Surgical strikes signal a change of course. Do they also mark the beginning of a long-term strategy?

Beyond addressing a domestic constituency, the government has sent out a clear message by widely publicising the present operation. Will it stay the course?

The old paradigm of India’s responses to Pakistan-backed terrorism now stands irrevocably shattered, not only by the surgical strike across the border, but by the radical shift in the political discourse, and the round of aggressive diplomacy that preceded it.

For decades now, a great deal of noise inevitably followed each major Pakistan-sourced terrorist attack on Indian soil; this quickly died down, and it was business as usual. The worst Pakistan could apprehend was a temporary suspension of talks, but New Delhi would soon be back, abandoning all conditionalities, to importune Islamabad for a resumption of “dialogue”. An elaborate rationale had evolved around this fruitless cycle, with extensive networks of “peace advocacy”, reinforced by imagined nightmare scenarios of catastrophic collapse in Pakistan, of nuclear war, or nuclear terrorism.

Events after the Uri attack, in which 19 soldiers were killed, indicate a paradigm shift. The standard package of generalised condemnation, threats and imprecations on the one side, and blank denials from the other, have yielded to a radical broadening of the spectrum of strategies and tactics of response available to New Delhi. Crucially, the surgical strike across the Line of Control marks a dramatic departure from, and a significant escalation of, patterns of the past. The Indian policy pendulum between talks and no talks has abruptly veered on to a new course even as the Army fulfilled its promise that it would respond to the Uri attack “at a time and place of its own choosing”.

Well-advised ambiguity

While details of the surgical strike have not been officially disclosed (there is, of course, an abundance of leaks and plants), Lt Gen Ranbir Singh, the Indian Army’s Director General of Military Operations stated that “significant casualties were caused to terrorists and those providing support to them”. Pakistan acknowledged that two of its soldiers were killed, but denied any “surgical strike”, insisting, instead, that there was just an exchange of fire along the Line of Control. In an evident contradiction, Islamabad promised a “forceful response” if the operation was repeated.

The ambiguity that the Army has chosen to maintain about the details of the strike is well advised, as is the formulation that the operation was “aimed at neutralising terrorists”. Islamabad has often sought cover behind the claim that “non-state actors” outside its control have been responsible for terrorist attacks against India, and that Pakistan is itself a “victim of terrorism”. In immediately contacting Pakistan’s Director General of Military Operations and briefing him about the “surgical strike”, and seeking the Pakistan Army’s cooperation “to erase the menace of terrorism from the region”, Lt Gen Ranbir Singh hoisted the Pakistanis with their own petard. The ambiguity, moreover, provided Pakistan ample space to deny or downplay the operation, pushing down perceived domestic pressures for disproportionate retaliation or uncontrolled escalation.

Retaliation is, however, likely and it remains to be seen what shape and at what time it will manifest itself. India’s forces are now on alert, and civilian populations in close proximity to the border have been evacuated as a measure of abundant caution.

Global isolation

Pakistan’s options, however, have been severely circumscribed not only by a continuous plunging of its global standing and loss of support even among some of its most consistent champions – with the notable exception of “all weather friend” China – but also by India’s well crafted diplomatic campaign preceding the strike. At the United Nations General Assembly, it was India’s message that was heard and acknowledged, not Pakistan’s. Worse, from Islamabad’s perspective, Afghanistan and Bangladesh also stepped forward to squarely identify Pakistan as the fountainhead of terror and disruption in the region. Thereafter, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan joined with India to declare, separately, that a “conducive environment” did not exist for the hosting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation Summit at Islamabad, with the result that the conference has been cancelled, embarrassing Pakistan further.

The surgical strike, moreover, compounds Pakistan’s discomfiture, as it confirms Pakistan’s complicity with terrorism – two Pakistani soldiers were killed and another nine injured at the terrorist launch pads – potentially deepening Pakistan’s isolation. It is significant that the Indian operation has not drawn any international criticism, and even China has offered no more than its habitual cliché, expressing the “hope that they (India and Pakistan) can carry out dialogues to properly resolve disputes and maintain regional peace and security.” More importantly, Susan Rice, the US National Security Advisor, called her Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval, on the morning after the surgical strike and, without any reference to the incident of which she would have been well aware, reaffirmed Washington’s support to India in handling “cross border terrorism”, and reiterated “the expectation that Pakistan take effective action to combat and delegitimise United Nations-designated terrorist individuals and entities, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad, and their affiliates.” Any visible retaliation by Pakistan, at this juncture, can only enormously deepen its growing and global isolation.

Reality check

It is useful to remind ourselves that the “surgical strike” is not the first operation Indian forces have undertaken across the LoC. Indeed, retaliatory actions across the LoC and International Border have been undertaken on several occasions in the past, without the chest-thumping and jingoism that has marked the present instance. Evidently, Prime Minister Modi was addressing the domestic constituency and the deepening sense of disappointment even among his most ardent followers, with regard to his Pakistan policy.

This, however, does not exhaust the underlying intent of the government in widely publicising the present operation. The surgical strike is, in fact, the exclamation mark at the end of the rising discourse on alternative strategies to be explored and deployed against Pakistan, which has distinguished media and political discussions after the Uri attack. It is intended, equally, to communicate to Islamabad and to the world’s capitals that India will use all instrumentalities, political, economic, social, diplomatic, and if necessary, military, to confront and counter Pakistan backed terrorism.

There is, presently, clear evidence of political will to pursue this course. It remains to be seen whether this wanes with the passage of time, or crystallises into a long-term strategy that will eventually compel Pakistan to abandon its sanguinary fellowship with terror.

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