With the dust at the Line of Control settling down, at least for the time being, we need to analyse the events through the short and long term perspective. The Indian action (so-called surgical strikes) was carefully couched to show that it was within the bounds of international law, that is pre-emptive action to defend against an imminent attack. This, as National Security Advisor Ajit Doval told his Pakistani counterpart a few days ago, was to emphasise India’s right to defend its interests, especially in view of Pakistan’s failure to act after the Pathankot attack.
The Director General of Military Operation’s statement carefully laid out the case wherein he pointed to the Poonch and Uri attacks of September 11 and 18, as well as the 20 other infiltrations that had been foiled. He noted that Indian forces had detected preparations for additional attacks and had therefore acted to neutralise them. In other words, India acted pre-emptively, but in clear self-defence, something international law recognises. As long as the hit and counter-hits by India and Pakistan took place clandestinely, international law did not matter, but once New Delhi decided to acknowledge the strikes, it had to be grounded in law. This has put Pakistan on the defensive since it does not claim that India is sending in proxy forces to attack its military personnel and so any attack by its forces would be aggression, plain and simple.
New Delhi has given Islamabad a way out by noting that its attacks targeted non-state actors, not the Pakistani forces. Further, the DGMO made it clear that the actions had concluded and there were no plans to continue the strikes for the present.
There is the chance that Pakistan will retaliate elsewhere. However, this course is also fraught. It is because of the reputational damage that Islamabad suffered on account of the Mumbai attacks that the Pakistan Army had taken the precaution of making sure that the attacks launched by its jihadis did not target civilians. In this way, Pakistan was trying to ensure that it did not raise the Indian pain to the level which would compel New Delhi to respond with a military attack, In the last two or three years, Pakistan launched several attacks, especially in the Jammu region, but all of them carefully avoided civilians and, instead, focused on military and police targets.
This was also the case with the Pathankot and Uri attacks, both of which targeted military facilities. But the Narendra Modi government has now decided to raise the threshold and insist that Pakistan abandon its support for jihadi militias entirely. To this end, they have made a huge fuss over the Pathankot and Uri attacks and, now, with the retaliatory strike, created an entirely new situation in the India-Pakistan dynamic.
We need not get detained by the debate as to whether the strikes took place or not. They almost certainly did. However, despite the very precise statement of the DGMO, the Indian media has gone over-board and conflated everything, the nature of the attacks, the numbers of casualties and so on. The term “surgical strike”, though, was not a very useful one since it is usually used to describe an aerial attack with precision-guided weapons launched by aircraft or UAVs.
In all fairness, the DGMO also used the term “counter-terrorist actions.” The action was more of a commando raid by Indian forces, a quick and shallow insertion, assault and return without waiting to count the enemy casualties. The DGMO did not give the numbers. All he said was that "significant casualties have been caused to the terrorists and those who are trying to support them." The media came up with the numbers and as a result, distorted the understanding of the operation. But there is no doubt that the simultaneous raids have upped the ante on the LoC because they have been openly avowed by India.
What are likely to be the short- and long-term implications of this?
- Modi has succeeded in quietening the clamour for war within the Bharatiya Janata Party. There is little doubt that there was a section of the Sangh Parivar that has always wanted a “muh torh jawab” (jaw breaking response) to Pakistani provocations. This has only added to the image of Modi as being a tough prime minister, even though what he has done is to publicly and officially own up to the kind of actions that have taken place quietly in the past across the LoC.
- The BJP government has shown up the Congress’ allegedly passive restraint even though the Manmohan Singh policy was aimed at keeping violence and rhetoric low, even while conducting retaliatory strikes whenever needed.
- By building in de-escalation in the DGMO’s declaration – “We do not have plans for continuation of further operations” – the government has also reassured the world community that Kashmir is not about to become a global nuclear flashpoint needing the intervention of world powers.
- It has put Islamabad in a bind because India’s information and psychological warfare campaign has put the onus of proof, that the operation did not take place, on Islamabad. Pakistan will find it difficult to side-step the issue, even though they can buy some peace with domestic audiences. Now it has been fairly warned that India intends to hold it to the promise made in January 2004 that it would not allow its soil, or territory under its control for any terrorist activities against India.
- The sober and controlled action – if you ignore its media and political misuse – has added heft to India’s six-month old campaign of non-violent compellance to push Pak to abandon support to terrorist proxies. This campaign has involved public calls for sanctioning and isolating Islamabad at the G-20 and ASEAN summits, as well as in the US Congress and other high-level meetings. It has seen the Indian decision to boycott SAARC and carry key regional countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka with it. It is likely to see the end of the MFN status to Pakistan.
Longer term implications
- There is a danger that the new dynamic in India-Pakistan relations could lead to the termination of the ceasefire on the LoC. This could happen through a process of escalation of the present situation. Or it could arise from a deliberate Pakistani policy aimed at making things in Jammu and Kashmir hot for India. Bombardment on the LoC would aid Pakistan in stepping up infiltration directly, as well as indirectly, since it would lead to the destruction of the LoC fencing which has played a significant role in reducing infiltration.
- This could aid a new project of stepping up the Kashmir heat on India. Especially if the current situation of civil unrest festers, it could help Pakistan by creating a new crop of militants, as well as a support structure which could be utilised by a new wave of infiltrators.
- Another longer term question is linked to the US elections. Modi has developed a high comfort level with the Obama Administration as evidenced by the diplomatic coordination with Indian strike evidenced by the conversations between their respective National Security Advisors made public on Thursday. It is more than likely that the conversation took place before the strike, rather than after. In matters like this, it is always a good idea to have Uncle Sam in your corner.
- China is unlikely to get involved in the situation if it simmers at its present level. Neither India nor Pakistan show an inclination to go further. India has made its point that it intends to police the LoC more intensely. For the present, Pakistan has conveniently sidestepped the challenge by denying anything happened.
- As of now, the international community has sided with India. Many other countries have faced the situation and dealt with it in the same way, and many sympathise with New Delhi’s predicament. However, should the military activities intensify, this support may be less apparent. The world has got enough troubles as it were. India’s economic growth story is one of the few rays of hope they see outside Brexit, the West Asian meltdown and the South China Sea confrontation, and they would not be happy to see yet another region get bogged down in semi-war or warlike conditions.
- The so-called surgical strikes have now entered the Uttar Pradesh election campaign. There is little doubt that the BJP will use it, along with a clutch of other platforms – gau raksha, vikas (cow protection, development) and so on to heighten Hindutva nationalist fervour. Just how it will play out is not clear. Not many people recall that despite the enormous hype about the “victory” in the Kargil war, it failed to give Vajpayee the kind of electoral bump that was expected. The BJP seat share remained at 182 in the elections following the Kargil operations in 1999, and the National Democratic Alliance's vote share actually went down. It was the poor performance of the Congress that enabled the NDA to form a stable government thereafter.
Perhaps the biggest question before India will be: How far can we allow Pakistan related issues to distract us from our focus on economic transformation? The so-called strategic restraint of past governments was aimed at “managing” Pakistan at a low level of violence. However, Modi has now raised the stakes and appears to be playing for broke. In other words, he is not just seeking to manage Pakistan, but to actually transform it from a supporter of terrorists to one which systematically dismantles its decades long support for violent Islamist radicals who attacked India and Afghanistan. This is a big undertaking and the people of India may not be inclined to support it. They may be more than content to let it stew in its own juice and focus on economic change instead.
Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, on whose website a version of this piece first appeared.