On September 18, terrorists suspected to belong to the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan attacked an Indian Army camp at Uri in a pre-dawn raid, killing 17 soldiers. The South Asian commentariat has gone into its usual and predictable tizzy, some quarters demanding military action while others urge a firm reprimand, international pressure, ‘strategic restraint,’ and talks. A good dose of recrimination on past policies and (in)actions is also available. In a few days, perhaps a week, calm will return and all will be forgotten…until the next terrorist attack. Ultimately, 17 soldiers would still be dead and the country still hapless about its own defence but the commentariat would have inched closer to reaching their monthly writing quota.
There is nothing new in the terrorist attacks at Uri, either in the terrorists’ methods and capacity to acquire intelligence and materials or in what India might have learned about the intentions of its western neighbour and its proxies; nor is there anything new in what has been produced in the newspaper columns and television studios across the country. It would have probably been easier and cheaper to simply recycle the columns and video clips from the previous terrorist attack.
Despite an avalanche of advice from armchair as well as erstwhile military strategists, Delhi’s response to terrorism with Pakistani fingerprints has always been to bluster and bear it. India accuses Pakistan for conducting terrorism from behind a nuclear shield and though Islamabad has not changed the situation in the last two decades, there does not seem to have been much movement either intellectually or materially from India’s side either. Simply put, India has been and still is without an option against Pakistan.
The first option is talks; unfortunately, talks on terrorism have never yielded anything positive for India. At best, it is a colossal waste of time and money and at worst, symbolism in the name of security. It is difficult to fathom even to whom India should talk: not only have civilian governments in Islamabad repeatedly been proven to be unable to rein in the military but have often even been kept in the dark about certain policies and programmes by the armed forces.
As even Pakistani commentators have noted, the country’s unhealthy obsession with Kashmir and its very existence rooted firmly in an anti-India ideology, the military is unwilling to negotiate to remove its raison d’etre. With the civilian government ineffective, Delhi has no partner for peace in Islamabad.
India’s second option is diplomacy: Delhi could use its international influence to isolate Pakistan politically and hinder its economics. Though theoretically sound, India simply lacks the clout to embark on such a policy. China, of course, will continue to nurture the thorn in India’s back, and few of India’s trading partners see the South Asian country as so important to their national interests as to upset Pakistan without any tangible gains in return. Delhi has neither the economic, political, nor military influence to persuade even a few states important to the Pakistani economy to scale back on relations with Islamabad or impose intrusive anti-terrorism conditions on bilateral relations.
Admittedly, the Indian economy has grown in the last two decades but it is not yet an indispensable component of vital global supply chains. Delhi’s reticence to involve itself in international affairs, not just beyond its immediate region but even in its neighbourhood, has meant that it has a small diplomatic and military footprint. This has shown little sign of changing in the near future, and as Delhi has often found in the past, moral arguments are not always convincing in international affairs.
Finally, the third option that many have been urging is the use of military force. Though no one serious advocates war, there is nonetheless a clamour for conducting limited yet punishing cross-border strikes on Pakistan’s vast asymmetric warfare infrastructure. This, however, remains the least feasible of options. As the much publicised raids into Burma slightly over a year ago showed, the Indian military lacks the capabilities to undertake covert operations into enemy territory in terms of planning, material, and training. Until recently, even the political will to acquire these capabilities was lacking. Since 2014, there has been rhetoric but actions are yet to match the bombast.
Worse, Indian conventional superiority over Pakistan has been steadily eroded over the years. India’s much vaunted military modernisation notwithstanding, Pakistan has worked assiduously to counter India’s military planning and advantages. While Delhi remains locked in negotiations for a mid-level aircraft for its air force and the low-level indigenous effort is not yet in sight, Islamabad has increased the range of its missiles as well as acquire tactical and cruise missiles specifically meant to blunt rapid Indian advances into Pakistan. In conjunction with recent horror stories about the Indian military’s operational readiness – after the November 2008 attacks in Bombay, for example – Pakistan may prove more of a challenge to India than is generally appreciated.
Thus, India has no plausible response to Pakistan’s provocations for the time being. This view, though hotly contested, appears to best explain India’s utter inaction at each juncture. The real question after Uri is not how India should punish Pakistan but whether Delhi has moved – fast – on addressing these strategic and tactical lacunae. Even a modest retaliatory capability would take a decade to develop but has the government started on that road yet?
To be fair, all is not glum: the United States and Britain have swiftly condemned the attack and observers believe that, though neither country named Pakistan in their statements, they agree with the Indian assessment of the origin of the attacks, something that was unthinkable in the hyphenated era just a few years ago. India’s diplomatic visibility – utility? – has clearly grown but Delhi is still a long way off from using diplomacy and economics as supplementary options to military force.
This post appeared on FirstPost on September 20, 2016.