Prevention, not retribution
In a significant announcement, the Indian Army said on Thursday that it had launched surgical strikes on “terror launch pads” along the Line of Control and caused significant casualties to terrorists planning strikes on India and “those who are trying to support them”. Although these attacks sought to strike terrorist bases and not Pakistani military installations, casualties were also inflicted on “those who support them”. The Indian Army’s announcement on Thursday presents a significant shift in the country’s war against terrorist groups operating from bases on the Pakistani side of the border. According to Indian military experts, small raids across the LoC have taken place in the past. But Thursday’s attacks were different for two key reasons—their scale and the fact that New Delhi has chosen to go public with them. In the wake of Uri, senior BJP leader and the Prime Minister’s point man in Kashmir, Ram Madhav, demanded retribution, calling for “the complete jaw” for “one tooth” India loses. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said those who harmed India will feel pain. Meanwhile, the Indian Army had said it would “respond at a time and place of its choosing”. In other words, India spoke in the language of retribution. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, however, changed the tone of New Delhi’s response and spoke of how Pakistan’s policy against India was hurting its own people. "Both our countries got freedom in the same year. You should ask: why is India known the world over for exporting software, while Pakistan is known to export terror?” The public discourse soon turned to “strategic restraint” and “diplomatic offensive”. Do Thursday’s attacks present a significant shift from the policy of strategic restraint? It’s hard to take a position with any degree of certainty.
It does represent a significant shift to the extent that these strikes are direct military responses to the Uri attack, besides New Delhi’s decision to go public with them. But a policy of strategic restraint seeks to help preserve the country's prosperity and security more so than a hegemonic strategy. Going by this understanding, it is imperative to note what the Indian Army's Director General of Military Operations Ranbir Singh said during his announcement of strikes against terror installations in Pakistan. “The operations were basically focused on ensuring that these terrorists do not succeed in their design of infiltration and carrying out destruction and endangering the lives of citizens of our country,” he said. Nowhere in the DGMO’s statement is retribution or Uri mentioned. In other words, New Delhi has projected the attack on seven different terror launch pads as preventive measures to ensure that infiltrators planning to cross over are not presented with the chance to attack India. In legal parlance, India can cast these strikes as an act of “pre-emptive self-defense”. New Delhi’s aim is to send a message to the Pakistani military establishment that India is not shy to take its gloves off. Officially, however, the message seems to be that aim of these strikes was to prevent terror attacks on Indian soil. Moreover, there are no reports of surgical strikes deep inside Pakistani territory, akin to an Abbottabad-like mission. For example, there are no reports of Indian strikes in Bahawalpur, which houses the headquarters of the Jaish-e-Mohammad. Will Thursday’s events lead to an escalation of conflict across the border? Will these attacks stop Pakistan from harbouring terrorists on its soil?
Before the DGMO’s press conference, Pakistan announced that two of its soldiers had been killed in cross-border firing by the Indian side in the early hours of Thursday. Subsequently, the Pakistani military spokesperson released a statement denying there had been any surgical strikes by Indian forces. They claimed that New Delhi was over-hyping artillery fire as “surgical strikes”. Pakistan’s decision to downplay India’s claims could be an attempt discredit the success of these strikes. Paradoxically, such an outright denial may help prevent an escalation of public pressure in Pakistan for retaliation. But let us not kid ourselves, Pakistan will respond. Its military establishment could instigate another Uri-type attack or use terrorists to conduct operations in Indian cities. There could also be attempts to intensify firing across the LoC and International Border. Finally, one may also witness attacks on Indian interests in Afghanistan or Bangladesh. India must be prepared for any of these outcomes and step up security at home and aboard. “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 on either side. The reasons for New Delhi’s response to Uri attack are perfectly understandable. But can it contain the consequences of these attacks?