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.

Mehak Mahajan is an editorial fellow at The Caravan.

Keywords: Pakistan Indo-Pak relations Pulwama Balakot Indian Air Force foreign policy diplomacy
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