India's Myanmar Raid Won't Deter Pakistani Terrorism

India won't be able to deter terrorists from Pakistan—who want to attack India no matter what—because no militant group is fully controlled by Pakistan.

Consider the complexity of South Asia’s security dynamics: the other week India conducts a well-publicized commando assault on ethno-nationalist separatists sheltering in its eastern neighbor of Myanmar. But the deterrent signal the Indian government wants to send is really directed westward, at Pakistan and the religiously-inspired militants who have taken root there.

The Myanmar raid has sparked a lively debate inside India over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s approach to national security and his more muscular posture on cross-border terrorism. But left unaddressed in the din is the most important question: Is the deterrent signal New Delhi wants Islamabad to absorb all that relevant to the gravest terrorist threats India faces from that direction?

The action in Myanmar is hardly the first time the Indian army has undertaken cross-border raids into neighboring countries. But consonant with the hard line Modi has adopted toward Pakistan, his government is trying to extract maximum deterrence value. Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, a retired army colonel who now serves as India’s junior information minister, has been at the forefront of this effort. Immediately after the raid, he stated in a television interview that the strike “is undoubtedly a message to all nations that harbor any intentions—be it the west or the specific country we went into right now. Even if there are groups within countries that harbor terror intentions, we will choose the time and the place of hitting them.”

Speaking to the print media, Rathore elaborated that “We will not tolerate any strikes on India or Indians. We’ll always wield the initiative on either being friendly or engaging in aggressive action. We will strike at a place and at a time of our choosing.” He added that “This is a message for all countries, including Pakistan, and groups harboring terror intent towards India. A terrorist is a terrorist and has no other identity. We will strike when we want to.”

Although Rathore has been criticized for jingoistic boasting, the message he delivered was one the Modi government wanted to articulate.  Indeed, Minister of Defense Manohar Parrikar was beating the same drum. He declared that the commando mission signaled a decisive turn in how New Delhi responds to cross-border terrorism, adding in a gibe at Pakistan that “Those who fear India’s new posture have started reacting.” The Times of India reported that “the government made it clear that [the Myanmar action] was not a one-off operation but symbolized its decision not to be constrained by borders and to be preemptive in dealing with terror threats.”

The raid has generated a great deal of debate about the propriety of such chest-beating and its utility to the specific challenge of jihadi attacks emanating from Pakistani soil. Some criticize the Modi government for seeking domestic political gain while embarrassing the regime in Myanmar which clearly wants to keep its anti-militancy cooperation under wraps. Others question the wisdom of highlighting operational details about an instrument of state power that should properly remain in the shadows. And still others doubt whether a similar special-forces mission can even be undertaken against Pakistan-based targets.

Unexamined in the discussion, however, is the critical question of whether the deterrence signals India is transmitting are even applicable to the threats emanating from Pakistan. The bombastic attitude in New Delhi these days fails to differentiate between jihadi groups over which Pakistan has some control and uses to its own strategic purposes as opposed to the large number of outfits that operate in defiance of the Pakistani state and see triggering unintended conflict between New Delhi and Islamabad as a way to advance their own interests. This is a challenge that can be summed up as the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice problem,” from Goethe’s classic tale about the dangers of conjuring up proxies one cannot ultimately handle. And it is something that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned about more than five years ago.