Bold, but still a dilemma stays

Pak­istan will not re­verse seven decades of anti­in­dian pol­icy with­out a diplo­matic process, writes SHASHANK JOSHI

Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - - NATION -

In the hours of the Uri strike that killed 18 In­dian sol­diers, BJP leader Ram Mad­hav de­manded “for one tooth, the com­plete jaw”. In­dia’s “sur­gi­cal strikes” on Wed­nes­day night were surely only a tooth — barely a few kilo­me­tres across the Line of Con­trol (LOC) — but they rep­re­sent one of the most im­por­tant changes in In­dia’s mil­i­tary pos­ture to Pak­istan in over a decade. Con­trary to those who be­lieve that his­tory be­gan in May 2014, this is not the first time that In­dia has at­tacked tar­gets on the Pak­istani side of the LOC. Such as­saults were rel­a­tively com­mon­place in the AB Va­j­payee years, dur­ing the lat­ter, tur­bu­lent stage of the in­sur­gency in Kash­mir. Jour­nal­ist Praveen Swami has reported a string of re­tal­ia­tory In­dian raids across the LOC from the 1990s through the 2000s. He gives one ex­am­ple of a mas­sacre of 22 civil­ians at Ban­dala in March 1998 by “ir­reg­u­lars backed by In­dian spe­cial forces”, in re­tal­i­a­tion for an ear­lier mas­sacre of Hin­dus. These details are con­tested, but it is be­yond doubt that the LOC was not sacro­sanct. Those who served as bri­gade com­man­ders dur­ing Op­er­a­tion Parakram (2001-02) have also re­marked, coyly, that they were not sit­ting idly in their posts dur­ing that stand­off.

The nov­elty here is not that In­dia struck. It is that it chose to an­nounce its op­er­a­tion with great fan­fare. The hastily con­vened Cab­i­net Com­mit­tee on Se­cu­rity set the tone, and the un­usual pair­ing of the Direc­tor Gen­eral Mil­i­tary Op­er­a­tions and min­istry of ex­ter­nal af­fairs spokesman un­der­lined the strate­gic im­por­tance of the an­nounce­ment that fol­lowed. In­dia’s pre­vi­ous raids were in­stances of tacit sig­nalling between the front­line mil­i­tary forces, with lit­tle over­sight from the brass and the for­eign min­istry out of the loop. They sent mes­sages to Pak­istan’s mil­i­tary, with­out caus­ing Pak­istan to lose face in a way that would set in mo­tion a spi­ral of es­ca­la­tion. The down­side of clan­des­tine re­tal­i­a­tion was that the In­dian pub­lic was rarely privy to these go­ings-on at the LOC, be­yond the odd leaked snip­pet.

In­dia’s de­ci­sion to go pub­lic has advantages and draw­backs. It al­lows the govern­ment to claim vin­di­ca­tion for its tough rhetoric. The Army has, as it promised, re­sponded at a time and place of its own choos­ing. Those crit­i­cis­ing the Modi govern­ment for talk­ing loudly but car­ry­ing a small stick have been tem­po­rar­ily qui­eted (though has their ap­petite been whet­ted?). Even the Congress, re­li­ably a force for mind­less op­po­si­tion to nearly ev­ery­thing the govern­ment does, has read the tea-leaves, with So­nia Gandhi ex­press­ing rare pub­lic sol­i­dar­ity with “ac­tions to pro­tect coun­try’s se­cu­rity”. More broadly, a pub­lic strike cre­ates a prece­dent in a way a pri­vate one does not, mak­ing it some­what eas­ier for this or a future govern­ment to re­peat the ac­tion. In­dia may also be prob­ing Pak­istan’s thresh­olds for ac­tion. If the con­se­quences of this strike are lim­ited, the next one may be deeper or wider, per­haps even across the In­ter­na­tional Bor­der. And if it is true that an In­dian drone recorded footage, the longert­erm im­pli­ca­tions for armed drones are self-ev­i­dent.

Pub­lic­ity also car­ries costs. While Pak­istan is, at the time of writ­ing, deny­ing that any raid took place, it will even­tu­ally have to con­tend with the re­al­ity — not least if the Modi govern­ment chooses to re­lease what it claims is video ev­i­dence. The Pak­istan army will have no choice but to re­spond force­fully. The evac­u­a­tion of Pun­jab bor­der vil­lages on Thurs­day sug­gests that In­dia ex­pects to face an in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion of shelling along the LOC. But we may also see en­cour­age­ment of fur- ther Uri-like at­tacks, or even at­tacks in cities be­yond Jammu and Kash­mir and on In­dian in­ter­ests in Afghanistan. We do not yet know whether Pak­istani troops were killed — the DGMO’S ref­er­ence to “those try­ing to shield” ter­ror­ists sug gests so — but this will also in­flu­ence Rawalpindi’s cal­cu­lus

Diplo­mat­i­cally, In­dia ap­pears to have pre­pared its ground well. Hav­ing suc­cess­fully cor­ralled three of its neigh­bours to boy­cott the Saarc sum­mit in Novem­ber, Pak­istan was al­ready reel­ing. Then early on Thurs­day morn­ing, per­haps while In­dian forces were re­turn­ing across the LOC, details of a con­ver­sa­tion between In­dian Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser Ajit Do­val and his Amer­i­can coun­ter­part Su­san Rice were re­leased, with Rice de­mand­ing Pak­istani ac­tion against ter ror­ist groups. Whether or not the US was in­formed, the im­pec­ca­ble tim­ing sent its own sig­nal. China, too, has re­mained muted over the plight of its “all-weather” ally With­out this diplo­matic space, In­dian lead­ers might not have taken this risk.

The mood to­day will be cel­e­bra­tory. Much of the In­dian pub­lic be­lieves that decades of “strate­gic re­straint” are draw ing to a close. There will be an im­pact on the full gamut of bi­lat­eral re­la­tions, from trade to re­gional co­op­er­a­tion. But as Lieu­tenant Gen­eral HS Panag re­minded us on Thurs­day “war is a game of chess”. And the fun­da­men­tal dilemma re­mains: While In­dia can im­pose a mod­est cost on ter­ror­ist groups and their sup­port­ers, any game-chang­ing pun­ish ment car­ries with it the risk of a larger war that would dam age In­dia’s broader eco­nomic and diplo­matic in­ter­ests. The brutal fact is that Pak­istan will not re­verse seven decades of pol­icy with­out a diplo­matic process. If we may draw some hope, it is that the car­nage of 1999-2002 was fol­lowed by the backchan­nel of diplo­macy of 2004-07. As the stick grows, so too should the car­rot.

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