India’s cross-LoC strikes on terrorist launch pads located in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) have been much discussed in recent days. While the government has officially described the attacks on terrorist launch pads as ‘surgical’ and ‘pre-emptive’, some commentators have described it as ‘punitive’ and ‘retributive’ since these were conducted soon after the terrorist attack at Uri which led to a heavy loss of life among army personnel. Violent attacks by Pakistan-based terrorist groups on Indian targets have begun to occur at worryingly regular intervals. And there has been a clamour for retribution against these elements based in Pakistan after each dastardly attack. Notwithstanding heightened public sentiments for retribution, and even though it has threatened the use of force on a few occasions, India has generally observed ‘strategic restraint’ because of the fear of escalation. But its resilience and practice of ‘strategic restraint’ has earned India the reputation of a ‘Soft State’.
Thomas Schelling's seminal work, The Strategy of Conflict, had highlighted the importance of a state’s reputation for resolve, i.e., the willingness to use of force in a crisis situation.1 The reputation theory of conflict behaviour claims that a state with an established practice of using force during crises and thus acquiring a strong reputation for resolve would enjoy bargaining leverages during future crises. And conversely, a state with a weak reputation for resolve would stand at a disadvantage.2
In the light of the above understanding, the issue that needs to be considered is whether India, through its practice of ‘strategic restraint’ in the past, has encouraged Pakistan to continue with its support for non-state actors and wage war by proxy. Further, it also needs to be considered whether the recent cross-LoC strikes have firmly signalled India’s new reputation for resolve.
Reputation matters in international politics. Reputation for resolve depends on the willingness to use force in following through threats and commitments. This notion of credibility and its relevance as potential deterrence has been one of Schelling’s most persuasive articulations. A state’s willingness to use force exposes it to the risk of potential escalation and a wider conflagration. Under these circumstances, the demonstration of resolve requires a careful evaluation of potential payoffs vis a vis the cost of using military force. A willingness to suffer the cost of a conflict in order to achieve an appropriate resolution of the dispute in their favour distinguishes highly resolved states from states with weak resolve. Resolve is, thus, a dispositional attribute of states. And, it can indeed change over a period of time or across issues.3
The resolve of a state indicates its propensity to use force for resolving a political dispute in its favour. However, it is the credibility of a state’s resolve that will have a critical bearing on its opponent’s approach towards a political dispute.4 Thus, a reputation for resolve refers to the external perception of a particular state’s willingness to risk war. Its past behaviour in a crisis or dispute is an important facet of this reputation that is likely to shape the perceptions of observers.5 A state with a better reputation for resolve is expected to hold its established position in future crises. Because, its established willingness to use force is likely to give it greater bargaining power in future crises. At the same time, if a state were to back down during one dispute, then that will be construed as an unwillingness to bear the costs of the conflict due to its assessment of unfavourable payoffs.6 Observers are likely to assume that the weak resolve of the state is indicative of its willingness to acquiesce and they will accordingly demand concessions. Even though the resolve of a state remains a private information, it does shape the perception of its opponents. For, states examine each other’s past behaviour or reputation to assess their current intentions. Thus, a state’s strong reputation for resolve will dissuade opponents, while a weak reputation for resolve will invite further demands for concession.
A recent analysis of 1,322 militarised interstate conflicts by Alex Weisiger and Keren Yarhi-Milo examined how a state’s reputation for resolve influences the likelihood of its involvement in future disputes. The findings of the study provide strong evidence that reputation for resolve matters. The study highlighted three key aspects of conflict behaviour. Firstly, “countries that demonstrated resolve in past conflicts are less likely to be challenged than countries that did not do so.”7 In other words, a lack of resolve during past conflicts will encourage more challenges in the future. Secondly, “countries that have demonstrated resolve in the past are less likely to be challenged subsequently.”8 And thirdly, the effect of reputation is stronger when the subsequent interaction more closely resembles the dispute in which the country in question earned its reputation for resolution or irresolution.9
These findings resonate with conventional wisdom about India-Pakistan dynamics. India’s self-imposed strategic restraint has not been effective. Pakistan has kept the pot boiling through the use of non-state actors and has maintained a level of violence that is low enough to avoid the outbreak of an overt conflict. At the same time, Pakistan has also occasionally pushed the envelope wider to establish a new baseline of India’s threshold of tolerance. India’s default position in the aftermath of each terrorist attack had progressively become rhetorical and limited to a temporary freeze in bilateral engagement and diplomatic protests at the regional and international levels. Bilateral relations gradually improved during the intervening period until the next terrorist strike emanating from Pakistan. And the cycle repeated itself. According to conflict behaviour theory, India, in its approach towards countering terrorism emanating from Pakistan, has displayed a weak reputation for resolve. Since past reputation matters in similar future interactions, Pakistan had no motivation to change its policy and India continued to suffer the consequences of terrorism. But the cross-LoC strikes by Indian Special Forces may have changed that pattern of India repeatedly demonstrating its lack of resolve.
Going beyond the India-Pakistan dynamics, it is pertinent to highlight the fact that India has been largely reticent in using military force in the external domain to protect its national interest and the lives of its citizens. This is illustrated by India’s response to the hijacking of an Indian-flagged dhow, MV Bhakti Sagar, by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden in February 2006. At the time of the incident, an Indian Navy destroyer, INS Mumbai, was in the vicinity and could have intervened. However, a range of political considerations acted as a constraint in employing the warship for rescue or delivering aid. This experience has been recounted by Admiral Arun Prakash in an aptly titled article, “Appeasement Never Pays”:
“While Mumbai was proceeding with all despatch, a heated debate raged in the Cabinet Secretary’s office about the advisability of sending a warship. At the end of these deliberations, the MEA sent a written note to NHQ posing a set of rhetorical questions….. Agonising about how our African and Middle-Eastern neighbours would react to what was termed as ‘muscle-flexing’ by the Indian Navy, the note vividly illustrated why India has earned the sobriquet of a soft state. The essence of the note was contained in one plaintive query: ‘Will we sail a destroyer every time an Indian national is in trouble anywhere?’ The navy’s emphatic response: ‘Yes of course; if we have one available!’, went unheeded, and the warship had to be recalled. A few days later, the ship owner paid ransom to the pirates, and 21 Indian citizens came home, without the Indian state or its powerful navy having lifted a finger to protect them.”10
What followed was progressively bolder acts, with pirates even engaging in mid-ocean attacks on ships in the Arabian Sea. As a result, by 2010, the piracy high risk area expanded to include India’s entire Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) on its west coast. That, in turn, increased the insurance premium for shipping bound for Indian ports.11 Thereafter, it took concerted efforts and robust action by the Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard to eliminate piracy from the Indian EEZ, including the use of force and arrest of 119 pirates.12 It was due to this effective use of force that Indian waters were declared piracy free and the High Risk Area was redrawn to exclude the Indian EEZ on the West Coast.13 While it is true that anti-piracy operations are no comparison to inter-state disputes, the issue of reputation for resolve played out exactly according to the reputational behaviour hypotheses.
Would India’s reputation for resolve yield similar advantages in terms of bringing about behavioural changes within Pakistan in the aftermath of the recent cross-LoC strikes? Would this strike alone deter Pakistani terrorists from attempting to infiltrate and execute attacks on Indian targets in the future? While reputational behaviour theory hints at a positive outcome in this regard, definitive results are likely to show up only in due course of time. Be that as it may, the responses from Pakistan thus far tentatively confirm the theoretical postulates. Pakistan has vehemently denied that the cross-LoC strikes occurred and has not escalated the existing level of bilateral tensions. While it is too early to rule out a direct Pakistani backlash or a response through its proxies, Pakistan’s reaction has thus far remained rhetorical. It appears that India has been able to convey its message firmly about the change in its reputational posture.
There can be no divergence of views about the importance of a careful consideration of the escalatory potential of the use of force in the India-Pakistan scenario given the nuclear overhang. But, at the same time, it is evident from the events of the past two decades that India has not been able to bring about a positive change in Pakistan’s determination to continue to employ cross-border terrorism either through diplomatic outreach and persuasion or the potential threat to use force. Through the cross-LoC strikes, a novel tool of coercion, India has displayed a strong reputation for resolve However, one incident does not indicate a trend. Advantages in conflict bargaining will arise only through repeated demonstrations of similar resolve in the future. Given that, India needs to factor in the critical issue of reputation for resolve in future crisis situations in order to build its credibility and enhance its deterrence potential.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.