In a move that could mark a seismic shift in India-Pakistan relations, the Indian Army "conducted surgical strikes" at what it described as "some terrorist teams [that] 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" on Wednesday night and early hours of Thursday morning.

While the Indian Army has crossed the Line of Control before, what is unprecedented is that India actually announced its strikes officially this time. This, of course, calls Pakistan’s bluff which has pushed cross-border or cross-LoC terror into India under the assumption that the Indian government would not react, wary of an escalation into nuclear war.

Now with limited space to manoeuvre, the Pakistani Army adopted an interesting strategy: as a response, it simply denied that India had crossed the Line of Control, calling the attack an instance of cross-border – or more correctly, cross-LoC – firing instead.

On Thursday, the Pakistani Army released this statement as a response to India’s claims:

There has been no surgical strike by India, instead there had been cross border fire initiated and conducted by India which is existential phenomenon….The notion of surgical strike linked to alleged terrorists bases is an illusion being deliberately generated by India to create false effects. This quest by Indian establishment to create media hype by rebranding cross border fire as surgical strike is fabrication of truth.

Why deny?

Under intense pressure from its own public, paradoxically, simply denying the attack ever took place takes pressure off the Pakistani Army to respond with force – an outcome that Rawalpindi is wary of, given the vast costs even a limited war with India could have. Calling this “cross-border firing”, a fairly routine matter and one which does not allow for Indian forces crossing the LoC, means a puncturing of the war balloon. The Pakistani defence minister backed this up by characterising the attack as “small weapon firing across the LoC”.

The Pakistani reaction also indicates that its space to respond might be constricted by the fact that the United States of America seems to have come down firmly on India’s side. In one of the strongest statements on India-Pakistan relations till now, a White House press release, published Thursday morning India time, does not mention India’s surgical strike but asks Pakistan to take action against “United Nations-designated terrorist individuals and entities, including Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad, and their affiliates”.

India plays along

In this endeavour to prevent escalation, ironically – but also sensibly – India is also playing along with Pakistan. The strike achieved two objectives for India: it allowed the Indian Army to avenge its casualties in the Uri attack and called Pakistan’s bluff on pushing terror under nuclear blackmail. Significantly, the army statement took care to couch it as a tactical, preventive measure to ensure that militants planning to cross over would not have the chance to attack India.

Moreover, the public announcement allowed Prime Minister Narendra Modi to shore up his strongman image in domestic politics. Beyond this, India’s benefit curve dips: any escalation in tensions will not help India either militarily or politically. Having sent a strong message, it is thus in India’s strategic interests to let matters be. Any further escalation could be far more harmful for India than the initial Uri attack itself.

This may be why India has refused to publish specific details about the strikes. Where and how the attacks where carried out was not officially communicated. And while media reports have claimed video footage of the strike exists, the army hasn’t released it as yet.

This is also why India has officially desisted from claiming it crossed the Line of Control (although enough press leaks and reports make it clear that the event happened). The Army stiffly claims that the targets were situated “along the LoC”, making sure to not clarify which side of the line there were on. All of this gives Pakistan a window to keep on claiming that the attack didn’t happen at all, thus (hopefully) preventing further escalation.