The nation’s reaction to the death of 18 soldiers after an attack on an Indian Army camp in Uri at the hands of Pakistan-backed militants is one of palpable anger. Since the Narendra Modi government took office in May 2014, there have been four major offensives on Indian soil, including the dastardly attack on Sunday. The first was an attack in Gurdaspur district, Punjab, where three civilians and four policemen were killed, besides three Pakistan-backed terrorists. This was followed by an audacious strike on one of India’s most important air force bases in Pathankot earlier this year. In June, Lashkar-e-Toiba militants attacked a CRPF convoy near the town of Pampore in Jammu Kashmir. The terrorists killed eight officers.
Until Sunday, the NDA government’s approach was characterised by restraint, with the focus on de-escalation of tensions. But there has been a visible change in New Delhi’s’ response, especially given the number of soldiers killed. “I assure the nation that those behind this despicable attack will not go unpunished,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Home Minister Rajnath Singh went one step further and directly blamed the Pakistani establishment for the attack. “Pakistan is a terrorist state and it should be identified and isolated as such,” he said.
However, it was the Prime Minister’s point man in Jammu and Kashmir, Ram Madhav, whose response probably reflects the mood within the government. "The PM has promised that those behind the Uri terror attack will not go unpunished. That should be the way forward. For one tooth, the complete jaw. Days of so-called strategic restraint are over," he said. Credible news reports indicate that the Indian security establishment is currently assessing a range of responses to Sunday’s events. There is talk of possible strikes against terrorist camps across the Line of Control to Pakistan Army positions that are alleged to have facilitated the entry of infiltrators. It is imperative to establish some context to the options that New Delhi is seriously considering. When the Pakistan Army attempted to capture territory during the 1999 Kargil War, India decided not to make headway into Pakistani territory. When 164 people were killed, after Pakistan-backed militants launched an audacious strike on Mumbai in 2008, India did not respond with military action. After the 26/11 attack, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had considered air strikes against terrorist camps in Pakistan. But the then Air Force Chief reportedly told Singh that India did not have accurate digital data on terrorist camps in Pakistan. The Army Chief, meanwhile, informed the Prime Minister that the Indian Army was not prepared for a surgical strike across the border. Experts maintain that it takes years to develop the requisite capability for cross-border operations. Does India possess the requisite capability?
There are clear risks to overt military action across the international border. Both India and Pakistan possess nuclear weapons and any further escalation could lead to unchartered territory. When it comes to surgical air strikes against terrorist camps, experts contend that India lacks the intelligence and surveillance capabilities. There is also a high possibility that such strikes may kill innocent civilians in the region. Unintended civilian casualties could have dire consequences for India. Despite possessing vastly superior intelligence and targeting capabilities, US-backed drone strikes have been known to cause massive civilian deaths, without accomplishing the aim of dismantling the terror apparatus in Afghanistan and Middle East. Finally, air strikes into the heart of Pakistan will be strongly contested by their security establishment, which also possesses serious capabilities. Has the Indian establishment measured the cost of a Pakistani response to an air strike in Bahawalpur, which houses the headquarters of the Jaish-e-Mohammad? The costs of escalation, especially for a growing economy like India, could be devastating. Any response that New Delhi chooses to back must be aimed at forcing Pakistan into giving up its terror apparatus. “If the Pakistani security establishment is to get the message that the benefits of peace outweigh hostilities, it should be made to bear most of the costs that India seeks to impose,” says Brahma Chellaney, a noted analyst of international geostrategic trends. Experts contend that the best possible strategy is to strengthen covert capabilities in Balochistan and Giligit Baltistan.
Foreign policy mandarins in India have long advocated a harder line on using Balochistan as a “pressure point” on Pakistan. This should be backed up by action on the ground and extensive diplomatic efforts. If New Delhi decides to expand its presence in Balochistan, it must bring Iran on board. Unlike India, Iran shares a border with Balochistan. Globally, New Delhi and Tehran are on the same page in their opposition towards Sunni extremist groups in the region. Russia must be also brought into the loop. Meanwhile, India must also convince China that its decision to heavily invest in Pakistan, especially in the Balochistan and Giligit-Baltistan region, comes at a significant cost to its own internal security.
There have been reports of a growing tide of fighters from its troubled Xinjiang province to jihadist groups in the Middle East and Central Asia. Pakistan’s track-record of using “non-state actors” to fulfill their strategic goals will come back to haunt the Chinese. They should ask the Americans. China will get the message when Uighur fighters in the Xinjiang province start arming themselves actively. Without boots on the ground, India could also open up a second front against Pakistan, from Afghanistan, using covert networks of the restive tribal populace against the Afghan Taliban, besides material and logistical support. This is where India also requires concrete commitments from the Americans, who continue to use their misfiring strategy for stability in Afghanistan, which hinges on Pakistan’s cooperation. In the past decade, American officials have sought to pressure Pakistan into denying safe havens for insurgent groups involved in destabilising Afghanistan, especially the Taliban and its brutal offshoot, the Haqqani network. But that has not created the requisite incentive for Pakistan to give up its terror apparatus.
Across international forums like the United Nations, former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran advocates a similar approach: “We have several pressure points which we have been loath to use despite there being no corresponding Pakistani restraint. We have a formal claim on Gilgit Baltistan but since the Simla Agreement we have rarely articulated it, let alone pressed it determinedly. We have been reluctant to receive people from Gilgit Baltistan or raise our voice when their rights are violated. Our silence on the horrific human rights violations in Balochistan is misplaced. Thanks to its harbouring of Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar, Pakistan has earned its reputation of being an ‘epicentre of terror’. We could be much more active internationally to exploit that negative image.”
One must accept that Pakistan’s policy to draw the international community into the disputed nature of Jammu and Kashmir has been successful. In Kashmir, it has used the doctrine of plausible deniability to disown the activities of militant groups. In other words, India must step up its game diplomatically and strategically for the long run instead of seeking an immediate military response. But before India decides to set off on any foreign adventure, it must tighten its defensive system against infiltration and enhance security across sensitive military installations. Both in Pathankot and Uri, the security perimeter was breached too easily.