A year of living dangerously

Along with a disturbing rise in attacks on Army camps across Jammu and Kashmir, the Line of Control and the International Boundary in the State are also alarmingly tense today.

December 22, 2016 12:04 am | Updated 02:04 am IST

Illustration: Keshav

Illustration: Keshav

Pakistan’s decision not to respond to India’s surgical strikes after the terrorist attack on the Army base in Uri may have seemed at the time like a major political victory for the Narendra Modi government in New Delhi. But it is increasingly becoming evident that not only was the political victory short-lived, the country is paying a heavy price for the cross-LoC strike on September 29. While the Pakistan Army refused to admit that the surgical strikes ever took place, it has since been retaliating: unstated, surreptitiously and through proxies. Consider this: with Saturday’s attack on an Indian army convoy in Kashmir’s Pampore , the armed forces in Kashmir have lost over 60 men this year alone.

Along with this disturbing rise in the attacks on Army camps across Jammu and Kashmir, the LoC and International Boundary (IB) in the State are also alarmingly tense today. Ceasefire violation-related military casualties on the Indian side itself are 12 so far, highest since the ceasefire agreement — which has all but collapsed now — was arrived at in 2003.

Strategic implications of the strikes

From a military point of view, the cross-LoC operation was limited and carefully calibrated: there was no targeting of Pakistani military installations as the operation was claimed to be against terror camps and not against the Pakistan Army, and the Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) telephoned his Pakistani counterpart after the operations ended and conveyed the counter-terrorist intent behind the strike. The DGMO further clarified that the “Indian Army conducted surgical strikes at several of these launch pads ‘along’ Line of Control.”

Moreover, the operation was hardly a surprise to Rawalpindi given the high level of political and military signalling from the Indian side between the Uri attack and the surgical strikes. The Pakistan Army is also said to have monitored a great deal of ‘operation-related chatter’ from the Indian side. Indeed, New Delhi’s post-strike triumphalism did have negative reputational impact on the all-powerful General Headquarters in Rawalpindi and for the Nawaz Sharif government in Islamabad. If so, why did the Pakistan Army not resist, or hit back after New Delhi hailed the military action as a blockbuster victory (even though we now know that such operations were conducted in the past as well)?

Does this mean that Rawalpindi displayed a certain amount of tolerance for the Indian military action given that it was carried out after 19 Indian soldiers were killed, and national anger was mounting in India? I recently asked a senior (retired) Pakistani General about the ‘level of tolerance’ for potential surgical strike-like action in future by India. I was told rather bluntly that it would depend on the Pakistan Army’s complicity in the attack: the more the complicity, the less the retaliation. Or differently put, no complicity would mean definite retaliation.

While this might appear to provide an operational window for future Indian military action across the LoC below the Pakistani redline, a proactive military strategy based on the assumption of Pakistani indulgence is rife with multiple challenges. First of all, it would be rather difficult to fix the degree of state complicity in an attack within a severely limited time frame for any retaliatory operation. The Pakistan Army’s tolerance, if it indeed exists, and international community’s acceptance would be time-sensitive. Second, local commanders along the LoC on the Pakistani side could misread the ‘accepted threshold’ assumption and act differently than expected when attacked.

Third, the Indian side would, as it did post-surgical strikes, radically exaggerate the success of its retaliatory strike in order to show that the Pakistani tolerance level for Indian retaliation is high. The Pakistani side would, on the other hand, as it did post-surgical strikes, deny the operation altogether or lower its level and success (i.e. that operation was limited to the LoC only) to reduce the perceived level of Pakistani tolerance by India. Finding a via media between these two extreme positions for operational purposes is easier said than done, and trying to exploit that fine balance may be setting out on a dangerous course of action.

Finally, that there was no vertical escalation after the surgical strikes even though this was an openly declared attack on Pakistan’s territory assumes a great deal of significance. While this might, at one level, go to show that the Indian and Pakistani sides are able to control the escalation dynamics under extreme stress, it would be wrong to assume that India’s cross-LoC operation has gone not responded to by Pakistan. Indeed, the response is currently playing out. Consider the following.

The low-cost response

Responding to the surgical strikes with matching force would not have been a smart strategy for Pakistan given that it would have been hard for Rawalpindi to pull it off. This, in my reckoning, perhaps explains the Pakistani inaction and the refusal to acknowledge the Indian attack. When you don’t acknowledge an action, you don’t have to react to it.

However, the story doesn’t end there. Pakistan is currently responding to the Indian strikes in a way it is materially able to and ‘at a time and place of its choosing’: by firing on the border and organising coordinated attacks on Indian Army bases/convoys through its proxies such as the Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba. These two cheap strategies seem to essentially make up Rawalpindi’s response to New Delhi’s surgical strikes.

India was highly emboldened by the Pakistan military’s non-retaliation after the September strikes but it is today recognising that while it may have pulled off the military action and the subsequent political management of it, the costs are mounting day after day. The LoC and the IB have become the new battlefield, and we should expect a lot more action along these borderlands in the days ahead. Both India and Pakistan seem to be using these contested borders as an arena for settling scores which they do not want to settle in a conventional pitched battle. In short, lower-level instability seems to be the order of the day in the near future.

While border firing might seem less escalatory than cross-border raids, ceasefire violations are a slow killer: as ceasefire violation-related casualties continue to rise, they could lead to political and diplomatic escalation, and sustained violations together with covert cross-border raids (as it has happened more than once in the past) could potentially lead to vertical military escalation.

The other cheap strategy in response to India’s surgical strikes seems to be well-planned low-intensity attacks on Indian forces in J&K. While border firing hurts both parties, low-intensity strikes (for example, Nagrota and Pampore) hurt only India since it loses soldiers in such raids, whereas Pakistan only loses expendable proxies. The argument here is not that such attacks against Army camps did not take place before September this year, but that they are likely to increase with more precision and determination in the days ahead.

Moreover, thanks to the stand-off, Islamabad and Rawalpindi will continue to fan the Kashmir uprising with even more vigour. Notwithstanding the fact that the recent Kashmir uprising was essentially indigenous in nature, Pakistani grandstanding and renewed domestic political mobilisation within Pakistan over Kashmir, and the military strategising for a sustained Kashmir campaign will keep Kashmir on the boil.

Pakistan’s adoption of such low-cost strategies to respond to India’s surgical strikes also lands the Modi government in a rather awkward commitment trap. Though the post-Uri strikes and the political posturing by the Bharatiya Janata Party were supposed to convey to Rawalpindi, and the domestic audience in India that attacks on Indian forces won’t go unpunished anymore, the reality is that both the Nagrota and Pampore attacks have gone unpunished. This leaves the Modi government in a strategic quandary: it has neither been able to live up to its commitment nor has its threats been able to dissuade the Pakistan Army. If anything, the Pakistan Army seems to have called the Modi government’s bluff.

National security implications

The current stand-off with Pakistan has drastically deteriorated our overall national security environment. Our soldiers in the north-western frontier are far more in danger today than they had been in recent years. The precious lives of soldiers would have been saved had New Delhi avoided an unnecessarily aggressive policy in J&K and towards Pakistan. There is also growing disquiet within the Indian armed forces about the needless loss of lives because politicians are unwilling to reach a modus vivendi on political issues both within Kashmir and vis-à-vis Pakistan.

Besides the military casualties, there is yet another form of collateral damage: the lives and livelihoods of people living along the border. Despite the recurrent hardship that they have to go through, villagers don’t speak out in public thanks to the extreme levels of right-wing political mobilisation in Jammu. Suffering and death are couched in the language of deshbhakti (patriotism). In private, however, they recount the untold miseries due to ceasefire violations. The year-long violations in 2014, for instance, had displaced them for several months. This is a collateral damage that goes unsung and unacknowledged.

Happymon Jacob is Associate Professor of Diplomacy and Disarmament Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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