My op-ed in Mint: Why India must pull its troops back from the border

Let’s call Pakistan’s bluff with Operation Markarap

In today’s Mint, Sushant and I argue that moving our troops back will compel the Pakistan army to act against the Taliban; and because it is incapable of doing so, will cause the United States to realise that there is no alternative to dismantling the military-jihadi complex.

Sooner or later, the Obama administration will come to realise that it has no way to make the Pakistani military establishment seriously fight and defeat the jihadi groups, which includes the Taliban, al-Qaeda and outfits like the Lashkar-e-Taiba. When that moment comes, Barack Obama will need to choose between direct confrontation with the Pakistani military-jihadi complex and colossal strategic defeat—in the form of acceptance of a radical Islamist state with a well-developed nuclear weapons capability. It is in India’s interests that this point comes sooner rather than later. Needless to say, it is in India’s interests that the United States dismantle the military-jihadi complex. Clearly, this is far more important than merely putting some Lashkar-e-Taiba leader behind bars for carrying out the 26/11 attack on Mumbai.

Already, the Pakistani military establishment is under severe pressure from the United States to stop sponsoring jihadi militant groups on the one hand, and to actually join the fight against them on the other. Now, even in the unlikely event that the ISI decides to dismantle its jihadi connections, the army will still find it impossible to purposefully prosecute a counter-insurgency war against the Taliban. Why? Because the dominant belief among Pakistani military personnel—across the ranks—is that it is the United States that is the real enemy and the Taliban are righteous fighters for the Islamic cause. One only has to imagine what a brigade commander would say to his troops to motivate them to fight their compatriots to realise that the Pakistani army is incapable of fighting the Taliban. In a way, those who argue that the Pakistan army lacks the capacity to fight this war are right: but this is a lack of capacity that no amount of night-vision goggles and helicopter gunships can ameliorate. This unpalatable reality is obfuscated behind the India bogey—the pretence that the Pakistani army could do much better against the Taliban if only it didn’t have to defend itself from its much stronger adversary to its east.

If the ‘India threat’ were to recede, Pakistan—and for that matter the United States—will have no more excuses left to avoid having to do what is necessary. New Delhi should, therefore, call Pakistan’s bluff by mounting what we propose to call Operation Markarap.

First, the new central government, at the highest levels, must categorically declare that Pakistan need not fear an Indian military attack so long as the Pakistan army is engaged in a battle against Taliban. Now, such a verbal commitment might not convince the military brass in Rawalpindi, but it is likely to play well in Washington.

Second, India should move back some of the Indian army strike formations currently deployed in Rajasthan and Punjab. Such a bold, strategic move will not only make India’s verbal assurances credible, but will immediately result in irresistible pressure on the Pakistani army to commit more of its troops to the western border. According to our rough estimate the Pakistan army can shift around 150 infantry battalions (around 150,000 troops) to its western front without lowering its presence along the Line of Control.

Since the risk of Pakistani armoured columns rolling into India across the international border is not serious at this time, India can easily afford to move several divisions of its strike corps away from the border to more inland positions. Such military movements can be accomplished without affecting border security. Indeed, this is where India can exploit the existence of nuclear weapons to its advantage—for nuclear deterrence makes such strategic moves possible by lowering the risk of a conventional war. And even if the Pakistan army irrationally tries to exploit the Indian move by launching a conventional attack along the border— it will be hopelessly isolated internationally, not to mention at serious risk of yet another military defeat at the hands of the Indian armed forces. In the nearly seven years after Operation Parakram, the Indian army has improved its mobility sufficiently to be able to quickly rebuff a foolhardy invasion.

Third, India should proceed with the normalisation process in Jammu & Kashmir that includes reducing the visible presence of security forces in population centres. At the same time, this should be accompanied by a greater vigilance along the Line of Control to prevent the infiltration of jihadi militants. It is conceivable that the Pakistani military-jihadi complex will attempt to heighten tensions with India by increasing the tempo of terrorist attacks in Kashmir—as well as other parts of India—in a bid to maintain its alibi. An analysis of the reports of infiltration attempts this year suggests that the jihadis are exploring non-traditional, harder routes in Northern Kashmir. This calls for the Indian army to change its post-Kargil posture from merely holding the heights to proactively curbing jihadi movements in the valleys.

Finally, Indian diplomacy must extract maximum advantage—mainly in Washington, but also in other capitals—by signaling India’s invaluable role in helping the international community solve its “migraine”. It is important to remember that there will be four, if not eight more years of the Obama administration. Cooperating on Af-Pak will provide a positive basis for engaging it and will provide India with greater leverage in negotiations over other contentious issues.

Given that what passes for Pakistan policy is an astonishingly trivial game of dossiers-and-lawsuits, India won’t be worse off by mounting Operation Markarap. In fact, India has nothing to lose from engaging in coercive diplomacy of a different kind.

(The version published in Mint is slightly shorter. In case you’ve not figured out why we call the operation Markarap, its explained in the newspaper version)