The Uri response and Modi’s commitment trap.
In the intervening hours of Sept. 28 and 29, the Indian Army attempted shallow incursions at four points on Kashmir’s Line of Control.
At two points, they were detected before they could cross over, were fired upon, stopped, and thereafter the points settled into an exchange of small arms, light weapons, and mortar fire. At the two other points in the south, they came very close to the Line of Control and there was direct engagement. Units on the ground, dug into their defenses still, report direct engagement, with at least 14 Indian troops killed, while losing two noncommissioned officers to hostile mortar fire.
So far, that’s the information from Pakistan’s side. Officially, it has given no information on Indian casualties. The narrative is simple: the Indians opened fire and the Army responded effectively. In the coming days, we should expect more information.
Predictably, the 24/7 news cycle was hogged by this Indian attempt. India’s director-general of Military Operations, Lt. Gen. Ranbir Singh, and the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs held a joint press conference in New Delhi—“joint” only to the extent that the spokesperson opened the presser and handed it over to Singh, who, after reading out a statement in English and Hindi, did not take any questions. That, however, did not prevent the Indian media, barring exceptions, to declare this a huge event, one that constituted a befitting response to the Uri attack and a paradigm shift, i.e., that the Modi government will not sit on its rear end while Pakistan continues its alleged terrorist attacks on India. The din of ‘celebrations’ since the presser is incredible, though not unpredictable.
What should one make of this? What did India achieve? This is what Pakistan should be concerned about. And this is precisely what is being ignored here, with focus only on an attempt that clearly failed in military terms.
There are two levels at which the current Indian government is playing: domestic and international. At home, Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived on the scene with his broad chest, metaphor for a dynamic leader who could do what his predecessors, especially those from the Congress party, could not do. A man who has a tryst with destiny, he is to turn India into an economic and military giant. Then Kashmir erupted. It is now the 85th day of an uprising that refuses to go away despite terrible state repression. Relations with Pakistan, already strained, have spiraled. The icing on the cake was the Uri attack, a major setback for the Indian Army. Pro forma, Pakistan was declared complicit within hours of Uri. Modi’s constituency began talking war, even nuclear war. His political opposition hit back, pooh-poohing his chest. Something needed to be done, but what?
The dust and heat of mobilization circa 2001-2002 is a nonstarter. Aerial strikes are a desire which first needs pigs to fly. Missile strikes are a dangerous escalation because who can determine whether an incoming missile has a tactical or a strategic warhead?
Now, imagine yourself in the Situation Room with Modi and his team. There’s the option of covert war, which India is already waging in Balochistan and through the Afghan National Directorate of Security in Pakistan’s tribal areas. That can and will be ratcheted up. But the problem with covert war is that you can’t own up to it. You might even ‘avenge’ something, but if you declare it, you lose deniability. So, while that front remains hot, it is cold politics domestically. The terrible political question of what Modi has done to ‘punish’ Pakistan remains. This is a particularly nasty question in view of the 2017 polls in Uttar Pradesh.
You decide on a course of action that can be packaged and marketed to both the domestic audiences and the international interlocutors. That is where “surgical strikes” come in. As I noted, Singh’s copy doesn’t seem to have been drafted at the Army HQ or the Military Operations Directorate. It had a visible South Block stamp on it. “Surgical strikes” were conducted “along [not across] the Line of Control” on “terrorist launch pads.” The operation has ceased [after achieving its objective]. “I spoke with Pakistan’s [director-general of Military Operations] and informed them of the action taken by us [or words to that effect].”
Let’s deconstruct this narrative: it was not a military operation against the Pakistan Army but an antiterrorism operation against terrorists—this fits the Indian hand perfectly in the Western antiterrorism glove. It assures the West (read: the U.S.) that India has no intention of escalating with Pakistan while throwing in for good measure the ‘fact’ that this antiterrorism operation was conducted on territory controlled by Pakistan. Corollary: Pakistan supports and encourages terrorism from its soil against India and is in clear violation of its 2004 commitment. This last bit was clearly spelled out in Singh’s statement.
The Singh statement, by mentioning Uri, strengthened India’s original position—also stated by its foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, at the U.N. General Assembly—that Kashmir is troubled because of Pakistan. In doing this, it takes the gaze away from the Kashmiris’ right to self-determination as well as the state repression by India to focusing the issue as an India-Pakistan problem and one that is underpinned by Pakistan’s alleged sponsorship of terrorism.
It should be evident that Singh gave Modi a winner. The statement threw in the term “surgical strikes” and balanced it with “along the LOC.” In a charged partisan atmosphere, with a media waiting to jump on just about anything, few people have the time or the inclination for nuances. The Indian Army also knew that what it did will not be escalated by Pakistan because the latter has no immediate reason to do so. An action, desiring shallow incursions, which was effectively stopped in its tracks doesn’t need to be escalated.
That said, the trend cannot entirely be predicted. The mood can be read two ways: satisfied or craving for more. Going by the cacophony in India, it seems to have settled for more. That creates a worse commitment trap than the one from which Modi has tried to extricate himself.
Meanwhile, Pakistan has to read the situation at all levels, not just at the level of any military response. The central point of Islamabad’s strategy should be to bring back into sharp salience the Kashmiris and their struggle. This is precisely what tends to get lost when the issue is pushed back because of heightened India-Pakistan tensions. How to go about that requires new thinking.
Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider