Only time will tell if Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reference to Balochistan in his Independence Day speech was a carefully thought out strategy or just an expression of his personal frustration at two years of fruitless effort at dialogue with Pakistan. Hopefully, it is the former because there is considerable strategic logic for India to exploit whatever vulnerabilities Pakistan has in Balochistan. But this logic requires the Modi government to go beyond simply rhetorical flourishes to develop and implement plans that can impose significant cost to the Pakistan Army.
The Prime Minister’s reference to Balochistan was clearly a rhetorical shot across the bow to deter Pakistan’s continued support for terrorism targeting India. In this case, that Prime Minister Modi felt the need to outline the threat so openly suggests two conclusions. First, that it is an escalatory policy to deter Pakistan’s support for terrorism against India, with his speech being the first step in that escalation. If this assessment is correct, if Pakistan does not heed the warning, then the speech will be followed in time by more significant steps on the ground. The Prime Minister cannot have been unaware that making such an open threat carries a commitment and responsibility because there will be an expectation of a follow through. This is one reason why governments — and definitely leaders — do not often make such open threats. Even though a deterrence strategy requires communicating a clear threat, such communications can be delivered in a number of different ways such as through media leaks, through subtle actions such as meetings (in this case) with Baloch rebel leaders, as well as through greater and more visible material support to Baloch rebel groups. Making such an open threat suggests a pre-commitment to follow through with the threat if the threat does not lead to the desired change in behaviour. At least, one hopes so.
Second, the Prime Minister appears to have wanted to signal an unambiguous change in Indian policy. Communicating through signals may be prone to misreading by the target audience. For example, it might have proved difficult for the Pakistan Army to decide whether an increase in Indian support to Baloch rebel groups is the consequence of a change in policy or the result of an over-enthusiastic officer in India’s intelligence agency. A prepared, public speech by the chief executive is about as definite as it can get.
There can be little doubt about the strategic logic of India targeting Pakistan through Balochistan. Indeed, the logic is so obvious that the only real surprise is why India waited so long to try it. Pakistan has blatantly used terrorism as a strategic tool against India, confident that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and the threat of escalation will prevent India from responding with force. Though the threat of nuclear escalation is highly exaggerated, India’s leadership has clearly bought into its logic and is thus self-deterred from answering Pakistan’s terror attacks with military force.
This has left India with only two, and completely ineffectual, responses. The first was multilateral diplomacy, hoping that Pakistan would be constrained by global diplomatic pressure. But while the world might sympathise with India, global diplomatic opprobrium does not put much pressure on the rulers in Rawalpindi. And international politics being what it is, even this pressure is hardly a concerted one: Pakistan can depend on China to undermine any serious multilateral diplomatic efforts, and on the self-interest of others (including the US) not to push too hard.
The second Indian response has been to stop talks with Pakistan. This was not a strategy but an absence of it. Its logic is a mystery. Stopping talks never hurt the Pakistan Army. On the contrary, it put more pressure on India, than on Pakistan. And, as has repeatedly been shown, it is simply unsustainable. The Pakistan Army knows, both from simple logic and long history, that India has no choice but to eventually re-establish contacts and talks. There can be no greater evidence of India’s strategic bankruptcy than that New Delhi continued to engage in this foolishness over and over for two decades.
Having convinced itself that it had no military option, and no other effective diplomatic options, Indian leaders should have jumped at the opportunity that Balochistan presented. The rebellion in Balochistan offers India the option of tying down large numbers of the Pakistan Army, if India could stoke the already existing rebellion there by providing material assistance to the Baloch rebels. Counterinsurgency is a troop intensive task, and it will suck in and bloody Pakistan’s infantry— even though Pakistan uses airpower in Balochistan (something India has almost never done in its counterinsurgency operations, save in the early stage of the Mizo rebellion). It will, finally, punish the Pakistan Army in a manner that will actually hurt it, giving India some measure of justice for all the depredations that the Pakistan Army has visited on it through its use of terrorism. More importantly, it could, possibly, make the Pakistan Army much more willing to bargain to stop cross-border terrorism. The Balochistan rebellion gives India a leverage, one it has not used so far, at best to compel or at worst to punish Pakistan for its asymmetric terror strategy.
But the most important benefit of the Balochistan strategy is that it gives India the option of responding forcefully to Pakistan’s own use of (terrorist) force against India without fearing nuclear escalation. This is another reason why India’s failure to use the Balochistan option until now is difficult to understand: this should have been the obvious, perfect work-around to the constraints (even if exaggerated) imposed on Indian conventional military options by Pakistan’s threat of nuclear escalation. This also makes it surprising that some Indian commentators have suggested that a Balochistan involvement also risks nuclear escalation.
The only side that will threaten escalation is Pakistan, but it is difficult to imagine how they would do that in response to Indian support for the Baloch freedom struggle. The usually-mentioned context for a Pakistan escalation is an Indian conventional military attack on Pakistan (say, in response to a Pakistan-sponsored terrorist attack in India) that Pakistan is unable to contain, forcing it to threaten or use its nuclear weapons to stop an Indian military breakthrough. This scenario will not be a problem in Balochistan because India is not going to launch a war against Pakistan for Balochistan. The more likely scenario is that Pakistan might threaten to go to war with India because of Indian meddling there. But if Pakistan is the one launching the attack, the traditional escalation scenario simply does not hold. If Pakistan launches an attack to punish India, it will almost certainly lose, but the context of failing in its own attack on India is very different from the possibility of failure to stop an Indian attack that enters deep into Pakistan’s territory. There might be some rationale for nuclear escalation in the latter case, but absolutely none for the former. Thus, supporting Baloch rebels gives India the option of retaliation without fear of nuclear escalation.
There are at least two other subsidiary benefits that should not be ignored. A Balochistan in the throes of an insurgency could also scupper at least a part China’s efforts to flank India through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). India is only belatedly realising the strategic import of both the China-Pakistan axis and specifically, the CPEC. India needs to do everything in its power to curtail this move and supporting the Balochistan rebellion is one way to do this.
Finally, Indian strategists have been moaning for a couple of decades about India’s lack of intelligence and covert action capacity in Pakistan. This is at least one reason why India has been able to do so little about the terrorists who roam about Pakistan, planning and carrying out attacks on India. Supporting the rebellion in Balochistan will help India in expanding its intelligence and covert action footprint within Pakistan.
There are a number of other criticisms that have been made of the Balochistan initiative, but they are easily dismissed. The idea that this equates India and Pakistan on a moral plane bothers those who think — mistakenly — that such moral equivalence actually means something in international politics. It does not. Others argue that the Balochistan initiative will not help India resolve the Kashmir problem because it is an internal problem, forgetting that while Kashmir is partly an internal problem, it also has a Pakistan component that needs to be addressed.
Still, there is at least one serious problem with this initiative: The possibility that the Modi government will simply limit this to the declaratory level and may be to the diplomatic one. India already suffers from a credibility problem because of repeatedly threatening retribution but never following through. A failure to follow through on the Baloch initiative, after the Prime Minister was seen to be announcing it from the ramparts of the Red Fort, will only reinforce the credibility problem. This, India cannot afford anymore.
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