In response to an ambush by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) on June 4, 2015, the Indian Army embarked on a covert operation into Myanmar, reportedly killing over 20 militants. This operation signaled an assertive Indian military strategy in dealing with sub-conventional warfare, a paradigm shift for India’s decision making. This seems to have alerted neighboring countries, particularly Pakistan, and the international community to consider the possibility that India will use military force in response to terrorism.
However, the Myanmar operation was not the first of its kind. The Indian army launched a similar raid – Operation Golden Bird – in Myanmar in 1995. Nevertheless, this latest operation was distinct for two reasons. First, it occurred in a competitive and often sensationalist media environment that didn’t exist 20 years ago. Second, this operation has been touted by some as a model for what India could and should do in the event of another Mumbai-like terrorist attack originating from Pakistan.
Pakistani politicians and defense officials have noted the Myanmar operation and warned India against considering a similar operation against Pakistan. Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan specifically said that India should not mistake Pakistan for Myanmar, adding that the Pakistani armed forces are fully capable of responding to any foreign aggression, and that Indian leaders should stop daydreaming. Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf also reminded India of Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities by saying: “Don’t attack us, don’t challenge our territorial integrity because we are not a small power, we’re a major and a nuclear power.”
The political debate on the Indian side is equally intriguing. India’s Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore said that, based on intelligence “we [India] will carry out surgical strikes at the place and time of our own choosing.” Union Minister of Defense Manohar Parrikar said that those who fear India’s new posture had already started reacting. Pakistani leaders and the media seem to believe that India is trying to intimidate Pakistan. Pakistan’s defense minister, Khawaja Asif, went to the extent of highlighting the possibility of nuclear war should India ever launch a similar incursion into Pakistan. Given the nuclear factor, such an incursion would be extremely risky.
The nature of sub-conventional threats from Myanmar and Pakistan are completely different. While the element of state-sponsorship of terrorism is involved in the latter, it is absent in the former, making the threat from insurgents based in Myanmar much more manageable. Any operation against non-state actors in Pakistan would be fiercely resisted by the Pakistan army. In Myanmar, Indian forces were working alongside a cooperative ally and targeting insurgent groups. Pakistan presents a highly complicated, and potentially catastrophic, environment for India to undertake such an operation.
The Myanmar operation reinforces the confidence of some that India can fight a limited war with Pakistan. Shortly after the Kargil War in 1999, Defense Minister George Fernandes argued, “If India can beat a professional military force equipped with modern firepower at the ground, and at a time of Pakistan’s choice, with the initiative also in their hands, India can beat Pakistan anywhere.” However, it is unclear where this is the consensus view of the Indian political and military establishments, rather than posturing for public consumption.
The trend in civil-military relations in Pakistan and the prevailing domestic political situation impinge upon its geopolitical and strategic aspirations. Any assertive action by India will not be tolerated by the Pakistani political-military establishment – inaction in response to any Indian move would be viewed as a Pakistani defeat. Pakistani generals already view India’s operation in Myanmar as a hugely threatening gesture. Pakistan’s concern is not just India’s assertive counter-insurgency stance, but whether India will translate this assertiveness to the Pakistani context.
Pakistan does seem to fear the apparent confidence of the Indian leadership, and the newfound willingness to take risks. The Myanmar operation conveyed two messages: To Pakistan, India signaled a willingness to use force to pursue threats across international borders. To the Indian public, the government demonstrated that, even with limited options in dealing with cross-border terrorism, it will utilize all hard options at its disposal to protect the Indian people.
Image: Noel Celis-AFP, Getty