Calling Pakistan’s Escalation Bluff

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On Thursday morning, the Indian Army announced that it had conducted several strikes on terrorist camps across the Line of Control. According to the statement by the Director General for Military Operations, Lt Gen Ranbir Singh, operations took place in four sectors along the LoC – Bhimber, Hotspring, Kel, and Lipa – at 00 30 on September 28 and destroyed seven terrorist bases that were used to stage infiltrations into India. All facilities were between 500 and 3,000 metres from the LoC. Casualties are reported to include two Pakistani soldiers and 38 terrorists. Commandos were dropped at the LoC from where they crossed over into Pakistani-occupied Kashmir under the watchful eye of Indian drones. The action was undertaken after receiving “credible and specific information” about terrorists at the locations planning attacks on major Indian cities.

Pakistan’s initial reaction has been to deny these strikes, citing “usual” Indian cross-border shelling instead as the cause of death of two of its soldiers. This buys their leadership time to decide on how to respond, especially in light of the United States’ prompt statement expressing support for Indian counter-terrorism efforts. Though worded vaguely, its timing and general import leaves little doubt that Washington knew about and approved of India’s military actions Wednesday night.

The Indian strike is truly genius – while representing almost nothing tactically, it has truly set the cat among the pigeons diplomatically and strategically. At an empirical level, India’s action is a cross-border strike only by the grace of semantics – its special forces penetrated into Pakistani-held territory only just beyond a good sniper’s range and killed 38 terrorists, a number that could probably be replaced in hours. Normally, a cross-border strike evokes memories of Neptune Spear, Ajax, Moked, or Thunderbolt. Nonetheless, this is nothing to be scoffed at – I had written in a previous article that India cannot hope to dissuade Pakistan from terrorism with cross-border strikes and should instead attrit Pakistan and its terrorist allies. Wednesday’s strike fits the mould perfectly.

The ingenuity of India’s move comes in its diplomatic package. First, it sought to persuade the United States of the justness of its cause – Washington can be a moralising bully as much as India’s early prime ministers were. Second, it announced the strike publicly and reiterated that the operations were limited and had been halted – this dampened any escalatory opportunism by Pakistan. Furthermore, it was a booster shot for national morale, sagging after decades of receiving blows from across the border. Third, Delhi briefed the envoys of 22 nations, including the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council,  through its foreign secretary S Jaishankar on Wednesday’s mission. This would consolidate international opinion behind Indian actions, especially since Pakistan has a glowing reputation for supporting terrorism. The briefing was presumably to also reassure the global community that the military action was indeed limited, the conviction of which would lead to their diplomatic pressure on Islamabad to abjure from further provoking Delhi.

Strategically, India has called Pakistan’s bluff that it would respond with nuclear weapons if the former dared to conduct raids into the latter’s territory. Wednesday’s raid is so small and insignificant that a nuclear response would seem insane by any standards. As several analysts in favour of striking back at Pakistan, including myself, have argued earlier, India must utilise the conflict space below Pakistan’s nuclear threshold if it is to have any hope of curbing Pakistani shenanigans. This is exactly what Delhi has now done, challenging Islamabad to actually defend in public terrorists with nuclear weapons. And it seems, Islamabad has blinked.

There is no reason this bluff could not have been called earlier, but previous administrations imagined – and Pakistan allowed them to do so – that even the slightest response to the asymmetric war being waged from across the LoC would incur Pakistani nuclear retaliation. The Narendra Modi government has understood that the threshold had to be higher than that for it to have any meaning. Yet in all caution, Modi authorised only very shallow strikes at first – if Pakistan fails to live up to its rhetoric, future strikes may be even deeper and more significant as India improves its capability to conduct such strikes. Wednesday’s raid has disregarded Pakistan’s nuclear red lines and in all likelihood, pushed them back a bit.

Why did Modi not act earlier? Perhaps because he wanted to, on the world stage, give diplomacy a chance; perhaps the Indian military was not ready in the first two years of the Modi administration; or perhaps he wanted to dispel the stereotypes about him for domestic political reasons. This is all speculation and irrelevant to the national security debate. What matters is that the Indian government has finally acted boldly – and wisely – on the Pakistani-sponsored terrorism question and it is a much appreciated breath of fresh air.


This post appeared on FirstPost on September 30, 2016.