by Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)
Summary of an interview I gave to Channel News Asia.
The Indian Army claimed that it conducted surgical strikes on terrorist launch pads in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir to pre-empt another infiltration by terrorists. Before we discuss the impact of this claim, it is important to analyse the antecedents. Else, we’ll be falling into the trap of recency bias which makes us react emotionally to the most recent events on the ground.
The current Indian government, much like the earlier Indian governments, started off with the vision that normalising the relationship with the Pakistani civilian establishment provides the best chance for peace in the region. Consequently, Nawaz Sharif was invited to the Indian PM’s swearing-in ceremony. Subsequently, the Indian PM also made a trip to Lahore in continuation of this policy. However, all this outreach ended with first, the attack on a bus and police station in Gurdaspur and then an attack on the Pathankot air base. More recently, the terrorists attacked the Indian army brigade headquarters in Uri. This cycle—rounds of talks ending up in retaliation coming from Pakistan has a long history. Hence we’ve previously advocated that:
it is futile to spend cycles on trying to engage Pakistan at all costs. And that, only by developing and putting in place mitigation strategies can India truly hope to better insulate itself from the terror infrastructure that operates out of Pakistan [Discussion document: Sustained Dialogue Process as India’s Pakistan Policy].
Given that normalising the relationship with the Pakistani civilian government has higher costs than benefits, India was on the lookout for stronger options after the attack in Uri. And hence the attack on terrorist “launchpads” across the border. One needs to remember that this attack was not against the Pakistani Army or the Pakistani people. It was explicitly targeted towards terrorist infrastructure. Moreover, the Indian Army claimed responsibility for the attack and conveyed that there are no intentions to carry on with further strikes.
Pakistani news agencies have been denying that there was a “surgical strike” and tried to play it down as cross-border fire. The terminology doesn’t matter. What is significant is that this was perhaps the first time that the Indian army openly claimed that it had struck down terrorist camps on the other side of the LoC. Even though tactical operations across the border from both sides aren’t new, this explicit claim is meant to blow the lid off the lie that Pakistan has been peddling throughout the world: any Indian response against a terror strike will eventually lead to nuclear war.
India’s claim and Pakistan’s subsequent dithering shows that there are options for India to explore below the nuclear threshold. There will be pressure on the Pakistani military establishment to retaliate and we might see some firing on the LoC in the days to come. But if Pakistan chooses to escalate in response to an attack on terrorists, it will only provide further evidence to how the army and the militants operate in unison and are in fact a part of an organisational structure— a complex.
What about the diplomatic responses?
Diplomatic responses (like refusing to attend the SAARC meeting) and military responses are not mutually exclusive to each other. In fact, since Pakistan is not one geopolitical entity, but two—the first a putative civilian state and the second a military-jihadi complex—two responses are needed to counter the two Pakistans.
The diplomatic responses are meant to address the Pakistani people and the Pakistani putative state. They are meant to convey that the costs of supporting terrorists far outweigh the benefits. On the other hand, the overt military strike is meant to convey to the military-jihadi complex that India has options to strike back and that “tactical” nuclear weapons cannot be used as an excuse to target Indian people and the Republic of India.