The reaction from the other side

Post-surgical matters

Last night, militants attacked a Border Security Force-Rashtriya Rifles camp in Baramulla, killing one trooper and injuring another. Coming a few days after India announced that it had carried out surgical strikes across the Line of Control, the attack on Baramulla will be seen through the prism of ‘retaliation’ from the Pakistani side.

There are two broad ways of looking at this attack: First, the jihadi components of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex (MJC) are retaliating after last week’s strike by the Indian Army.

Second, that this is part of a larger campaign by the MJC to use militants to target Indian military/security installations along the Indian-Pakistan frontier: Gurdaspur, Pathankot, Uri and now Baramulla, fit the pattern. The intention of such discriminating attacks could be to unsettle the Indian government as it attempts to manage the political turmoil in the Kashmir valley. It could also be to provoke the Indian armed forces to an extent to make the 2004 ceasefire defunct, to undermine political overtures like the one Narendra Modi engaged in late last year and to escalate the conflict to a level that will re-attract international attraction.

Given the timeline, the latter explanation is more likely: it does not exclude the first explanation that this is Pakistani retaliation, but rather, that this Pakistani retaliation is part of its overall strategy. However, if in the days to come, the number, scale and scope of jihadi attacks on Indian targets intensify then we can conclude that the MJC is escalating the conflict using jihadis (rather than the military) as instruments.

What to make of India’s surgical strike?

India’s punitive strike across the Line of Control could set a new norm

Whatever might be the consequences, it is clear that the Indian Army’s operation across the Line of Control in retaliation to a militant attack on its Uri camp is a landmark development. Now, it is common knowledge that both the Indian and Pakistani armies cross the LoC for tactical operations, and have been doing so for a long time.

Such operations, usually, have three characteristics: limitations in the depth of incursion, the extent of damage they cause and the level at which they are officially admitted. While we do not have all the details as of now, last night’s operation appears to have been deeper and more damaging. What distinguishes it from other tactical incursions along the LoC is the level at which they have been admitted: perhaps for the first time, New Delhi has officially announced that Indian troops carried out an attack authorised by the highest political authority.

This is significant because it changes the norm to one where India will use military force across its frontiers to respond to aggression by Pakistan’s proxies. Depending on the Pakistani reaction, the act might vindicate the arguments made by some strategists that India does have space for such punitive operations, within the escalation framework. If so, an important Pakistani bluff — that nuclear weapons will shield its terrorist proxies — will be called. [Related: See this detailed analysis of the India-Pakistan conflict escalation framework]

This, however, is only the story so far. The ball now is in Pakistan’s court. If the Pakistani military establishment continues to hold the position that there was no ‘surgical strike’ at all, and just the usual cross-border firing, then New Delhi would have succeeded in setting a new norm. However, if the Pakistani army decides that it cannot let this insult go unpunished, and responds tit-for-tat — operationally and in public posturing — then it will be up to the Modi government whether it wants to up the ante. There are good reasons for either course of action.

The Pakistani army’s initial reaction is what it is, an initial reaction. It could be used to obfuscate matters to cover a retaliatory attack. Or it could be a signal of not wanting to escalate the situation. At this time, therefore, it would be prudent for the Indian government and media to hold off excessive triumphalism.

Reading the Arthashastra: On declaring war

Calculations of relative power

The decision to go war, according to the Arthashastra, is a rational one—the king should choose war or peace, whichever is most advantageous. So Kautilya is not a pacifist, but neither is he a warmonger, for he advises that in the event expected advantages are of equal character, “one should prefer peace”, for war always comes at a disadvantage.

If that sounds reasonable, it was ignored in the decades following his death. The vast empire his protege Chandragupta Maurya founded in the fourth century BCE quickly fell apart after Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhist pacifism. As Paddy Docherty writes in The Khyber Pass, “The decline of the Mauryan dynasty after Ashoka was dramatic…Princes schooled in otherwordliness—in a concern for Dhamma and the freeing of oneself from the ego—make bad rulers.” (pp 57)

Kautilya used calculations of relative power to determine war or peace decisions: peace with kings with equal or superior power, and war against weaker kings. The metaphors are pithy: attacking a stronger king will meet the same fate as that of a foot-soldier opposing an elephant; attacking an equal power is like the mutually destructive collision between two unbaked mud vessels; attacking a weaker king is like a stone hitting an earthenware vessel.

When confronted with superior power, Kautilya advises pragmatism: the weaker king should submit to the stronger one and take the attitude of a conquered king. Or, alternately, seek the protection of a stronger power. For his part, he advises the stronger king to accept proposals for peace from the weaker one, lest the latter be provoked into war. Here it is implicit that Kautilya thinks that such a confrontation is undesirable and hence, to be avoided.

What about a king of equal power who resists proposals for peace? The answer, well, is what we would today call tit-for-tat.

When a king of equal power does not like peace, then the same amount of vexation as his opponent has received at his hands should be given to him in return; for it is power that brings about peace between any two kings: no piece of iron that is not made red-hot will combine with another piece of iron. [Arthashastra VII:3]

That’s consistent with the conclusions of modern game theory: tit-for-tat is the optimum strategy for iterated prisoner’s dilemmas.

One important factor tempers the war or peace decisions derived from calculations of relative power—the disposition of the people.

When a king in peace with another finds that greedy, impoverished, and oppressed as are the subjects of his ally, they do not yet immigrate into his own territory lest they might be called back by their master, then he should, though of inferior power, proclaim war against his ally.

When a king at war with another finds that greedy, impoverished, and oppressed as are the subjects of his enemy, still they do not come to his side in consequence of the troubles of war, then he should, though of superior power, make peace with his enemy or remove the troubles of war as far as possible. [Arthashastra VII:3]

Kautilya doesn’t explain why this should be so. But we can make some inferences: in the first case, the weaker king can neutralise his weakness by weakening his stronger adversary’s hold over his estranged citizens. In second, popular support adds to the strength of a weaker power, narrowing the gap.

Related Links: The reading the Arthashastra series archive.