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Dealing with Pakistan Needsa Grand Strategy


For the past few decades, Indiahas adopted a lopsided Pakistanpolicy with engagement asthe only means to reorientPakistan’s foreign policy. Indiamust transition to a realpolitikapproach backed by a rangeof power instruments, alongwith creatively leveraging theinternational environment.India should pursue culturaland commercial ties with liberalconstituencies inside Pakistan,and remain open to dialoguewith political forces that arereconsidering Pakistan’s rolein the region. 

The February 2019 Pulwama attackagainst Indian security forces inJammu and Kashmir and theIndian government’s willingness to takefi ght to the Pakistani heartland is a cleardeparture from the policy of strategicrestraint. Even if the main impetus forthis strategic shift was an impendingnational election in India, the geostrategicconsequences will outlast this phase. 

Stripped to its core, India’s emergingapproach can be described as a countercoercivestrategy, since it aims to deterPakistan from engaging in coercionthrough targeted terrorism in Kashmir.The next challenge before the Indianleaders is to incorporate this approach aspart of a grand strategy. What could bethe principal elements of this broaderstrategy? What goals should India seek?What are the possibilities for reorientingdomestic political incentives inside Pakistan?How do other pieces of the geopoliticalpuzzle in terms of Pakistan’spatrons and allies fi t into India’s aimsand interests?

A Comprehensive Approach 

India’s strategy has been shaped by goalsthat have sought to alter the situation onthree interrelated levels. First, changingPakistani behaviour so it ceases or deceleratescross-border terrorism. Second,changing Pakistan’s internal structureand its imbalanced civil–military relationsthat perpetuate a structural confrontationwith India. Third, changing how theinternational community, particularly theUnited States (US) and China, perceiveIndia’s predicament and are willing andable in their self-interests to restrainPakistan’s proxy war. And then, what arethe instruments or means that have beenenvisaged to pursue these three goals?

Until a few years ago, it was theprimacy of a diplomatic instrument thatstood out in the Indian toolkit. Dialoguewith an elected civilian leadership hasusually been presented as part of strengtheningthe process of the embryonic andfragile democracy in Pakistan that overtime would rectify the domestic imbalanceand weaken the security establishment’snear total control over Pakistan’sforeign policies. There is also a deterrentcomponent, which includes maintaininga conventional posture backed by acredible capacity to infl ict costs on Pakistanin the scenario of a Kargil-styleadventurist intrusion into Jammu andKashmir (J&K), or in other theatres.Finally, there are interested third parties—the US given its long-standing alliancewith Pakistan, and China with itsrenewed involvement in Pakistan overthe past fi ve years—who are very infl uentialbehind-the-scenes players in theIndia–Pakistan relationship and withwhom India seeks to further its counterterrorismgoals.

It should be apparent that India’sapproach has essentially been a persuasion-based one to advance the twingoals of changing Pakistan’s externalbehaviour and its domestic politics. Themilitary instrument has so far been visualisedeither as a passive defence instrument—that is, fi ghting the incomingproxies on Indian soil—or as a broaderdeterrence instrument to deal withaudacious conventional surprises. Yet, tobe effective in this case and instil confi -dence to the civilian side of the Pakistaniequation in its aspiration for democracy,persuasion actually requires parallelcounter-coercive instruments in India’stoolkit. Aside from India’s restrainedmilitary defence posture to hold fi rm onthe frontiers and the Line of Control(LoC) in J&K, there has been little so farin India’s repertoire to alter the PakistanArmy’s irredentist behaviour. There hasbeen no known cost imposition strategyto reshape the incentives of Rawalpindi.The 26 February air strikes were, therefore,a fi rst step in exploring options thatimpose costs before they occur (India’scasus belli presented the move as a “preemptive”one) and, equally importantly,a signal to the adversary that IndianSTRATEGIC AFFAIRSEconomic & Political Weekly EPW march 30, 2019 vol lIV no 13 11restraint is no longer a taken-for-grantedassumption when the Pakistani deepstate is plotting plans to stir trouble inKashmir. Put another way, by its recentactions, India has introduced an elementof ambiguity and uncertainty in thePakistan Army’s calculus, which, henceforth,cannot count on strategic restraintfrom the other side.

At some stage after the 2019 nationalelections, a new Indian government wouldexplore diplomacy with an elected regimein Islamabad. Let us assume that theIndian overture is reciprocated. Suchengagement would be sustainable onlyif it were accompanied by a parallelstrategy to blunt and weaken the Pakistanideep state and its military. This dualgame, somewhat ironically, would becomeeven more imperative if India’s engagementwith the civilian regime developsapace since the Pakistan Army will in alllikelihood employ sub-conventional toolsat its disposal to ratchet up terror strikesin India to disrupt or modulate thedétente process according to its ownpreferences. And, this pattern will continueto repeat until the missing link inIndia’s toolkit is addressed.

If we assume that the civil and militarygroups in state and society have diverginggoals and visions for Pakistan (thedegree of these differences is a questionof legitimate debate and disagreementsin the strategic community)—and Indiawould like to provide an impetus to thecivilian side via diplomacy and a predictabledialogue process—the parallelside of anticipating and blunting thelashing out by the security establishmentin Pakistan cannot be ignored. For,how can we expect Pakistan’s civilianleadership and civil society to place itsconfi dence in a modus vivendi with Indiaif it fi nds the Pakistan Army can slap itdown at home on foreign policy issues andcontinue to bleed India at will? Therehave been numerous instances of this inthe past: the Vajpayee–Nawaz Sharifengagement before the Kargil war, theengagement process prior to the 26/11Mumbai attacks, and the brief Modi–Nawaz Sharif bonhomie that was dramatically cut short by the 2016 Path ankotattack on an Indian air base. Any rationalIndian leadership sensitive to domesticpublic opinion cannot but abandonthe engagement process after a violentbacklash from the Pakistani deep state.

Historically then, India has placed fartoo much burden on the civilian side inPakistan to change the domestic structuraldynamic, without, in any meaningfulway, also sharing responsibility ofchanging the incentives of institutionssuch as the Pakistan Army which thriveon controlled confrontation with India.Most debates on India’s coercive optionstreat it as a mutually exclusive process—a false choice between engagement andcontainment—rather than as a vitalcomponent of a grand strategy. If Indiaseeks more than fl eeting success, it needsto develop a policy strategy that is logicaland consistent with the two mutuallyinclusive goals that have shaped Indianthinking for decades: the transformationof Pakistan’s regional behaviour and itsinternal power structure.

At whatever levels it is pursued, civilianengagement must be supplemented by astrategy to impose costs and underminethe prestige of the Pakistan Army. Thiswould involve a more robust internalsecurity framework, including the introductionof more advanced counter-terrorcapabilities that seek to substantiallyminimise Indian military casualties inoperations in J&K (since 2008, over 740security forces personnel have lost theirlives1), developing covert proxy capabilitiesthat impose reciprocal costs onPakistani security institutions, and amore sophisticated conventional militaryposture that can offer the political leadershipa variety of highly limited andtargeted options to degrade the fl ow ofterrorist networks while also presentingthe Pakistan Army with a costly choiceto escalate to a bigger conventional clash.

Leveraging the Global Situation 

As early as 1947, South Asia had becomeentangled in a wider geopolitical setting.In the ensuing decades, major powersacquired enduring stakes in the strategicinteractions between India and Pakistan.The subcontinent’s nuclearisation hasmerely reinforced international interestin strategic stability and impelled externalpowers to strike a fi ne balance betweenthe vital interests of both countries.

Getting the international situation rightis important for two reasons. Pakistan’sincentives to alter course would beclosely linked with its expectations ofinternational support. And, any movesby India to raise the stakes in its questfor legitimate security would only succeedif Pakistan’s benefactors do notobstruct or constrain Delhi’s policy. Therecent crisis showed that both Washingtonand Beijing did not necessarily play anegative role and increased their involvementto defuse the stand-off when eventsappeared poised for a costly regionalescalation. Tellingly, US rhetoric evenendorsed the idea of India’s right todefend itself in a proactive fashion fromcross-border terrorist attacks.

If we step back and evaluate theIndia–Pakistan equation over the pastfi ve years, what stands out is that bothsides proceeded from a perception thateach holds an advantageous position.India’s confi dence emanated from Modi’s2014 victory that yielded a strong centralgovernment and expectations of stableties with all the major powers. Mostlyoverlooked in India, Pakistani analystsand former offi cials too have displayedconfi dence that the international environmentwas moving in a direction thatopened options for Pakistan that wereunavailable in the previous decade. Thisincluded the renewed patterns of Pakistan’sties with the US and China, andthe latter providing their reassurancesto Pakistan and most importantly to thearmy on their respective strategic commitmentsand bilateral partnerships. InWashington’s case, this appears to havebeen undertaken somewhat discreetlyto avoid ruffl ing Delhi’s feathers, withthe result that the enduring aspects ofUS–Pakistan ties remain obscure, butstill very real. That Pakistan has symbolicallymanaged to also advance itspublic diplomacy with Moscow is seen asfurther proof of its geopolitical relevance.Much of Pakistan’s leverage can ofcourse be traced to the ongoing phaseof the Afghan confl ict. It fended offthe most dangerous phase when USpolicy might have shifted in an adversarialdirection, or instability in the tribalfrontier areas might have completelyex p l o ded. Thus, the Pakistan Armyprobably perceives itself in a position ofreasonable strength where Washington,Beijing, and Moscow have recognisedPakistan’s role in a future settlement onthe confl ict in Afghanistan.

So, both India and Pakistan perceivethemselves to be in a comfortable strategicposition. At any rate, the evolvingroles and interests of third parties arebecoming signifi cant again, and howDelhi leverages the international environmentwill determine the success ofits grand strategy.

Both Washington and Beijing haveoverlapping interests in regional stabilityand avoidance of a major subcontinentalconfl ict. While each maintainsdeep ties with Pakistan for differentreasons, it is unclear to what extent theirlonger-term interests coincide with India,which seeks a structural transformationin Pakistan’s domestic politics and externalbehaviour. The US and China appearcontent with, or probably prefer, a Pakistanwith a strong Rawalpindi, alongwith competent civilian governancestructures and an elite with a widerworld view. A Pakistan that looksbeyond South Asia could be a usefulpotential partner in burden sharing,ironically for both the US and China. ForWashington, the Pakistan Army is aninsurance card for persisting securitychallenges such as regime survival forUS client states in West Asia as well asfor the containment of Iran. For China, astable Pakistan can be a partner in theBelt and Road connectivity projects andfuture continental industrial and energycorridors. As Andrew Small (2015: 200)underlines, Beijing’s large economicinvestments “come with some clearexpectations about the choices that Pakistan’spolitical and military leadershipmake about their country’s future.”Pakistan “will not have the free handthat it used to enjoy.”

In sum, both the US and China seek astrong, stable, and secure Pakistan thatcontrols its destabilising behaviourbe cause that undermines their widerregional interests. For the US, a revisionistPakistan pulls India inward and awayfrom potential cooperation on Asiangeopolitics. For China, it undermines itsindustrial and connectivity projects inPakistan, while negatively impactingIndia–China ties. Hence, evolving interestsof the great powers in South Asiamight not necessarily portend an adversegeopolitical setting for India in themedium term. This is even more plausibleif the widening comprehensive nationalpower gap between India and Pakistanmake the latter’s traditional role as abalancer or spoiler unattractive in theeyes of the great powers. As Pakistanischolar Hussain Haqqani predicts, “Youcan try to leverage your strategic locationas much as you like, but there willcome a time … when strategic concernschange” (Lammon 2019).

So, while it is reasonable to forecastthat both the US and China benefi t froma more normalised Pakistan, Indianpolicymakers should also remain cleareyedthat neither country would be willingto expend much strategic capital inan ambitious policy to reorder the domesticscene or civil–military relations inPakistan. Not yet, at least. In any case,Indian agency is essential to reorientperceptions of the great powers. Maintainingthat India has the right and thecapacity to adopt an active defence posture—that is, blocking the fl ow of crossborderterror by proactive operations onthe LoC along with reserving the optionfor more ambitious punitive strikes inresponse to major terrorist attacks onIndian military targets—would play animportant part in shaping how thirdparties view Indian interests and therebyassume constructive roles in managingPakistani behaviour.

In Conclusion 

India’s future Pakistan policy must striveto cultivate deterrence and change thecalculus of the Pakistani security elite intheir use of proxy terror as an instrumentof statecraft. To this end, India’s posturemust remain unswerving even as the tacticsremain fl exible. India should alsocreatively leverage its growing bilateralstakes with the US and China to adapttheir Pakistan policies, and together contemplatea vision of Pakistan that is inconsonance with their main geopoliticalint erests and concerns. Finally, India musttake the longue durée and remain sensitiveto the prospect of change inside Pakistan—however modest and incremental—todevelop societal, cultural and commercialties with liberal constituencies, andengage in dialogue with political forcesthat are reconsidering Pakistan’s role inthe region. A sophisticated grand strategybacked by a range of power instrumentsand nimble enough to adapt tochanging circumstances would not onlyenable India to reduce cross-border terror,it could open unforeseen windowsto a more stable subcontinent. The surroundingpolitics of the recent crisismust not distract Indian strategists frommoving the needle in new directions.


Lammon, Adam (2019): “Pakistan and India Can’tEscape the Conflict Cycle,” National Interest, 18March, 

Small, Andrew (2015): The China–Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics, Gurgaon: PenguinRandom House.

Source: Economic & Political Weekly