttal does not hold much water. More importantly, trends indicate that this is handiwork of elements from across the border. Local insurgent groups in the area regard suicide attacks as un-Islamic. VBIED attacks have been far and few in Kashmir. Seven VBIED attacks before Pulwama have inflicted 88 casualties, with the first one conducted in the year 2000 and the last one in 2005. Of these, JeM has conducted three attacks.
Pakistan has pointed towards the local cadre. However, the execution of a VBIED attack requires immense planning and skills even if logistics are arranged locally. Ajai Sahni writes that local outfits have shown no technical capability or resource capacities to engineer such an attack, and therefore the local cadre was nothing but a last mile delivery vehicle. In fact, JeM has carried out all daring attacks on Indian military installations in the recent past, including Pathankot in January 2016, Uri in September 2016, and Nagrota in November 2016. The cumulative effect of attacks and the quantitative damage inflicted in terms of casualties has likely crossed the threshold for reaction from an Indian perspective.
Weighing India’s Military Options
In the aftermath of the incident, most analysts have predicted some sort of military action will be inevitable. Military action is also political necessity before India’s upcoming general elections given other forms of responses will take time to achieve the intended result. For a change unlike the Uri incident, the political parties have come together within India. While this ensures that the BJP-led government can plan for a coherent response, it pressures the leadership to achieve an outcome larger than the 2016 “surgical strikes” with the necessary theatrics. It cannot divert attention towards internal elements as it did during the claimed “surgical strikes” after the Uri attack. The timing of the attack is also important, with general elections looming very near and the attack coinciding with a negotiation process underway between the Taliban and United States. Modi has cultivated the image of a strong leader and therefore the lack of a military response before the elections could dent his credibility.
As I have written earlier, actions like “surgical strikes” along the Line of Control (LoC) do not have any deterrent impact because the action is purely retributive and does not mitigate the supply-side factors that support terrorism. More importantly, India faces a deterrence-escalation dilemma. In case of the surgical strikes, it was the non-state actor or the proxy actor was targeted. This is an expendable asset for Pakistan, as the action is limited to the non-state actor and it doesn’t achieve any deterrence even though it carries a lower risk of escalation. Mutual hurt can be leveraged only when the damage is inflicted on the actor in control. If on the other hand this action is meted out to a military target, it carries risks of escalation irrespective of whether it is carried out at the LoC or at the International Border.
Ground operations at the LoC are also difficult for two reasons: one because the surprise element has been lost after the “surgical strikes”. In addition to Pakistan placing its troops on alert, winter makes offensive operations along the LoC difficult. Another option is to use air-assets by targeting terror camps from within the national airspace by using precision weapons. Most of these targets however reside in a dense civilian space. Collateral damage is a foregone conclusion here. More importantly Pakistan puts its SILLAC (Siemens Low Level Air Control System) air-defense system on a 24/7 radar sweep to detect any aerial ingress.
A Naval Blockade?
One last tool in the military kit merits a closer look: a naval blockade. The naval balance of power resides heavily in India’s favor. Pakistan’s Navy has played little to no role in past conflicts with India, and its fleet is mostly outdated and vulnerable to a first strike by BrahMos cruise missiles. Overall India has a 5:1 advantage in the naval domain in terms of combat vessels and manpower. Specifically, India’s submarine arm is far more potent than Pakistan’s both in numbers and force structure. Although India lacks heavy torpedoes, it makes up for this with varied Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capabilities for which it has range of platforms and armament.
India operates aircraft carriers among other capital ships that let it exercise effective sea-control. Pakistan has invested in limited sea denial capabilities, and this too is shore-based with cover provided by the Zarb weapon system and JF-17 fighters, which are short legged. Even without a literal blockade, which is greatly escalatory, the presence of a few warships will tremendously increase the insurance cost of the shipping and act as a deterrent. The insurance costs of shipping are bound to rise as almost 60 percent of export-import cargo is handled by a single Karachi port, while the rest is shared between Qasim and Gwadar. Pakistan’s economy, already in tatters, can ill-afford to bear such a cost.
It is very likely that the ambiguous nuclear doctrine will not be able to guide the politico-military complex on where its own red-lines lie, as well as at what point it should consider nuclear weapons and to what effect. Pakistan’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs) were developed with a view to stop conventional land ingress. Even a single TNW is detonation on Pakistani soil with forces could have effectively signaled its willingness to escalate. This would have brought in international community and halted military operations. However, a naval blockade nullifies the TNW option since Pakistan must now contend with question of how to use the TNWs, to what effect, and to target what entity. A naval blockade will have steadily rising impact with no direct civilian casualties, allowing India to tighten the screws.
Joy Mitra is a fellow in the Asia-Pacific program at the EastWest Institute in New York and a visiting fellow in the South Asia program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C..