by Jon P Dorschner
Expert observers have written reams of material concerning the never-ending confrontation between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. The issue leaves the radar screen during quiet periods, only to return when an incident touches-off another cycle of violence. The two countries are currently in the midst of another confrontation that again threatens to escalate into open military conflict.
This latest round started on September 18, when four terrorists from Jaish e Mohammed – JeM (an Islamist group based in Pakistan), attacked an Indian Army base in Uri, just 10 kilometers from the Line of Control (LoC) that divides Indian and Pakistani controlled Kashmir. The terrorists killed 18 Indian soldiers before being killed in a protracted firefight. The Indian government states it has conclusive proof that the terrorists infiltrated into India from Pakistan with assistance provided by the Pakistan Army.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi heads the Hindu-Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government currently in power in New Delhi. The BJP has long pledged to take a strong stance against Pakistan supported terrorist attacks. Just hours after the Uri attack, Modi stated that “I assure the nation that those behind this despicable attack will not go unpunished.”1 Although Modi promised quick action, there was no Indian military response for 11 days. On September 24, the Prime Minister “made a speech that many interpreted as a call for strategic restraint.”2
The situation changed dramatically September 29, when Lt. General Ranbir Singh, India’s Director General of Military Operations (DGMO), announced that Indian troops had carried out “surgical strikes” on a number of “terrorist launch pads” across the line of control. General Singh provided few specifics, but later press reports citing anonymous sources, confirmed the attacks were carried out by Indian Special Forces on 5-6 targets, located from 2 to 3 kilometers inside Pakistani territory. The Indian forces reached their destination on foot and in helicopters. The sources claimed that up to 30 militants and two Pakistani soldiers were killed in the five-hour long night time operation and that there were no Indian casualties.3
Pakistan denied there was any such operation, claiming only that two of its troops were killed in “unprovoked shelling.” Both countries are now preparing for further escalation. India has reinforced its paramilitary forces along the India/Pakistan border and ordered villages within 10 kilometers of the India/Pakistan border evacuated.
Indian public opinion has been almost universally supportive of India’s military response. Although India is deeply divided politically, all parties are expressing support. This latest confrontation has revealed a deep level of frustration among the Indian populace. After suffering decades of terrorist attacks originating in Pakistan, there is strong public support for military measures to convince Pakistan to abjure its support for terrorism.
This is not the first time the two countries have been locked into a confrontation that threatened to escalate into a military conflict. India responded to a December 13, 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament by activating its armed forces and threatened to launch a retaliatory attack against Pakistan.
At that time I published an article outlining possible military responses to the attack.4 I examined four options:
- Air strikes against camps known to be harboring and training terrorist fighters in Pakistan Kashmir.
- Ground and/or heliborne attacks across the Line of Control (LoC) against those camps closest to the LoC.
- A covert campaign of bombings and/or assassinations against the principal Pakistan-based terrorist groups.
- An extended air campaign against terrorist targets in the Pakistani state of Punjab, most notably the headquarters of Lashkar-e-Toiba in the city of Muridke.5
I determined that having examined “the options available to the Indian military,…none of them are very attractive and they are unlikely to cause serious damage to the terrorist infrastructure located in Pakistan controlled Kashmir, or in Pakistan proper.”6
It now appears that in response to yet another terrorist attack, the Indian military opted for option two on my 2001 list. However, India has obviously chosen to conduct only a limited military strike with limited objectives.
India hopes this operation will pacify Indian anger, demonstrate resolve, and unite the population behind the government. New Delhi also hopes to send a clear message to Pakistan that it is no longer business as usual and that Pakistan can no longer mount terrorist attacks against India with impunity. India also wants to make it clear that should Pakistan chose to mount a military and/or terrorist response to the latest Indian military action and conduct an attack on India, the Indian armed forces will respond in kind.
General Singh, in his September 29 statement, reiterated that India preferred a peaceful situation in Kashmir and between India and Pakistan, and “sought the support of the Pakistan Army in erasing the menace of terrorism.”7 General Singh has contacted his Pakistani counterpart in hopes that the two militaries can open a channel to negotiate a reduction of hostilities.
As indicated in my 2001 article, Indian military planners have devised a number of military responses to Pakistani supported terrorism. These have been calibrated to enable India to tailor its operations to the evolving situation. Should Pakistan ratchet up hostilities with its own operation, India will then up the ante by increasing the intensity of its response. At each stage, India will hold out the prospect of negotiations to ratchet down hostilities and avoid military escalation.
The object is to obtain an agreement from Pakistan to end its support of terrorist attacks directed against India. This latest series of events is significant, in that India has conducted military operations across the LoC. India has never done this in the past, no matter how provocative the terrorist attack. Once this option has been used, it opens up the prospect for further attacks against terrorist infrastructure within Pakistan controlled territory.
It appears that India did not use airpower in its most recent “surgical strikes.” Pakistan is well-aware that this is a potential Indian option. Press reports indicate that Pakistan has taken over civilian airfields in Pakistan controlled Kashmir, and is preparing to move Air Force assets into these new bases, to resist potential Indian airstrikes. Should the military conflict escalate, India is likely to seriously examine this option, as well as the possibility of a combined air and land operation aimed at causing serious damage to terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan controlled Kashmir.
India’s September 29 military operation was conducted solely against militants forming up to be infiltrated into Indian controlled Kashmir to conduct further terrorist attacks. The object of the operation was to break up the planned attacks and inflict as many militant casualties as possible. Indian forces met both of these objectives.
Future Indian military operations could have wider objectives, such as to destroy militant training and logistics facilities, grab documents and hard drives and mine them for intelligence, capture militants to take back to India for debriefing, and killing or capturing the leadership of terrorist organizations. These escalated attacks would be aimed at inflicting severe damage on terrorist infrastructure to send a clear message to Pakistan that it is facing ever-expanding consequences for its actions.
Since 2001, the number of military options available to India has expanded. For example, there have been rapid increases in missile technology. India now has the capability to use missiles based in India and/or drone strikes to attack specific targets within Pakistan and Pakistani controlled Kashmir. This adds a new dimension, in that India can inflict severe damage without risking pilots or soldiers.
In addition to the four options laid out in my 2001 paper, India has hinted strongly that it is examining the possibility of providing covert and overt support to the independence movement of Baluchistan. Baluchi separatists have been engaged in a protracted uprising with the goal of separating from Pakistan and establishing a new state in South Asia that would enjoy friendly relations with India.
The Pakistan Army has been deeply mired in protracted counter-insurgency operations to crush this uprising and end Baluchi separatist aspirations. Prime Minister Modi hinted at this option when he chose to express support for the people of Baluchistan in his Independence Day address, which was warmly welcomed by the leadership of the Baluchistan independence movement.8
The Pakistani armed forces and the people of Pakistan consider the separation of the Pakistani province of East Pakistan from Pakistan in 1971 and the subsequent creation of an independent state of Bangladesh, with the support of the Indian armed forces, the absolute low point for Pakistani fortunes. After that defeat, the Pakistani military determined that it would never again allow one of its provinces to be detached.
Such an outcome could undermine the very survival of Pakistan as a state. The original Pakistan, created in 1947 with two wings (West and East Pakistan) separated by over 1,300 kilometers of Indian territory, did not prove to be viable and was perhaps stillborn from the very beginning. West Pakistan was able to absorb the loss of its Eastern wing and continue to survive as a viable state. However, should the truncated Pakistan that emerged from the 1971 war be further subdivided, it could result in the total break-up of Pakistan and its replacement by a group of mini-states with widely divergent agendas.
This underlies Pakistan’s relentless suppression of the Baluchistan independence movement with its accompanying string of grievous human rights violations. When Pakistan tried the same tactics against the rebellious Bengalis, it only roused the Bengali population to further resistance and provided India with a target of opportunity. Some in India are arguing that history is repeating itself and that a similar target of opportunity could be emerging. Should the current conflict persist and escalate, the Baluchistan option will loom large in Indian thinking, and would be viewed by Pakistan as an existential threat.
In my estimation, India has a broader range of military options than Pakistan. This is because the Pakistani military is already overstretched. Pakistani forces are combatting a vicious Islamic Jihadi insurgency carried out by a number of disparate groups operating under the umbrella of the Pakistani Taliban (The Tehrik-i-Taliban, Pakistan – TTP) from bases in Afghanistan. In addition, Pakistani troops are tied down combatting the persistent separatist insurgency in Baluchistan. In addition, the Pakistani Army continues to view India as the principal threat and sees the need to keep sufficient numbers of troops along the Indo/Pakistan border to meet any possible Indian aggression.
Pakistan must also contend with advances in military technology, which act as force multipliers for India. Unlike Pakistan, India enjoys friendly relations with fellow democracies around the world, and has entered into quasi alliances with principal arms suppliers. This is increasingly giving India access to advanced military technology not always available to Pakistan (which increasingly must rely on China for its military hardware). These factors help ensure that India has a wider array of military options.
India is again involved in a confrontation with Pakistan over Kashmir. It has already crossed the Rubicon and opted for the military option, carrying out a military strike, this time within territory across the LoC. Whether the Indian “surgical strikes” will prove to be last military exchange between the two countries in the current round depends on decisions made in both New Delhi and Islamabad.
It is common when writing about the Indo/Pakistan rivalry to emphasize that both states are “nuclear armed,” and that every military conflict between them has the potential to escalate into a nuclear exchange. While this is true, it may be over-emphasized. Pakistan, with its relative decline in conventional military capabilities vis a vis India, likes to play upon these fears. Pakistan is investing much of its national treasure to construct its rapidly-growing nuclear arsenal, seemingly confident that this will preclude any military retaliation from India. This confidence in nuclear weaponry is too simplistic and over-stated.
We have seen that there are a wide range of military options available to India (both covert and overt). The resort to nuclear weapons by any state, can only be seen as a desperate measure taken as a last resort. This is particularly true in the South Asian context where a nuclear exchange would be catastrophic for all states in the region, including Pakistan.
A knee-jerk resort to nuclear weapons is not a viable response in all circumstances. Indian attacks on terrorist infrastructure based in Pakistan and in Pakistan-controlled territory do not pose a threat to Pakistan’s survival. It cannot therefore constantly threaten to resort to the nuclear option. If Pakistan intends to provide a military response to India in a tit for tat exchange, it must devise measures that fall far short of threatening the use of nuclear weapons.
India has already made its decision. Pakistan must now determine how it will respond. The nature of the Pakistani response will determine whether the current conflict will escalate or not and which option India will choose when crafting its counter-move.
1. “Kashmir Attack: India ‘launches strikes against militants,'” BBC News, 30 September, 2016
2. “India claims ‘surgical strikes’ against militants in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.” The Washington Post, September 29, 2016
3. “Surgical strikes across LoC: India prepares for possible Pakistani retaliation,” The Times of India, September 29, 2016.
4. Jon P. Dorschner, “An Indian Assault on Terrorism,” Military Review, US Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 2003
5. This last option in retrospect, is not really viable. The LeT Headquarters complex is home to many families, including many women and children, and therefore is not a genuine military target.
6. I.B.I.D., page 1
7. The Hindu, September 29
8. “Narendra Modi’s Independence Day Speech: PM Throws down Balochistan gauntlet,” The Indian Express, August 16, 2016, “Welcome and Thanks to Indian PM,” The Baloch Channel, August 14, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DG2sNXMZeKU
A native of Tucson, Arizona, Jon P. Dorschner earned a PhD. in South Asian studies from the University of Arizona. He currently teaches South Asian Studies and International Relations at his alma mater, and publishes articles and books on South Asian subjects. From 1983 until 2011, he was a career Foreign Service Officer. A Political Officer, Dr. Dorschner’s career specialties were internal politics and political/military affairs. He served in Germany, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, the United States Military Academy at West Point and Washington. From 2003-2007 he headed the Internal Politics Unit at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India. In 2007-2008 Dr. Dorschner completed a one-year assignment on an Italian Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Tallil, Iraq. From 2009-2011 he served as an Economic Officer, in Berlin, Germany.