The Indian Army has served notice to Pakistan, reserving the right to respond to the terrorist strike on an army camp in Jammu & Kashmir on Sunday, in which the casualty count increased to 18 with the death of a wounded soldier in hospital on Monday. In addition, 29 soldiers were injured.
On Monday, the army’s Director General of Military Operations Lieutenant General Ranbir Singh, warned: ‘The Indian Army has displayed considerable restraint while handling the terrorist situation both along the Line of Control and in the hinterland. However, we have the desired capability to respond to such blatant acts of aggression and violence as deemed appropriate by us. We reserve the right to respond to any act of the adversary at a time and place of own choosing.’
On Sunday, after a terrorist fidayeen squad struck an army camp near Uri, five km from the Line of Control, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised: ‘I assure the nation that those behind this despicable attack will not go unpunished.’
The army announced on Sunday that the attackers were from the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed jihadi group. It now emerges that the Lashkar-e-Tayiba masterminded the strike, not the JeM.
After the PM and his security planners — including Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, key Cabinet ministers, the army, navy and air force chiefs and the heads of intelligence agencies — met on Monday to weigh revenge against the perpetrators of the attack, it became clear that Modi is short of retaliatory options.
The leaders could only agree on a diplomatic plan to expose Pakistan in international forums as a State that supports terrorism — something that New Delhi has already been doing.
This, however, would fail to placate inflamed Indian opinion; with critics already asking on social media how diplomatically isolating Pakistan punishes those behind the Uri attack.
Essentially, the government’s repeated promises to respond harshly to Pakistani provocation have exposed it to criticism if it acts moderately.
In November 2008, in the aftermath of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack, the United Progressive Alliance government had ruled out a military response after the three service chiefs were unable to offer viable response options.
Eight years later, a new PM has discovered there are still no plans to adequately punish Pakistan for unacceptable provocations.
Scholars of South Asian security like Shashank Joshi and Walter Ladwig have earlier argued that any Indian plan that would adequately punish Pakistan would also cross the Red Line of Pakistan’s nuclear threshold.
Top Indian planners, including NSA Doval and the PM himself, are known to admire Israel’s tough response to cross-border terrorism. However, New Delhi’s situation is far more complex than Tel Aviv’s, which enjoys preponderant military superiority over all its neighbours.
In contrast, India faces a cross-border terrorism challenge from the Pakistani military, which Credit Suisse has ranked the 11th-most powerful in the world, which means Pakistan is capable of protecting its territory and airspace.
Further, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is on level with India’s.
For these reasons Doval, who is masterminding a tough response against a civilian uprising in Kashmir, is finding Pakistan rather a tougher nut to crack.
There is also a shortfall of military expertise at the top-most planning levels. With Doval and Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar having taken control of security and foreign policy, the army, navy and air force chiefs have — like many of their predecessors — found themselves on the sidelines in a subordinate role.
Even Defence Minister Parrikar is outside the inner coterie, causing him to spend an unusual amount of time nurturing a political constituency in Goa, where he was chief minister before moving to New Delhi.
In September, he has spent no more than a week in Delhi.
With the military and the defence ministry distanced from the planning loop, there are no clear contingency plans for retaliation.
True, the military has a list of targets in Pakistan, strategic as well as tactical, that can be struck. But there has been no inter-agency planning, where the ministries of external affairs, home, defence and the National Security Council have evaluated the strike options, the escalation dynamics caused by inevitable Pakistani retaliation, nuclear crisis management, and the diplomatic handling of the international community, to assuage fears of a full-blown conflagration between two nuclear armed States.
Already, planners are wrestling with the question of responding to the Uri attack without falling into the Pakistan trap of ‘internationalising’ the Kashmir dispute.
One option for the military is to activate the LoC, attacking Pakistani posts with artillery and mortars. The army can inflict disproportionate punishment on the Pakistan army. Yet, Indian soldiers will die and be wounded in Pakistani retaliation.
Meanwhile, India’s security calculus in J&K will become more complicated, making internal security a larger problem. Similarly, air strikes on terrorist camps across the LoC, or across the international India-Pakistan boundary, would invite retaliation from Pakistan.
This could unleash an escalatory spiral that would take both sides towards war — and the inevitable international pressure to de-escalate.
“Contingency plans for retaliation are made during peace, fine-tuned through an inter-agency process, and kept ready for use in a crisis. The Indian security establishment has failed to do that,” says a former army commander.