As I write these lines, Pakistan has strongly denied that the Indian army carried out surgical strikes across the LoC. It has claimed, indeed asserted, through the official army spokesman that the Indian action was confined to the traditional exchange of fire across the LoC which the two armies have undertaken many times in the past, including heavy fire last year. In doing so, as of now, Pakistan has obviously sought to ensure that it does not come under pressure from its domestic public opinion to adequately respond to uphold the country’s honor. For if it acknowledges that Indian soldiers crossed the LoC, even by a short distance of a couple of kilometers, the Pakistani people, more so, Pakistani soldiers and officers will demand of its generals, especially army chief General Raheel Sharif, that the Indian Army be soonest taught a lesson so it does not undertake such an action again. This refrain would be heard the loudest from the jehadi tanzeems.
Raheel Sharif has an image to live up to – his elder brother and maternal uncle were decorated with the Naishan-e-Haider, Pakistan’s highest gallantry award, and the Sharif family is greatly respected in army circles and by the public at large. Raheel Sharif is also credited with successful action in North Waziristan to clear Tehrik-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan cadres under the Zarb-e-Arz operation. Thus more than Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, it is the General who is under greater scrutiny. It is obvious that his initial reaction has been not to immediately get into a tit-for-tat situation and to move cautiously. That is not unnatural, for the Pakistan General staff would need to carefully weigh all options, especially as the international community knows that Pakistan has provoked India continuously over two decades with its pursuit of cross-border terrorism and that no army would take the Uri terrorist attack lying down.
The major powers, especially the US, have advised Pakistan that it has to take action against all terrorist groups, not only those that have turned against the state. This counsel has fallen on deaf ears, for there is no evidence that Pakistan army is willing to take a re-look at its security doctrines. These prescribe the pursuit of low-intensity conflict to contain India by keeping it off-balance. The fact is that despite the Pathankot attack and India’s acceptance of a Pakistani joint investigation team, including an ISI representative, to visit the Pathankot air base, it continued to essentially remain in denial, which is a clear evidence of its unwillingness to modify its security approaches. As India has crossed a threshold, Pakistan’s security planners will be under international pressure to modify their policies on the use of terror, even as they will not easily give it up. Why?
The major powers, including Pakistan’s all-weather friend, China, do not want a conflagration between two countries with nuclear weapons. As India has always acted “responsibly”, it has ironically been under greater pressure to avoid taking any step that would enhance the chance of escalation. This has been so after every significant terrorist provocation, including the Parliament attack and the Mumbai outrage. Each time, India absorbed terrorist action, despite the loss of life. Indeed, influential sections of the Indian political and security classes advanced the view that terrorism did pose a real security challenge to the country. Thus Pakistan-sponsored terrorism was cynically relegated to a matter of political management. If this was the view of those who governed the country, the international community naturally went along. The Pakistan Generals too felt secure that India’s political masters would not really react with force. They were initially concerned that Prime Minister Narendra Modi may be different and they tested him even prior to his taking oath when the Indian consulate-general in Herat was attacked. When Modi flip-flopped, laying down red lines only to dissolve them, they felt that he was no different from his predecessors. They will now have to reassess.
The only time the global powers brought pressure to bear on Pakistan was during the Kargil encroachment. Then India acted with determination to throw out Pakistan forces that had occupied the Kargil heights. It is because India refused to accept Pakistani action and the Indian Army started meeting with success despite great odds that the US put pressure on Pakistan to abandon its unacceptable misadventure. The US pressure was a contributory factor to Pakistan’s decision to withdraw. The Kargil lesson was that if India showed resolve and acted then Pakistan was asked to act responsibly. The key factor in all such situations is calm and sober resolve and deliberate action. Now after the surgical strikes, which have been undertaken with precision, it would be Pakistan that would be under pressure not to notch up the situation. That would be the quiet message that the Chinese would also give, notwithstanding the public postures that they may take.
Modi government has also done well not to have undertaken the surgical strikes in isolation, but as part of a package of measures to show that India is re-examining the premises of its Pakistan policy. No previous government has focused on the Indus Waters Treaty and Pakistan’s MFN status. Nor has any government raised Pakistan’s human rights record in Balochistan internationally, that too at the UN. Most importantly, the withdrawal from the SAARC Summit -and, it is obvious that Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan and India have consulted on this matter – would not have gone unnoticed in important capital cities. While there will be routine counsels of restraint, there is no doubt that there will be an understanding that India has suffered much and Modi expended much political capital and the present action – with no intention, at present, to undertake any other surgical strike – was neither adventurous nor unnatural.
There is little doubt that Pakistan will loudly proclaim the dangers of Indian action leading to the danger of acquiring a nuclear dimension. This is hogwash and self-serving. Pakistan will also renew efforts to draw attention to the Kashmir situation, but global indifference to developments in the Valley will continue as no country wants to intervene in it.
So, how will Pakistan respond? Indian security managers should redouble their vigilance against a major terrorist strike.
(The author is a former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs)