Why cant India deter terrorists the way Israel deter ISIS?

“You can go back 500 years. You cannot find a more audacious plan. Never knowing for certain. We never had more than 48 percent probability that he was there”, said a jubilant US Vice President Joe Biden while responding to Osama bin Laden’s assassination. Soon after the Abbottabad raids, there were calls within Indian media fraternity to conduct similar strikes in Pakistan to capture Dawood Ibrahim. Similar calls are now being made for Maulana Masood Azhar. More recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi compared Indian army to Israeli counterparts. Though the political intention of this comparison is debatable, it is noteworthy that India’s security landscape varies greatly from that of USA’s or Israel’s and a ‘Copy-Paste’ strategy isn’t going to work. While a comparison with the American military is meaningless, the differences with Israeli Defence Forces are worth contemplating.


The credibility of Israel’s conventional deterrence is well established because of its long experience with non-state groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad as well as state actors like Iran, Syria and Lebanon. This puts the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the self-declared caliphate, in a conflicting position. ISIS has vowed to wipe out the Jewish state off the map. Still, there have been no attacks on the Israeli soil claimed by the terror outfit. (The Jerusalem lorry attack was purportedly conducted by ISIS, but no responsibility has been taken so far). ISIS knows very well that even a limited confrontation with Israel will be a death blow.

On the contrary, India operates in an entirely different security environment, where its major state adversary, Pakistan, is nuclear armed and whose military and intelligence apparatus dedicate vast amount of resources to fund proxy wars against India. Moreover, because of India’s historically soft response to terrorism vis-à-vis Israel, the credibility of its conventional deterrence is seriously undermined by Pakistan.

Though the recent surgical strikes against terrorist launchpads in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and “Hot pursuit” of Naga militants in Myanmar have been applauded, they haven’t reciprocated into intended results, i.e., a reduction in terrorist attacks. Hence a change in strategy, if not complete refurbishment, is required.


The dynamics of terrorism in the Middle East is very different than the dynamics along Indo-Pak border and in Kashmir. ISIS doesn’t have support of any major state actor. Turkey was supposedly opening up its border with Syria for foreign fighters to infiltrate; as a counterweight to Kurdistan Workers’ Party. But after ISIS’ attacks on Turkish soil, this relation has been affected. ISIS also faces threats from both military superpowers – USA and Russia, as well as regional players like Iran, Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, Syrian rebels and Bashar-al-Assad’s regime. It is quite evident that securing alliances isn’t ISIS’ forte.

Whereas terrorists operating against India enjoys patronage from Pakistan’s military and its intelligence community. Pakistan’s involvement ensures that the inter rivalry among terrorist groups doesn’t hamper its core security interest, which projects India as an existential threat to the Pakistani nation. ISIS doesn’t have the luxury of a similar Godfather. 


India and Israel have witnessed declining threats from regular armies and rise in threats from irregular soldiers. Inspite of this dynamic threat reconstruction, India’s response have always been an increase in manpower and equipment, rather than development of a technology intensive military. This trend is largely attributed to the lack of a robust military industrial complex.

Another factor is the tendency of the three armed services to operate in isolation. This lack of interoperability, coupled with ignorance of government’s budgetary constraints by the military, result in added costs of defence acquisitions. This fuels trade-offs with inferior alternatives or scale down of order.

Contrary to this stands Israel’s vibrant defence manufacturing industry, makes it the 11th largest arms exporter in the world; India being a major customer.

India has little conventional advantage over Pakistan owing to slower troop mobilisation, difficult to transcend terrain and lack of strategic surprise. India’s warfighting strategy is more force-centric, with notable exception of 1971 war, whereas Israel’s strategy is focussed upon terrain. The 1967 Arab Israeli war concluded in six days because Israel obliterated Egyptian air force with a pre-emptive strike and was able to seize strategic terrain from its adversaries, i.e., Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt, Golan Heights from Syria and West Bank from Jordan.


There is a visible Gap in civil-military relations in India. The elements of military capability like doctrine formulation suffer without clear strategic guidance by political leadership. The “Cold Start” Doctrine, which is applauded by the army and whose existence is denied by the civilian government, failed to prevent the 2008 Mumbai attacks. To a certain extent, the doctrine failed in its existence as a strategic deterrent.This lack of strategic culture has pushed India on the receiving end of most conflicts.

On the other hand, since Israel’s birth as a Jewish nation state, military power has been perceived as being essential to state’s identity. The forced conscription policy, which was adopted to offset the numerical superiority of the neighbouring Arab states, has made the military integral to social fabric. The distinction between civilian and political leaders has been blur, as is apparent from the ascent of ex-military commanders like Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin to the post of Prime Minister.

With the Brexit, Donald Trump’s election and rising sectarian violence in the Middle East and surrounding regions, the 2017 flight is set for geopolitical turbulences along its course. Indian leaders would do well to look for pragmatic solutions than resort to rhetoric and imitation.

Profile photo of Shubhranshu Suman
Shubhranshu Suman works as a Systems Engineer in the field of Automotive Safety and Crash Dynamics at Mahindra Research Valley, Chennai. He holds a B.Tech degree in Mechanical Engineering from the National Institute of Technology, Tiruchirapalli. The author is an alumnus of Takshashila Institution’s Graduate Certificate in Public Policy (GCPP) course and aspires to pursue Masters in Public Policy. His interests include History, International Relations and Security Affairs.