Beyond the obvious downsides of any U.S.-Iran war – or even intense conflagration with regional proxies – for India, there is a real risk that New Delhi may end up drawing all the wrong lessons from Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani’s assassination yesterday in Baghdad. Since the so-called surgical strikes across the Line of Control in 2016, India has continuously sought to expand its military options against Pakistan short of all-out war, exhibiting a deep-seated belief in its ability to dominate escalation in the process.
Last February, the Indian Air Force – for the first time since 1971 – struck targets in mainland Pakistan, in Balakot, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in order to target suspected terrorists. Just as the United States described yesterday’s drone attack as a “defensive action,” at that time New Delhi too sought a legal basis for its standoff airstrike, calling it a “non-military preemptive strike.” However, India went great lengths – both in 2016 and 2019 – to signal that its actions were not directed at the Pakistan Army, unlike the United States yesterday.
In many ways, India could draw a meaningful (if somewhat superficial) similarity between the IRGC Quds Force and the branch of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) responsible for the prosecution of proxy warfare in India and Afghanistan, the Directorate S (as journalist Steve Coll identifies it). Both organizations are state entities and yet have complex and expansive relationships with proxies, criminal networks, and insurgent militias. Both organizations have sought outsized roles in affecting political outcomes in their respective self-perceived spheres of influence. At the peak of Pakistani obdurateness and hostility as American forces fought in Afghanistan, in 2011, many analysts (including Stephen Krasner) called for Pakistan to be listed as a state sponsor of terror if its bad behavior was to continue. Last April, the IRGC was designated a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” by the Trump administration.
Both the IRGC Quds Force as well as branches of the ISI are state entities whose modus operandi involves being in close contact with non-state actors. And the manner in which Soleimani was targeted, through a drone strike – up to this point only employed by the United States to attack non-state targets – may embolden India to contemplate similar actions against the ISI. (India has long sought to acquire armed drones from the United States; the Trump administration agreed to their sale in June last year.)
Consider this hypothetical scenario: Following a spectacular terrorist strike on Indian soil similar to the 2008 Mumbai attacks in the near future, New Delhi receives certain intelligence that a senior ISI officer was directly in charge of the operational planning. (India has long maintained that the Mumbai attackers received close support from ISI elements.) Furthermore, a variety of intelligence sources positively identify the officer in question and locate him. After having failed to deter terrorist attacks on Indian soil through its strategies of punishment – including the 2019 Balakot airstrikes – and having walked into a commitment trap vis-à-vis its domestic audience, New Delhi will certainly inch toward climbing up the escalation ladder and go after the ISI officer in this fictional scenario.
Leaving aside the obvious – India is no United States and Pakistan is no Iran – this is a nonstarter as a plan for three reasons.
First, we still don’t know how Iran will react to Soleimani’s assassination but no matter what it does, a conventional military retaliation on the American homeland is out of question for the simple reasons of geography and capabilities (even if one assumes Tehran is willing to be suicidal, in face of the severe military imbalance between the two countries). An Iranian retaliation to Soleimani’s assassination is most likely going to be through attacks, directly or through proxies, on U.S. facilities and assets in the region. In the case of India and Pakistan, contiguous geography as well as a relatively comparable military balance implies that Pakistan would opt for conventional military retaliation, just as it did the day after the Indian airstrikes on Balakot. (Interestingly, many Indian analysts the day of the Balakot airstrikes had assumed that Pakistan’s response would be through a terror attack carried out by its Kashmiri proxies.)
Second, Pakistan’s air defenses are far more sophisticated than Iraq’s, especially on its border with India. It is worth remembering that Iran’s air space remains relatively well-defended in comparison too; it shot down a U.S. Navy RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drone last June. One can therefore reasonably assume that it would have been far more difficult for the United States to take Soleimani out on Iranian soil. Similarly, any Indian use of an armed drone against targets in Pakistan would be very difficult if the Indian military were to acquire such platforms. Absent this ability, it would have to rely on standoff air strikes carried out from Indian airspace ,which, in turn, assumes that the relevant targets would oblige to present themselves in their range.
Third and finally comes the question of a “second strike”: After Pakistan retaliates against India’s assassination of an ISI officer in our fictional scenario, say, through a proportional strike on an Indian military base in Kashmir, what options would there be for India? (Opting out would be out of question due to domestic pressures and prior commitments.) One great advantage that the United States and Iran enjoy is that they both have an array of geographically dispersed targets to attack directly or through proxies without sharing a border. (This was the key realization of both the United States and the Soviet Union as they heated up various parts of the world during the Cold War.) India and Pakistan have no such freedom of strategic maneuver, absent which an escalatory spiral becomes a certainty.
All this is not to say that India will not learn the wrong lessons from Soleimani’s assassination yesterday, the determinant there being the nature of the Iranian response. To be specific, if Iran – improbably – chooses to absorb it, perhaps simply intensifying its proxy warfare against the United States, New Delhi may very well use the assassination as a mental template for a future Pakistan-related contingency, just as sections of New Delhi’s strategic community continue to draw inspiration from Israel’s muscular counterterrorism policies.
In the end, Soleimani’s assassination puts us in uncharted strategic waters at a conceptual level: How far up the escalation ladder does a leadership decapitation strike (albeit one short of seeking regime change) sit ? How do target states react to such attacks especially when those killed are tasked with proxy warfare and not the territorial defense of the homeland? One suspects eventual answers to these questions will determine the lessons India – and other countries – draw from it.