India and Pakistan are Rearranging the Thresholds of Conflict

These are indeed tricky times for the subcontinent in which excessive or incorrect claims can both be dangerous. They could raise expectations that could later force the hand of political leaders to act less rationally or even irrationally.

The current India-Pakistan tension in the wake of  the Uri attack seems like another round of hostilities meant to re-define the military-strategic red lines of the two countries.

It was in the wake of the Kargil war that the current threshold was marked. What both sides learnt from that conflict, especially General Pervez Musharraf’s army, was that the military option could not be relied upon to solve the Kashmir dispute. But Kargil also changed the nature of bilateral conflict.

The primary lesson learnt by Pakistan was that a military victory was almost impossible – especially if India could expand the conflict not just through the use of firepower but also tactful diplomacy and media management. Since what followed eventually were peace overtures – with even Musharraf, the architect of Kargil, coming up with his ‘out of the box’ solution for Kashmir – it was generally assumed that this was a strategic shift and a new milestone in bilateral relations.

However, the Pakistani establishment still believed in the utility of using non-state militants willing to fight the war in Kashmir, and against India more generally. Avoiding conflict through the use of a nuclear deterrence umbrella while pushing conflict with the help of jihadis was the new formula used to bring attention to unresolved issues.

It was obvious from various incidents starting from 2002 through to 26/11, right up to the present, that the Lashkar-e Tayyaba/Jamaat-ud-Dawwa (LeT/JuD) network, Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) and certain elements of Sipha-e-Sahaba Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Jhangavi were being used to challenge India in a manner which would raise tension without a high risk of major retaliation.

Of course, in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, New Delhi played its diplomatic cards well. It also tried to silently put pressure on Pakistan by aiding insurgents in Balochistan. However, the threat was never comparable – mainly due to the Baloch insurgents lacking the capacity to take on the Pakistani state.

Except for claiming a terrorist attack in Islamabad in April 2014, there is nothing that the various Baluch insurgents ever managed to do to challenge Pakistan. Even today, they continue to lack that capacity despite the Pakistan military’s public relations machinery successfully depicting them as a force on par with anti-state religious militants like the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. Thanks to this hard sell, Pakistanis today, especially the younger generation, have more or less bought the idea that LeT/JuD and JeM are Islamabad’s response to the various Baloch groups that India is accused of supporting. But the reality is that these groups in Balochistan can never inflict the kind of damage that the jihadi groups can do in Kashmir and India.

It appears that post-Uri, New Delhi is trying to find a method to counterbalance the threat by targeting jihadi camps across the border. By increasing the stakes for Islamabad, India hopes to pressure it into reducing and abandoning its support for these groups. Behind the noise of the past few days, that is what is happening. The Indian announcement of ‘surgical strikes’ and the Pakistani response to that has set in motion a slow process of recalibrating the threshold between the two countries.  This process will continue until both sides understand their own limits.

A limited operation

Contrary to the impression created by India’s DGMO, the operation across the border was limited in scale and less gargantuan than claimed.

Reportedly, Indian troops crossed over not more than 200 meters inside the Pakistani side of the Line of Control to attack an LeT camp located some 100 metres away from an army check post at Dudhnial. The fact that it was a limited scale operation made it possible for Pakistan to couch this as nothing more than firing and a border violation. While it attained some goals in the form of killing 5-6 militants, the use of the term ‘surgical strike’ was misleading. Perhaps, a better term was a ‘targeted’ operation in which the risk of further escalation was avoided by not killing military personnel at the nearby check post. Reports indicate that only 3-4 army personnel were injured due to the use of grenades against the post. Furthermore, the Indian troops did not come three or four miles inside the LoC as some defence sources in India have suggested. The short distance is the reason why Pakistan could claim that what happened was nothing more than an unprovoked incursion of the sort that takes place all the time.

Indeed, this is how the attack was presented to a team of journalists taken to the border areas by the Pakistani army’s Inter-Services Public Relations agency. Although the media were not taken to a couple of other places such as beyond Kotli at Tatta Pani and one other place, the fact is that even if journalists were taken to the exact location, they might not have been too impressed by the destruction caused given the limited nature of the target.

The attack at best denotes the testing of waters to check the Pakistan army’s threshold for retaliation but also the Indian Army’s current capacity to carry out surgical operations without the threat of escalating the cost of conflict to an unbearably high level. The Pakistani side at the moment is trying to keep a tight lid on the issue so that it is not forced to escalate. An admission of an attack without meeting public expectations of retaliation would exact a high political cost for GHQ Rawalpindi. People would be most disappointed if they found out that an attack actually happened inside Pakistan, raising concerns about issues of national sovereignty.

These are indeed tricky times for the subcontinent in which excessive or incorrect claims can both be dangerous. They could raise expectations that could later force the hand of political leaders to act less rationally or even irrationally.

The impact of the post-Uri targeted operation is hard to read but it may have strengthened some existing assumptions on both sides. For India, the understanding might be that Pakistan is still not in a position to escalate tension – just as it was unable to do during Kargil. But Delhi must understand that a reaction did not come mainly due to the scale of the Indian ‘strike’. The lack of a response, however, must not be misread or taken as denoting the absence of a future reaction.

In Pakistan’s case, on the other hand, the assumption might be that the Indian Army still will not dare to come deep inside Pakistan to strike other camps located deeper behind the LoC other than the one mentioned above, which was quite close to the line. Nevertheless, Islamabad is likely to watch carefully India’s willingness to shift the goal post as far as its security is concerned. The operation, thus, can’t be brushed aside casually even if there was no response to it.

Thus far, the conflict seems manageable. The influence of the army in Kashmir, particularly on people living close to the border areas has helped tremendously in keeping secret the fact that an LeT camp was there and was hit. The fact that the number of militants killed is 5-6 also helps the incident go unreported. The security culture in Kashmir on the Pakistani side of the LoC is such that people are either in sync with the army or dependent upon the organisation for meeting their needs during tough times. Typically, those living close to the border are either informants or too scared to tell.

However, these are tough times for peace and stability in the region as the two militaries test and redefine their thresholds. Any miscalculation could result in an inadvertent but costly escalation. At the end of the day, there are no prospects for a decisive victory by either side and sacrificing over a billion lives or more is too big a risk to take.

Ayesha Siddiqa is an independent social scientist based in Islamabad and author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy