The Balakot air strike was not a silver bullet: Sharat Sabharwal, former high commissioner to Pakistan

02 March, 2019

Sharat Sabharwal is a retired civil servant from the 1975 batch of the Indian Foreign Service and a career diplomat. He served two stints in Pakistan, first as India’s deputy high commissioner to Pakistan, from 1995 to 1999, and then as the high commissioner from 2009 to 2013. He has also been associated with the Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations in Geneva in various capacities for over eight years.

In a conversation with Mehak Mahajan, an editorial fellow at The Caravan, Sabharwal discussed India’s approach to its long-simmering feud with Pakistan in the context of India’s recent air strikes in Pakistan, and the subsequent confrontation between the two nations. Taking stock of the past fortnight, Sabharwal said that “there is no quick-fix” to the India and Pakistan conflict. “Deterrence certainly has to be a part of our policy so long as Pakistan continues to use violence and terror against us,” he said. “But deterrence and military force alone may not be able to achieve the goal that we are looking for.”

Mehak Mahajan: What is your assessment of the overall strategic, diplomatic and military approach of the Indian establishment in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack?
Sharat Sabharwal: Well, I think there was a great deal of outrage in the country and something needed to be done because this was a major terror attack, resulting in loss of life of almost forty of our personnel. I think the government took two steps. One was on the diplomatic front, to share our anguish and our findings and whatever Pakistan has been doing with the international community—and I think that was done rather well. There are many countries that have their own interest in Pakistan. When the government says we should isolate Pakistan, I don’t think that’s a realistic option.

Countries like the United States, which is working through Pakistan to exit out of Afghanistan and doing a deal with the Taliban, or China which has a deep interest in Pakistan, or even Saudi Arabia, which has an interest in Pakistan in the context of Iran—even these countries must have counselled Pakistan to take steps to defuse the situation. A number of countries condemned the Pulwama attack; some of them even advised and called upon Pakistan to deal with terrorism. I think, on that front things worked out very well. Short of isolating, we could find some space that resulted in pressure on Pakistan. And then, of course, you had this red line—a self-drawn red line I would say—which was crossed to use the air power to strike at terror training facilities in Pakistan proper, not in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, and I think this was a step for the first time [since the war in 1971].

MM: What was the larger strategic goalpost here and have the airstrikes been able to achieve any or all of it? What was the tactical efficacy of the airstrikes in context of the larger aim?
SS: These kinds of strikes, there are a range of options. Nobody is talking of a full-scale war here, because there are various factors. You have the economic cost, a very heavy economic cost. You also have the nuclear dimension. I am talking of a war which can give a crushing blow to Pakistan and possibly this problem. And then short of that you have the tactical options in which you strike targets in Pakistan, you take retaliatory steps to deter them from doing it again. The only problem is that their impact is temporary. When it wears off, Pakistan goes back to its bad old ways. Secondly, there is always the risk of retaliation, which happened in this case. There was a question on 26 February, whether Pakistan would or would not retaliate. Eventually they did—to whatever extent they did—and that created a situation of moving up the escalation ladder, which has now been avoided courtesy the involvement of third parties. So that’s the second problem that arises in these cases.

I don’t believe that there is any silver bullet which can solve our Pakistan problem. There is no quick-fix here. And this strike—important as it was, because it crossed a certain line—it was not the silver bullet that we are looking for. We can assume that because we have done this, this will create some uncertainty in the minds of the Pakistanis and maybe make them adapt a little—they may probably move the training camps a little deeper inside their territory. But to think that this alone would lead to their giving up terror, which is the strategic goal that you are talking of, I don’t think that would be correct.

MM: So do you believe that such airstrikes do not really act as a deterrent to future terror attacks?
SS: Let me make it more nuanced. I said we did cross an important line—it does create some uncertainty, it will create some degree of deterrence, at least for the time being in their minds. But beyond that, to expect that it would attain the strategic goal of completely ending Pakistan-based terror, it’s not going to happen with this alone.

MM: Did you at any time think that there was the possibility of an escalation to a full-fledged war?
SS: Look, war is a very big word. Even escalation, short of a full-scale war, can sometimes go to a level which you do not desire. So, yes, on 27 February, I thought that when we targeted the terror training facility and Pakistan said there was no damage, I thought that they were preparing the ground not to do anything upfront and they may try terror later on—a route which is more familiar to them. But they did manage to retaliate, so there were concerns, there were calls all around for escalation, moving up the escalation ladder and so on. Actually, that raises two questions: escalation to what level, but more important, to attain what objective? Assuming we had moved a little further up [the escalation ladder], a few more skirmishes or planes going down on both sides wouldn’t have solved the problem that we seek to solve. So, I am glad that we are now at a stage where it seems that we are de-escalating. That’s the fancy word from the briefing by the armed forces press conference—basically saying, unless Pakistan provokes, we will not escalate.

MM: So, with indications towards de-escalation, what options does India now have? What do you think is going to be the Indian establishment’s plan of action going forward?
SS: I don’t know what they would plan, but I can give you my personal opinion. My opinion is that I don’t think it’s going to end the problem. Pakistan’s security establishment is very closely attached to this option. Our strike may have raised the cost a little bit, but not enough for them to give it up. But certainly, this may be an opportunity—with the strike and whatever has happened, the international pressure, the counselling by Pakistan’s friends—it may be possible to persuade Pakistan to scale back terror which has been moving at a rather high level for the last few years for various factors. Scaling back of terror is something that they have done in the past many times as a tactical move. It’s like you are closing the tap while water is there in the pipeline to be used later on, [at which point] you can turn it on again. So, if we are able to move to a stage of that kind because of this pressure that has been generated—even temporarily scaling back of its terror machine by Pakistan—I think that will create a window for us to explore further. Probably open the way for dialogue to see if there is any way of moving things in the right direction. Mind you, it’s not easy given Pakistan’s internal dynamics. But I think that would be a realistic thing to do.

Then, of course you have our election coming. I do not see any major initiative—even if they were to scale back terror—being taken between now and the elections to open up any dialogue or explore possibilities of any move in a positive direction. But that may or could happen after the election. But I think we should set our sights on goals that are practical.

We keep saying [we want] immediate and credible action. What does that mean? Pakistan has in the past issued a statement saying we will not allow use of our territory or territories under our control for terror against India. [The former Pakistan president Pervez] Musharraf issued it. They have arrested Hafiz Saeed [the chief of the Jamaat-ud-Dawah and a co-founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba] more than once under preventive detention laws. They have shut down the offices of Jamaat-ud-Dawah. They may do that again now. Under pressure you may see a few more steps being taken. But the point is we are counting on the very state which uses terror to take credible action against those terror elements. There is a limitation to that.

I don’t know what our expectations are. I am sure the government has more precise expectations. We may be able to get through to Pakistan via our friends, like getting one of those criminals sitting there and that maybe a very good thing from our point of view. But my expectation is that the Pakistanis will make some song and dance, as they have done in the past, and try and get through this difficult situation. In that case, what I said earlier would be a more realistic expectation to have—expect them to scale back temporarily as a tactical move and then from thereon see if there is any path to get some more permanent results.

MM: You have talked about what you think India has achieved. Do you think we have lost anything in the past fortnight, diplomatically, strategically, militarily, notionally?
SS: I don’t know, you know that’s a very political sort of question. But purely from the point of view of India-Pakistan relations, I believe it may have ironically, once again shown the limitation of military action, or that is what it seems so far. I don’t know, I would put that caveat in everything. Now, our friends are working on Pakistan—if we achieve something that we haven’t achieved earlier, we would have to acknowledge it as a major advance. Whatever has happened so far, it seems, important as this move was, it has once again shown the limitation of our counting only on military force to counter this menace. It has to be action on a broad front. Deterrence certainly has to be a part of our policy so long as Pakistan continues to use violence and terror against us. But deterrence and military force alone may not be able to achieve the goal that we are looking for, so we have to work on a wider front including diplomatic options, trying to work with our friends—patiently.

MM: What is the qualitative change you have observed in the Indian establishment’s approach to Pakistan, in comparison to previous crises, such as the Mumbai terror attack, the Kargil conflict, or the Parliament attack. What do you think is the defining factor of this government’s Pakistan policy?
SS: The earlier governments had [exercised] what we popularly call strategic restraint, which this government has not. To the extent that they mounted cross-border raids, [they conducted] the surgical strikes in 2016, and then they crossed the red line. We are not going into the damage here, it’s not as important as our sending the air force to attack certain targets in Pakistan proper. So I think that’s the one defining thing that this government has done.

MM: As a former diplomat, you are aware that the political realities of the time cannot be discounted in a crisis of this nature and scope. What is your take on the realpolitik underlying this current Indo-Pak clash?
SS: I would not comment on that question except to say that as a professional I feel that we have had a very large degree of political consensus on foreign policy issues, including on Pakistan, for a very long time after our independence and that seems to be fraying. And that is not a good thing. I am talking as a professional. We should build a large degree of consensus, especially on this issue, which has now become divisive.

This interview has been edited and condensed.