India has blamed Sunday’s deadly attack on the 12th brigade headquarters at Uri in Kashmir, which claimed the lives of 17 Indian soldiers, on the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM).
Indeed, in the manner of its execution, the attack bears some resemblance to the attack on the Pathankot Air Base in January, for which India provided evidence of Jaish’s hand, and Pakistan even took the JeM leader Masood Azhar into “protective custody”. The number of fidayeen was four as in Pathankot, they scaled an ill-guarded wall and the first thing they did was to start a fire — just as they had done at Pathankot.
Provoking the Modi government to hit back with a military response is perhaps the larger goal behind the attack, with the more immediate objective of attracting international attention to Kashmir. Indeed, sections of the Indian security establishment clearly want military retaliation, even a limited strike, maybe imagining that this will be as surgical and clean as the two hot pursuits by the Indian Army’s special forces across the Myanmar border. Last year, they chased down Naga militants of the Khaplang group of NSCN in retaliation of the ambush and killings of 18 soldiers in Manipur, eliciting some criticism in Myanmar. Another hot pursuit took place last month, and this time there were no complaints. Pakistan is different, but right now, those asking for revenge are not particularly concerned about that.
Nothing gives the international community a bigger fright than the prospect of war between the two nuclear-armed neighbours in South Asia, and even without any response from New Delhi, there is bound to be greater world attention on India and Pakistan in the coming days, perhaps even a global push for restarting diplomatic initiatives between the two sides.
Meaanwhile, Jaish has achieved at least one tactical objective: it may not speak for all of Pakistan, and it may deny its involvement in the attack, but in Kashmir, where the group’s origins are well known, the attack has served to signal that the Pakistani state is no mere bystander to events in Kashmir during the last two months.
For the same reason, in Pakistan, it gives Army chief General Raheel Sharif a shot in the arm. The Pakistan Army may or may not be behind the Jaish attack, but its long, if somewhat troubled association with a group that it parented is well known. The attack is bound to reinforce the view that the Pakistan Army is the better guardian of the interests of the Kashmiri people than Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Modi’s warnings that the perpetrators of the attack will be punished is bound to rally the public behind their army even strengthening that institution, just as it did in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks.
As India mourns the loss of 17 soldiers, both Kashmir and Pakistan see Sunday’s attack as a response for the two months of trauma, the 76 deaths, the hundreds maimed by the use of pellet guns and the thousands injured in security operations.
For more than two months, Nawaz Sharif’s government had been asked again and again by his critics and security and foreign policy hawks — what are you doing about developments in Kashmir? Noticeably weaker after the Panama papers expose of his family’s offshore accounts, Sharif’s response has been to up his rhetoric on Kashmir, first by declaring Burhan Wani a martyr of the Kashmiri freedom movement, then by dedicating Pakistan’s independence day to Kashmir and describing the protests in Kashmir as “a new wave of the freedom movement”.
Next, he is to pitch Kashmir at the United Nations General Assembly later this month. Pakistan is waiting to see if that will bring the Kashmir issue the international traction it has failed to get in the last two months. It is also a huge test for the Pakistani PM himself. But in a way that is reminiscent of Kargil, Jaish-e-Mohammed appears to have stolen a march on Nawaz Sharif with this attack. The Mumbai attack had been described as then President Asif Ali Zardari’s Kargil moment. This attack may well go down as Nawaz Sahrif’s second Kargil.
For India, despite the threats of punishment and “jaw for a tooth” rhetoric emanating from Delhi, the choices before the Modi government are neither open nor easy.
If Modi does not respond in some aggressive way, his image as a strong leader is at risk. He would also be blamed for not signaling, through “effective response”, India’s zero-tolerance for adventurism of this sort from Pakistani territory.
Those who advocate a military retaliation must remember that he would play into the hands of the perpetrators with an outcome far from certain. India still has diplomatic channels with Pakistan. Diplomacy moves at glacial pace, and the results with a country like Pakistan are bound to be as uncertain as a military retaliation but still represent a better strategy.
Difficult days are ahead for Prime Minister Modi, and for India.