Crossing the Rubicon: IAF air strikes in Pakistan mark a paradigm shift in India’s strategic calculus

When Julius Caesar’s 13th Legion crossed the Rubicon river in northern Italy in 49BC, despite explicit orders not to do so from the Roman Senate, he crossed what was previously considered an unshakeable military and political red line. Caesar’s epigraphic words at that risky juncture – ‘alea iacta est’ (the die has been cast) – gave birth to our modern-day idiom of ‘crossing the Rubicon’ and have denoted paradigm shifting points of no return ever since. And so it is with the Indian Air Force bombing strikes in Pakistan in response to the Pulwama terrorist attack.

The bombing of terrorist locations in Pakistan by 12 IAF Mirage 2000s, in what Indian foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale described as “non-military pre-emptive action”, is the crossing of a true Indian version of the Rubicon.

First, this is a carefully worded new term in the Indian strategic defence lexicon. Ideationally, it is similar to the Israeli playbook of preventive strikes under what came to be called the ‘Begin doctrine’. This was arguably inaugurated with Israeli air strikes on an Iraqi nuclear facility at Osirak near Baghdad in 1981 which then Israeli PM Menachem Begin justified as “anticipatory self-defence at its best”.

Illustration: Anirban Bora

Technically, the Begin doctrine was, of course, only specific to preventing possession of nuclear weapons among adversaries. But the idea of anticipatory as well as retaliatory air raids is something that Israel has consistently adhered to since as part of its strategic doctrine, both with military and terror targets in its neighbourhood.

By saying that India was responding to “credible intelligence” of other suicide terror attacks, reacting to “imminent danger” and that this was a “pre-emptive strike” – as opposed to a vengeful one – New Delhi has changed the rules of the game with Islamabad and the underlying escalatory calculus that has underpinned our military responses to terror since the late 1980s.

The unsaid implication of such a diplomatic formulation on preventive action by Delhi is that it does not just imply a one-off military response to a terrorist outrage. It also seems to indicate a national commitment that the old rules have changed.

Second, the seismic nature of this shift should not be underestimated. It is significant that even during the 1999 Kargil war which claimed 527 Indian lives, the Indian Air Force took great care not to cross the line of control with Pakistan, despite losing two fighter jets and an attack helicopter. IAF pilots in 1999 operated under a strict political injunction from the Vajpayee government not to cross the LoC.

The big shift with the IAF bombing raids now is that they reportedly hit targets across the International Border deep inside the heart of Pakistan in Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Balakot is less than 100 kilometres away from Abbottabad, home to the Pakistan military academy and also the erstwhile hideout of Osama bin Laden before he was killed by US navy seals. The last time the IAF attacked across the border was during the 1971 war.

Third, the recourse to air power in this manner is paradigmatically different from the surgical strikes of 2016. Military veterans know that the army’s special forces have been known to carry out such tactical operations under previous regimes too in retaliation to local attacks. What was different with the post-Uri surgical strike was its scale and that the Modi government chose to publicise it. That signalled a radically different public posture. Now, the NDA government has gone a step further up in its toolkit.

Fourth, at a doctrinal level, the Pakistani military complex has been guided for decades by a calculation that a low-cost asymmetrical war fought by proxies below the threshold of full-blown armed conflict can keep India tied down. This was famously exemplified by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s formulation of bleeding India by a thousand cuts. Especially since both sides went publicly nuclear in 1998, the underlying assumption has been that the threat of nuclear war will keep India from retaliating in a conventional manner.

From 26/11 to Pulwama, the lack of punitive options on Pakistan had fed a kind of helplessness. These air strikes seek to change the old escalation matrix, saying to Pakistan that India will not shy away from using military means as a response.

Militarily, it means we must be ready for retaliation from Islamabad and also that we have begun a move closer to the Israeli model where retaliatory strikes follow fast enough after rocket attacks. The big difference with Israel is that Tel Aviv does not have to deal with a nuclear armed state or with conventional armed forces the size of Pakistan’s. The Modi government has ended business-as-usual with Pakistan. It will have to be prepared for the next round.

Ironically, Balakot was also the site of a famous victory by Ranjit Singh’s forces over the subcontinent’s original jihadis, Sayyid Ahmad of Rae Bareli and Shah Ismail who fell to Sikh forces in 1831, as historian Ayesha Jalal has documented. Its resurgence as a terror factory since the 1990s owed as much to logistics as to the special place it has historically held in the iconography of extremist terror.