External Affairs

Uri Aftermath: Retaliation, With De-Escalation Built In

Lt General Ranbir Singh was careful to add that the surgical strike was a one-time affair as an escalation of tension would rebound negatively for India.

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Army chief Raheel Sharif in a file photo. Credit: Reuters

There is nothing new in shallow cross-border strikes conducted by Indian forces across the Line of Control; what is new is the public – and political – affirmation of such a strike. But Pakistan has conveniently side-stepped the military and diplomatic challenge this poses by simply denying such a strike took place.

As a result of the Indian claim and Pakistani denial, both domestic opinions have been taken care of. The government of India has satisfied the public demand for action against Pakistan for the Uri strike which took the lives of 18 soldiers on September 18. And by their subterfuge – of attributing their casualties to Indian shelling across the LoC – the Pakistanis have signalled to their public that they remain firm against India.

It was in 1993-1994 that in response to some Pakistani attacks, General Bipin Chandra Joshi permitted the Army to conduct cross-LOC strikes, “as long as you don’t leave behind any one, dead or wounded.” So over the years, a deadly game of strike and counter-strike was played out by the two sides, most recently in 2013 and 2014.

However, this time around the government of India has changed the rules of the game when the DGMO declared that “based on very credible and specific information which we received yesterday that some terrorist teams had positioned themselves at launch pads along the Line of Control with an aim to carry out infiltration and terrorist strikes in Jammu & Kashmir and in various other metros in our country, the Indian army conducted surgical strikes last night at these launch pads.”

Having said this, Lt General Ranbir Singh took the precaution of adding that this was a one-time affair for the present. “We do not have any plans for continuation of further operations.” So clearly New Delhi has built de-escalation into its retaliatory action.

The Pakistani reaction is interesting: Since the action, by their official account, didn’t take place, there is no pressure on them to further escalate the situation. Over the past two seeks, many analysts have pointed out that Indian retaliation along the LoC or in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir would not have the same trigger for Islamabad as would a strike in its heartland of Punjab. Both the Sharifs – Prime Minister Nawaz and army chief Raheel – have important constituencies there which they cannot afford to ignore.

Significantly, the DGMO also reminded Pakistan of the commitment it made in January 2004 during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to Islamabad on the occasion of the SAARC summit to not allow its territory or territory under its control (read: POK) to “be used to support terrorism in any manner.”

Despite the dramatic rhetoric of the past few months, both sides have signalled that they understand the rules of the game on the LoC and will continue to play by it. No doubt, the Pakistanis will be planning a counter-strike using one of their so-called Border Action Teams at a time of their choosing. Unlike India, which has just cause, the Pakistanis will be out for revenge as well as to signal to the bruised jihadis that the Pakistan army remains firmly behind them.

While individual strikes on the LoC are fine, an escalation of tension and a breakdown of the 2003 ceasefire will be a serious development and rebound negatively for India. Because prior to the ceasefire, the Pakistani use of the artillery and mortar barrages to infiltrate militants into India was a serious issue.

Equally important, the ceasefire enabled India to construct a border fence which, though porous, has dramatically reduced the infiltration of the militants. A breakdown of the ceasefire will enable Pakistan to target the fence and destroy important sections of it.

In this context, the telephone conversation between national security adviser Ajit Doval and his US counterpart Susan Rice is significant. Even if the the Indian cross-LoC raid was not discussed – according to Indian officials – the measured reaction from the White House and State Department once the Indian side went public suggests top administration officials are likely to have a “serious” conversation with senior Pakistani officials as well.

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation.