India’s close-mouthed approach is allowing Rawalpindi to save face by denying the strikes altogether, saving itself from having to explain India’s ingress into its territory.
New Delhi: Pakistan has mounted an international effort to disprove the Indian Army’s claim of having successfully raided “terrorist launch pads” across the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) on Tuesday.
A CNN television report on Sunday stated that Pakistan’s military had “brought in a busload of foreign journalists” to one of five posts that Indian government sources claimed that special forces had struck. The reporter stated there were no signs of any Indian raid, but said the Pakistan Army admitted that a soldier had been killed in cross firing – apparently meaning cross-border firing.
Earlier, on Saturday, UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon’s spokesperson, Stephane Dujarric, had stated “The UN Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) has not directly observed any firing across the LoC related to the latest incidents.”
There is little validity in such reports, since a cross-border strike would leave few telltale signs in the area it targets, and those could be easily cleaned up in a few hours. However, there is irony in the fact that, while both sides usually blame each other for aggression on the LoC, this is the first time ever that Pakistan is mounting such an effort to absolve India of any responsibility.
With India having not yet released video footage of the army’s strikes, conclusive proof remains lacking. Further, it remains unclear how seriously the Indian troops managed to hurt jihadi groups and their Pakistan Army patrons; or whether the strikes amounted to a calibrated exercise to placate inflamed Indian public opinion, without provoking retaliation from Pakistan’s military.
Either way, India’s close-mouthed approach is allowing Rawalpindi (Pakistan Army Headquarters) to save face by denying the strikes altogether, saving itself from having to explain India’s ingress into its territory. Meanwhile, the Indian Army has obtained a face-saving closure to the Uri debacle; and, an Indian public that yearns to punish Pakistan for backing anti-India terrorists has been given a victory to celebrate.
Even so, important questions hang in the air: Will these strikes deter Pakistan’s military and its jihadi proxies from another Uri-style attack, or an even bigger one to demonstrate that they remain effective?
India’s apparent restraint is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it does not push the Pakistan army into a corner from where it is forced to retaliate. On the other hand, little military cost has been imposed on the anti-Indian elements.
In retaliating, India’s conundrum is: How to inflict enough punishment to persuade Pakistan’s security establishment to scale back support for terrorists and militants in India, without tripping any red lines that will leave Rawalpindi with no choice but to escalate the confrontation. An occasional raid will fetch the Indian government political brownie points, but hardly dents the Pakistan army. On the other hand, hurting them seriously through stepped up operations could trigger nuclear red lines.
George Perkovich and Toby Dalton point out in their recently-released book, Not War, Not Peace, which examines India’s options for retaliating against Pakistan, that: “Hitting back… often serves domestic political interests better than it changes the behaviour of the adversary. To achieve the latter objective, India needs a theory to how possible action will or will not motivate Pakistani leaders to act decisively to demobilise anti-Indian terrorist groups and to eschew escalation of conflict in response to possible Indian military retaliation.”
The Indian cross-LoC raid undoubtedly challenges the longstanding assumption of Indian restraint in Rawalpindi, but will not be accepted easily. Hawks will portray it as a one-time gamble by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and argue that Indian pro-activeness must be tested further before being accepted. Meanwhile, jihadi ideologues, who have long aimed to provoke armed military conflict between India and Pakistan, will welcome the dilution of Indian restraint, placing in their hands the triggers for inter-state tension and conflict.
Assuming for a moment that the Indian raid coerces Rawalpindi into restraining jihadis from striking a newly belligerent India, the generals could hardly scale-back the jihadi eco-system without creating ripples across their security establishments – the jihadi groups, the Pakistani public and, most worryingly for the generals, the Pakistani military’s rank and file.
Any climb-down would invite sharp questions from the army’s junior-and-middle-ranking officers. With 490 soldiers killed in the last two years of Operation Zarb-e-Azb against the Pakistani Taliban, there is little appetite for disarming or restraining Punjab-based, India-directed terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) or the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM).
Forcing such a mind shift change within Pakistan would take more than a mere signal from India, especially one delivered through contested “surgical strikes”.
Convincing Rawalpindi would require India’s military to retaliate forcefully to each provocation from across the LoC. Not doing so would erode the credibility of Tuesday’s strikes.
Further, this would require the Indian army to gear up across the board, not just rely on a handful of special forces units, or regular infantry battalion commando platoons, to avenge operational setbacks caused by the shortcomings of regular army and armed police units.
India’s infantry battalions are formidable fighting outfits, comparable with the world’s best. Yet, they have become used to a certain operational tempo in a quarter century of counter-militancy operations in J&K. A new strategy of cross border tit-for-tat in the Valley would require a higher level of vigilance, training and equipping.
True, the military pressure on Pakistan is coordinated with a range of other measures applied by New Delhi – the diplomatic isolation of Pakistan, beginning with the cancellation of the SAARC summit; economic pressure, including squeezing Pakistan to grant India “Most Favoured Nation” status; and even “reviewing” the Indus Waters Treaty to extract as much water as legally permissible by India. Yet, Indian military strikes have the unique ability to consolidate support for the Pakistan military against “Indian aggressiveness”.
By arrangement with Business Standard