What to make of India’s surgical strike?

India’s punitive strike across the Line of Control could set a new norm

Whatever might be the consequences, it is clear that the Indian Army’s operation across the Line of Control in retaliation to a militant attack on its Uri camp is a landmark development. Now, it is common knowledge that both the Indian and Pakistani armies cross the LoC for tactical operations, and have been doing so for a long time.

Such operations, usually, have three characteristics: limitations in the depth of incursion, the extent of damage they cause and the level at which they are officially admitted. While we do not have all the details as of now, last night’s operation appears to have been deeper and more damaging. What distinguishes it from other tactical incursions along the LoC is the level at which they have been admitted: perhaps for the first time, New Delhi has officially announced that Indian troops carried out an attack authorised by the highest political authority.

This is significant because it changes the norm to one where India will use military force across its frontiers to respond to aggression by Pakistan’s proxies. Depending on the Pakistani reaction, the act might vindicate the arguments made by some strategists that India does have space for such punitive operations, within the escalation framework. If so, an important Pakistani bluff — that nuclear weapons will shield its terrorist proxies — will be called. [Related: See this detailed analysis of the India-Pakistan conflict escalation framework]

This, however, is only the story so far. The ball now is in Pakistan’s court. If the Pakistani military establishment continues to hold the position that there was no ‘surgical strike’ at all, and just the usual cross-border firing, then New Delhi would have succeeded in setting a new norm. However, if the Pakistani army decides that it cannot let this insult go unpunished, and responds tit-for-tat — operationally and in public posturing — then it will be up to the Modi government whether it wants to up the ante. There are good reasons for either course of action.

The Pakistani army’s initial reaction is what it is, an initial reaction. It could be used to obfuscate matters to cover a retaliatory attack. Or it could be a signal of not wanting to escalate the situation. At this time, therefore, it would be prudent for the Indian government and media to hold off excessive triumphalism.

Cloaking the retreat

The Pakistani army manoeuvres for the next round

Having to prepare for an unlikely war with India is an excellent excuse to mask the Pakistani army’s total defeat—at the hands of the Taliban—in Swat, Bajaur and the Waziristans. If not for the tensions with India, General Kayani would have had to answer uncomfortable questions as to why after one whole year of “operations” in Swat, for instance, that picturesque tourist paradise is now entirely under Taliban rule.

The alacrity with which the Pakistani Taliban were presented as patriots in the common war against India, even before the Mumbai siege was brought to an end, suggests a deal whereby the army surrendered people and territories in the Frontier to the Taliban, and in return, secured promises of safe passage and an end to attacks on its interests elsewhere in Pakistan. [See silencing a dead whistleblower]

Maulvi Omar, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, welcomed the government’s decision to withdraw some troops from the tribal areas. “We will not attack the convoys of army withdrawing from tribal areas as it is a good development,” he said, adding that the Taliban would help defend Pakistan against any aggression. [WP, emphasis added]

An outbreak of military hostilities would have been more convincing—and would perhaps have helped bring pressure on India to yield ground to Pakistan on bilateral disputes. But even without it General Kayani has successfully fooled the Pakistani people with this manoeuvre. And he might have even changed the tenor of the relationship with the United States. Why? Because there are two possibilities: First, the United States will understand that it has no choice but to solicit the Pakistani army’s support if it wishes to fight on in Afghanistan. (The Khyber squeeze makes this point a little less politely.) And that this will bring back the good old al-Faida times where US money will keep Pakistan afloat and the military-jihadi complex well taken care of.

Second, the United States will find that since it is impossible to fight on in Afghanistan under these circumstances, it will head for an exit. Since the world will fear nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of al-Qaeda and Taliban, Pakistan will continue to receive foreign assistance and kid gloves even after this. It can then make arrangements for a return to the good old 1990s where it controlled Afghanistan and prosecuted the proxy war in Jammu & Kashmir (whose inhabitants had lost faith in the Kalashnikov)

At this point, it is unlikely that the incoming Obama administration would take the second option. So the question for US Defence Secretary Robert Gates and General David Petraeus is whether they will be satisfied with their success being circumscribed by General Kayani.