n March 1, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) made of a loose coalition of Kurdish, Arab, Turkmenistan and Armenian militias all united to defeat Jihadists and their common enemy the Islamic State (IS) commenced their push to take the last IS stronghold in Eastern Syrian village of Baghouz. The SDF are heavily backed by US and include many foreign fighters from Western Europe. The three-pronged attack is highlighted as the last battle against ISIL leading to its total military defeat.
Balkot, was the site of an air attack by the Indian Air Force on Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terror outfit based in Pakistan-controlled Jammu Kashmir, which had carried out various terror attacks against Indian targets. In recent history the attack on the Indian parliament in 2001 and this February a suicide bombing of an Indian paramilitary convoy. The counter attack by India is marked as a moment of crossing the Rubicon, as its air assets crossed the Line of Control and flew into Pakistani territory to target the Madrassa run by JeM which India claims is a site of terrorist recruitment and training facility.
Sri Lanka’s outlook
These cases are examples for ongoing counter terror operations in two very different combat theatres both volatile but different in architecture. These two cases are selected for this analysis to demonstrate the national and transnational challenges States will face in the future, when countering terrorism and violent extremism as the consequences of such strategic decisions are deep and wide ranging.
This analysis is important of strategizing Sri Lanka’s future national security priorities and devising ways and means of countering national and transnational threats. The national security mentality ten years on, since the defeat of the LTTE is still fixated on the military victory of the Sri Lankan State over a ruthless terror outfit which relied on strategic thinking of the 20th Century.
Dealing with future challenges will rely on the experience and expertise the Sri Lanka security establishment gain from its operations against the LTTE, but it is not enough we also need to comprehend the new security landscape and the evolving strategic environment. This was lucidly captured in the report published by the premier security forum, Munich security conference report of 2019, its theme was “The Great Puzzle: Who will pick up the pieces? The Indian response needs to be deconstructed and analyzed in these lines.
Fallout from Balkot: Complexities of decision-making
Since 2016, India has seen a surge of attacks coming from terror groups operating from Pakistani controlled Kashmir, the high point was the Uri attacks in which four heavily armed militants belonging to JeM struck an Indian military facility in Jammu Kashmir, killing 19 Indian soldiers, heaviest loss for Indian military in nearly two decades. This led to India authorizing surgical strikes on militant locations within Pakistan-controlled Jammu Kashmir. This signalled India’s new strategic posture when it came to countering terror attacks. Indians still practised restraint in their operations to minimize the diplomatic complications that would involve Indo-Pak relations in 2016.
Imran Khan’s premiership brought hope to many in the subcontinent about possible cooling of Indo-Pak relations despite significant geo-political rivalries and intensification of Pakistani Relations with China and Indian relations with USA. February 14, a convoy of India’s Central Reserve Police force was struck by a suicide bomber affiliated to JeM, though an Indian Kashmiri, the attacker was radicalized by the group according to Indian investigations.
India’s response through an air raid on JeM facility is well documented yet India seems to be struggling in many means to counter the narratives and winning the war of the image. First lesson for Sri Lanka and for any nation is the importance of the image and narrative in formulating a 21st Century strategy. International Security experts now study the impact of what they call image as a point of analysis. They call it visual security analysis heighted by 9/11 attacks, Mumbai attacks and clearly the tactical use of images by ISIL during 2014. Image politics are supercharged by the unprecedented Social media revolution.
Aesthetics of politics
The image is political, it is aesthetic politics and linked to impact of events on domestic and national politics. Challenges from aesthetics of politics is that the image nor the narrative can be controlled by the State. Thus, it is imperative in 21st century counter terrorism strategies to factor in the power of social media and the images and its policy implications.
Indian airstrikes did demonstrate a significant shift in how India responded to terror attacks , they are in certain strategic terms important, as it sends a message to every state and non-state actor that in the future if Indian interests are harmed India will resort to the use of force. Indian military, analysts seem to endorse it as the right decision while there is dissent among academic community and left leaning intellectuals about its legitimacy and diplomatic fallout.
The important thing for Sri Lankan perspective is not this debate but looking at the unintended consequences of such a strike. Especially on roles of political leaders and their comments, the challenges of military modernization and how such domestic political debates are affecting confidence of the public on government.
Political discourse on strategic choices
The Air strikes have opened a wide-ranging debate on why Indian military modernization is delayed? Is there political and corporate collusion? What is the role of the media and are all these narratives undermining the national security? As the Indian government is looking at the option of suing one of the oldest publications in India,’The Hindu’ newspaper for revealing details of sensitive military secrets. Relating to the acquisition process of Rafael jet fighters from the French defence consortium Dassault Aviation.
India’s response to Pulwama attacks represents a State’s prerogative to do what’s best to maintain its survival send strong message to its adversaries, yet the 21st Century is not as simple as a realist’s security paradigm. Its full of complex challenges, multiple players both in the domestic and international arena do garner some influence in the process. For India it only took one downed Mig-21, one observation from Prime Minister Modi on the campaign trail of the Rafael fighter to create a cataclysmic political storm one that neither the Indian government, PM Modi or the BJP would have expected.
In the course of this controversy, Indian Air Force is flying into turbulence as its weaknesses rather than its strengths are highlighted in the debate , the delay in modernization, reliance on legacy systems, pilot safety, decline of air squadrons, how should defence acquisition work, what sort of private public partnership does the Indian defence industry need are all in the open. This political storm is blurring the fact that India did manage a precision strike in Balkot, there were no civilian casualties, no Pakistani military targets were hit, due credit had to go for the strike package and how it was coordinated.
This article started with the SDF operating again ISIL in Baghouz yet the strategic challenge is twofold, ISIL lost everything in five years since it took control of large swathes of land in Syria and Iraq in 2014, yet the process led to total instability of states such as Syria and Libya. None of them can return to its original territorial configurations or social cohesion it possessed. SDF is spearheaded by Kurdish militias, post ISIL future of Kurdish interests will be a hugely contested one and may lead to more conflicts especially with Turkey. Thus, victory over ISIL will not solve many problems in the region as political landscapes and narratives are far more complex and volatile than of the 20th century. This is the reality of 21st Century political and security landscape and they should be seriously taken into any decision-making about future security strategy adopted by Sri Lanka.