Cover Story

The strikes & the echo

Print edition : October 28, 2016

Border Security Force personnel patrolling the border near the Gakhrial border post in the Akhnoor sector, about 48 km from Jammu, on October 1. Photo: Channi Anand/AP

An anti-war demonstration by the Pakistani Civil Society Forum in Lahore on September 28. Photo: K.M. Chaudary/AP

Kathmandu, November 27, 2014: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, at the 18th SAARC summit. On September 27, India pulled out of the 19th summit, which was scheduled to be held in Islamabad in November. Photo: Nirjanjan Shrestha/AFP

People fleeing to safer places in view of Pakistani shelling across the LoC at Rajouri on September 29. Photo: PTI

Tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbours in the subcontinent are escalating following India’s “surgical strikes” across the LoC in late September.

THERE is cause for some optimism as the war clouds have seemingly dissipated following the “surgical strikes” by the Indian Army across the Line of Control (LoC) on the night of September 28-29. The Indian government has indicated that the military strike inside Pakistan-occupied Kashmir has achieved its stated purpose of neutralising “terrorist launch pads” and that it has no immediate plans for further military action. A statement by the Indian government said that the military action had caused “significant casualties on militants preparing to infiltrate from Pakistan”. The Indian military response came in the wake of the terror attack on its base in Uri on September 18, which resulted in the death of 19 Indian servicemen along with four terrorists involved in the operation.

The government of Pakistan, however, claims that there is a lot of hype surrounding the “surgical strikes”, while its Army vehemently sticks to its stand that no physical violation of the LoC took place on the night of September 28-29. Pakistani diplomatic and military officials claim that what actually happened was a short military intrusion accompanied by intense shelling of a Pakistani military post by the Indian Army. According to sources on the Indian side, Indian paratroopers sneaked across the LoC to engage the Pakistan Army and succeeded in inflicting “heavy” casualties. The number of Pakistani casualties initially given out by Indian government spokesmen seems to have been slightly inflated. The Pakistan Army says only two of its soldiers were killed and nine others were injured. The Pakistan military had issued a statement immediately stating that if there is a “surgical strike” on its soil, “it will be strongly responded to”.

According to reports from sources within the Indian Army, many more were killed in the military action on Pakistani soil than the number officially put out by Islamabad. The Pakistan Army has captured one Indian soldier, who, according to the Indian Army spokesman, had inadvertently crossed the LoC. Pakistani sources said that the soldier was captured during one of their operations across the LoC following the Indian incursion across the LoC. The Indian jawan might well have fallen into the hands of the Pakistanis on the night of September 28/29, when Indian soldiers were involved in a brief but intense skirmish with their Pakistani counterparts. The Indian attack may not have been surgical in its precision, but it has definitely upped the military ante. Despite the Pakistani top military brass trying to downplay the claims of “surgical strikes”, Pakistan Defence Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif did issue a warning to New Delhi. “If they try to do it again, we will respond forcefully,” he said in a statement following the strike.

It is also quite clear that no air or missile power was deployed during the “surgical strikes”. As former Research and Analysis Wing chief A.S. Dulhat observed recently, it was more of a “laser strike” as only the perpetrator and the recipient of the strike seem to be aware of it. People living in towns and villages near the Pakistan-occupied side of the LoC have only talked about hearing the sound of loud shelling throughout the night. They have said that it was “intensive shelling”, not the kind of routine shelling that they are used to. The United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP), which has seven posts on the Pakistan side of the border, has said that “it has not directly observed any firing across the LoC related to the latest incident”. The Pakistan Army took a team of local and foreign journalists to the two locations along the LoC where India claimed to have conducted the surgical strikes.

The Indian government has disparaged the UNMOGIP’s observations and has said that it has video evidence to prove that the “surgical strikes” did indeed happen. The video evidence has not been made public so far, though the Indian Army has said that it is ready to do so as and when ordered. Meanwhile, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders and Central government Ministers have advised the opposition to desist from raising questions about the “surgical strikes”. The BJP and its allies have warned that doing so would be construed as unpatriotic.

The late September “surgical strikes” are the first openly acknowledged Indian military action across the LoC in more than 40 years. This, according to military analysts, could have dangerous consequences for the future. Both sides breached the LoC on previous occasions while engaging in brief skirmishes but took care to not publicise it. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, according to many of its senior Ministers, carried out at least three similar “surgical strikes” when tensions briefly flared up along the LoC on previous occasions, but these were carefully kept under wraps. Former Defence Minster A.K. Antony issued a statement saying that many such “surgical strikes” were conducted when the UPA was in power. “On many occasions during the UPA regime, when there were provocative attacks from the rival side, the Indian Army conducted surgical strikes and other retaliatory strikes across the LoC,” he said.

The National Democratic Alliance government, on the contrary, has chosen to publicise the breach of the LoC, 13 years after a ceasefire agreement was signed, as a significant military and strategic achievement and described it as a “paradigm shift”, pointing to the way in which the Army will react to terror attacks in the future. The “surgical strikes”, according to leading figures in the country’s political and security establishment, have removed “the shackles of strategic restraint” vis-a-vis Islamabad. Nuclear parity between the two countries has made India’s military superiority over Pakistan quite irrelevant since 1998, as a conventional war between the two was virtually ruled out. An all-out war between the two neighbours is unthinkable with both having gone officially nuclear.

Despite claims by Indian officials that they have successfully countered the “nuclear blackmail” by Islamabad, the international community will never allow the military situation in South Asia to get out of hand. Barring Afghanistan and Bangladesh, no country has openly supported India’s “surgical strikes”. As the visiting Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Ranil Wikremesinghe, said in New Delhi in the first week of October, these two countries openly supported the Indian position because they themselves were victims of recent acts of terrorism. Sri Lanka, Wikremesinghe reminded the media, was itself a victim of cross-border terrorism in the not-too-distant past. He emphasised that Sri Lanka had accepted the decision to postpone the 19th SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) summit, which had been scheduled to be held in November in Islamabad, only because of a lack of consensus on the date. He said that terrorism-related issues in the region could very well be discussed on the SAARC platform.

There are some indications that the very limited Indian military strike was undertaken after it received the green signal from the United States. President Barack Obama’s National Security Adviser, Susan Rice, had a telephonic conversation with her Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval, a few hours before it took place to express support for India’s fight against terrorism in the context of the Uri attack.

The U.S. State Department spokesperson declined to speak on specific incidents along the LoC that had occurred at the end of September. The official declined to either confirm or deny that “surgical strikes” by the Indian Army had in fact taken place. She, however, said that the U.S. position on Kashmir remained unchanged and that the U.S. was urging both India and Pakistan to reduce tensions on the border. Senior Obama administration officials have linked their calls for reducing tensions with demands that Pakistan take urgent action to shut down terrorists’ “safe havens” on its territory. Speaking after the “surgical strikes”, Defence Secretary Ashton Carter reaffirmed that the U.S.-India military relationship “has been the closest it has ever been”. Islamabad has been complaining that the growing strategic and military closeness between Washington and New Delhi has led to the overturning of the balance of power in the region and fuelled a nuclear and arms race.

The U.S. does not want to distance itself completely from Pakistan, given the situation in Afghanistan where more and more territories and cities are coming under the sway of the Taliban. In the first week of October, the White House “closed down” a petition which had more than 600,000 signatures demanding that Pakistan should be designated a “terrorist state”. The petitioners were mainly U.S. citizens of Indian origin. Sections of the mainstream U.S. media have also been encouraging India to take decisive military action against Pakistan. A section of the security establishment in Washington seems to be more than willing to give India a free hand in dealing militarily with Pakistan.

Pakistan is aware that its usefulness to the U.S. now has limited shelf value. Pakistan’s main ally for the foreseeable future will be its “all-weather friend” China. Islamabad is crucial to Beijing’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a crucial part of the initiative. New Delhi has signalled its objections to the CPEC on the grounds that it passed through Gilgit/Baltistan, which is claimed by India. China, however, has not backed either of the sides involved in the Kashmir dispute and has maintained a neutral stance since the 1970s. After the “surgical strikes”, China cautioned both India and Pakistan to resolve their disputes through dialogue. “China believes that the Kashmir issue is a leftover from history which shall be resolved by the relevant parties through dialogue and consultation,” a statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry said.

Russia voiced its support for India after the “surgical strikes”, saying that every country has the right to defend itself from terrorism. The Russian Ambassador to India, Alexander Kadakin, told the media: “The greatest human rights violations take place when terrorists attack military installations and attack peaceful civilians in India.” Before the Russian envoy came out with his statement, there was a lot of vitriol directed against Russia by an increasingly jingoistic Indian media for participating in joint military exercises with Pakistan in late September, the first ever by the two countries. Pakistan is evidently not isolated in the international community, despite the diplomatic efforts exerted internationally by India. India has been labelling Pakistan as a “state sponsor of terrorism” and a “terrorist state” in international forums.

There have been regular exchanges of artillery and small arms fire across the LoC since the end of September. As usual, civilians, especially those staying along the LoC, are bearing the brunt of the skirmishes. There has been movement of villagers even from the Indian side of the Punjab border, though all is calm on the rest of India’s western front. The vitriolic statements emanating from both sides of the border are not helping matters. It was only 10 days after the “surgical attack” that the Indian Prime Minister thought it fit to issue a statement telling his Ministers to tone down the rhetoric of triumphalism.

The statements of the Pakistani and Indian Defence Ministers have been particularly bellicose. Pakistan’s Khawaja Asif threatened to use the country’s recently deployed “tactical battlefield nuclear missiles” if India launched a large-scale military attack. India’s Manohar Parikkar had boasted that the “surgical strikes” gave the Indian armed forces “an idea of what they are capable of doing”. He compared the armed forces to the monkey god Hanuman. “Indian troops are like Hanuman who did not know their prowess before the surgical strikes,” he remarked recently. In another statement, he said that “Pakistan is in a coma after the surgical strikes”. Senior Indian Army officers are demanding more follow-up action against Pakistan while a retired general called for the use of nuclear weapons.

One of the first casualties of the ongoing crisis could be SAARC. With no love lost between its two biggest members, India and Pakistan, the future for the regional grouping looks bleak. Anyway, it had become more of a talking shop than a meaningful tool of regional and political integration. The Sri Lankan Prime Minister said during his visit to New Delhi that continuing with SAARC would be meaningless if there was talk of expelling Pakistan.

The Indian government has also mooted the idea of revoking the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty. New Delhi has also said that it will maximise the drawing of water that is allowed under the terms of the treaty. Pakistan is currently reeling under a cycle of drought and power outages. Pakistan has said that it will view the “abrogation of the treaty as an act of war”. Modi has also been talking of stripping Pakistan of its Most Favoured status. India’s support for the Baloch secessionists has alarmed some neighbouring countries. The separatist Baloch movement in Iran is a known terrorist grouping with strong ties with some Baloch activists in Pakistan.

In a related development, Nawaz Sharif is reported to have told the military top brass in early October to ensure that civilian agencies are allowed unhindered access to investigate groups suspected of indulging in terrorist activities. According to a report in Dawn, the message to military intelligence agencies such as the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is to allow law enforcement agencies to act against militant groups that were for all practical purposes outside their purview.

The paper also reported that the Pakistan Prime Minister directed that fresh attempts be made to restart the cases relating to the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Nawaz Sharif also told the Army leadership that he wanted the investigations into the Pathankot terror attacks to be expedited.

Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry is reported to have told an all-party meeting in Islamabad that the principal demand of the Americans is decisive action against the Haqqani network of the Taliban. He indicated that India would be happy if the Pathankot investigation was speedily completed and some action was taken against the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) group. Chaudhry reportedly indicated that China, too, wanted action against the JeM and had questioned the logic of repeatedly putting on “technical hold” a ban on the JeM leader, Masood Azhar.

Chaudhry told the army intelligence chiefs that it was important to take action against these groups and also the Lashkar-e-Taiba led by Hafiz Saeed to forestall isolation of Pakistan in the international arena. The ISI chief, Lt. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar, according to the report, agreed with the government’s views but said that it was important that an impression should not be conveyed that Islamabad was being pressured by the recent military and diplomatic moves by New Delhi.

Most observers and military experts believe that there might be more action on the border dividing the two Kashmirs, now that India has advertised its breach of the ceasefire along the LoC. Firing along the LoC, though not as intense as it was in early 2015, is continuing unabated. There has been another attempt by militants to storm an Indian military post in Baramulla in the Kashmir Valley. The militant and extremist groups would like nothing better than sparking a full-scale conflict between India and Pakistan. The “surgical strikes” have now strengthened the chances of a minor spark provoking a wider conflict.

The attempts to put the Kashmir issue on the back burner could in the end prove counterproductive. After all, the current crisis, the most serious after the terror attacks on India’s Parliament House in 2001, started when the Kashmiri youth Burhan Wani was killed in an encounter with security forces in August this year. The cycle of violence that followed has resulted in the death of more than 100 Kashmiri civilians and pellet injuries to thousands. As Dulhat observed in a seminar, India could be inadvertently providing a fertile field for “future suicide bombers”. It is in the interest of all parties to the conflict that the “Kashmir volcano” remains at least dormant for the time being.