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Escalation on the border

As the national debate moves to the merits and demerits of the NDA government’s decision to ‘demonetise’ the 500 and 1000 rupee notes, rising tensions along the Line of Control and International Border have moved into the background. On Saturday, Pakistani army targeted Indian posts along the Line of Control (LoC) in Nowshera sector of Rajouri district with mortars and small arms fire. “Pakistan army resorted to unprovoked ceasefire violation in the Nowshera sector from 1030 hours using 120 mm mortars and small arms fire,” a defence spokesman for the Indian Army said. “Our military is giving a befitting response to the Pakistani fire.” 

Civilian and military casualties are on the rise. Weeks after a much-publicised cross-LoC military raid, India is no safer. If anything, the threat perception is even higher. When the NDA government announced its “surgical strike”, it presented an interesting rationale behind the decision. It wanted us to believe the cross-LoC military raid has sent Pakistan the message that there will be a high cost to terrorism. 

"India has raised the stakes; we have raised the cost for Pakistan. There is a possibility of this (surgical strikes) becoming an 'acceptable norm'. For Pakistan, terrorist attacks or covert operations were a low-risk, low-cost option all along. This has changed now. We don't want escalation, but we have set a precedent," a top government official had reportedly said. 

If anything, the “surgical strike” has increased incidents of ceasefire violations on the border. There have been more than 130 instances of ceasefire violations along the LoC and 180 along the International Border since the events of September 29.  Ground reports indicate that the number of incidents is reminiscent of the violence in 2014 and 2002 when the border was active. The bigger worry is there is no sign of reduction in the hostilities which is likely to raise casualties. As many have pointed out, cross-border LoC raids have often happened before, but never announced publicly for strategic reasons.  

 “For the Indian Army, used to a ceasefire that held for nearly a decade, the instructions from the political leadership to carry out reprisal strikes across the LoC have been the clearest,” according to Saikat Datta, a security analyst with the Observer Research Foundation. “As several senior army officers in Delhi confirmed, the greater latitude to respond to Pakistani firing has been broadly welcomed by formation commanders across the LoC.However, the concomitant rise in casualties of Indian soldiers is beginning to creep up.” 

Experts dealing with Indian security policy are concerned about this latest increase in heightened aggression. Many among the intelligence community are unsure of the impact such a policy would have on rising infiltration attempts from across the LoC. In the past three years, the number of foreign militants operating in Jammu and Kashmir increased from 75 to nearly 200, according to credible reports. It is evident that India’s decision to respond tit-for-tat has raised the domestic pressure within Pakistan to respond with further escalation and infiltration attempts. There has been a similar effort within the Pakistan military-intelligence establishment to increase tensions in Kashmir, especially with Pakistan Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif, expected to step down shortly. 

“Having upped the bar by launching strikes and publicising them, the public clamour for even more decisive army action is bound to follow the next incident, no matter how small it may be in comparison to Pathankot or Uri,” writes Siddharth Varadarajan, a noted columnist. “But the harder India hits Pakistan, the greater are the chances of Pakistani retaliation and escalation.” At such a juncture, the international community may well have to make its presence felt and prevent any further escalation. The reasons for the current policy are entirely understandable, but can it contain the consequences?

Some experts have raised doubts about the government’s real intention behind not only the “surgical strike”, but also its broader policy of reprisal attacks. These decisions, they argue, are being made to satiate a domestic constituency. Last month, BJP leaders and senior Cabinet Ministers were seen bringing up the cross-border military raid of September 29 across public rallies in Uttar Pradesh ahead of the upcoming Assembly elections. 

This desire to score political points at the possible expense of national security is a real worry. There are some who claim that events like the “surgical strike” have changed the balance of power between the two nations. The real test of this policy, however, will be when there is another terror attack that results in casualties high enough for public opinion to be offended. 

How will the NDA government respond to another 26/11 Mumbai-like terror attack? Will the NDA government raise the ante beyond another cross-LoC military raid? Will it go after the entire terror infrastructure in Pakistan, which extends well beyond PoK and into its Punjab province? How will the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment respond to such a step by the Indian military? 

The threat of unaffordable escalation between nuclear-armed powers remains very high.Replying to every high-casualty terror strike with a surgical strike, tit for tat, is possibly easier said than done. From Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s warm embrace of Nawaz Sharif in Lahore late last year, bilateral relations have taken a nosedive.
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