The audacious terror attack on a brigade headquarters in Uri in the early hours of Sunday, September 18, that resulted in the death of 17 Indian soldiers and injured over 20 troops is a very serious operational lapse. That four armed terrorists could kill so many soldiers in a fortified army camp is an illustration of the asymmetrical advantage that has progressively accrued to the adversary.
The loss of uniformed personnel in this manner against a determined and opaque adversary in the proximity of the LoC (Line of Control) draws attention to two interlinked issues: The complexity of the proxy war that Indian security forces have been dealing with in Jammu and Kashmir for 26 years and the chinks that the enemy is able to periodically exploit with impunity.
The Uri attack follows Pathankot in January 2016 and the Indian security establishment will have to conduct the most rigorous internal review to identify tactical lapses that may have led to attacks of this nature. In both cases, armed terrorists/covert troops were able to enter fortified military camps. If some degree of insider collusion is established, then the nature of the challenge gets that much more tangled for the security forces. In relation to the Sunday attack, Uri, it may be noted, is about 20 km inside the LoC and hence the army will have to introspect candidly to introduce the necessary correctives.
The Indian response to the Uri attack has followed a familiar pattern of anger against the adversary, the state-sponsored terrorist — and the “deep state” represented by the Pakistan military. Home Minister Rajnath Singh has castigated Pakistan, called it a “terrorist state” and imprudently canceled his visit to the US and Russia. PM Modi has assured the nation that the perpetrators of this “despicable attack” will be punished. The dominant question that has been deliberated upon with anger and anguish across the audio-visual medium and in social media over the last 24 hours is: “When?”
Delhi’s response to the proxy war that began in January 1990, when Pakistan embarked upon its strategy of low-intensity-conflict (LIC) against India by supporting terror groups, has been tenaciously defensive. Operationally, this posture is inherently disadvantageous and costly, as the last 26 years have demonstrated. The adversary who is committed to audacious offensive initiatives has to succeed occasionally to claim victory, while zero-error in “defending” against every covert terror attack, or its variant, is a statistical oxymoron.
India’s strategic culture has been one of defensive diffidence despite the emphatic military victory of 1971, and the regional geo-political orientation has been exploited to the hilt by Pakistan. Consequently, the prevailing politico-diplomatic context wherein Rawalpindi, the GHQ of the Pakistan military, receives varying degrees of support from the major powers, constrains Indian options.
The US, even while being a victim of Pakistani perfidy, continues to pay treasure to Rawalpindi and in an inexplicable policy contradiction, the Pentagon is willing to be paid back in the blood of American troops. But as Delhi knows to its chagrin, US policy in relation to Pakistani support of terror groups will only go that far and the White House continues to turn a blind eye to the kind of transgressions that led to the US war against Iraq in 2003: A deviant regime using nuclear weapons as a shield to enable terror.
China’s uncritical support to the Pakistan military and the depth of the strategic cooperation is unprecedented in recent history. No other state has been enabled in such a manner in the acquisition of nuclear weapon know-how and missile technology and China has been inexplicably generous to Rawalpindi. Beijing’s reluctance to censure Pakistan in relation to terror has already been demonstrated in the UN and this is unlikely to change — unless China becomes victim to its own 9/11 trauma.
It is this global politico-diplomatic tilt in its favour that allows Rawalpindi to act with the impunity and audacity associated with its actions — from Kargil in 1999 and Mumbai 2008 to Uri now. Furthermore, the August 15 Modi initiative over Balochistan has clearly encouraged Pakistan to intensify the three-pronged offensive against India. Delhi will have to internalise the lessons learnt (or not learnt?) over the last three decades and find the most effective harmonisation of resolve and restraint in the face of such sustained provocation.
Uri is the military illustration of the Pak offensive and in all likelihood, the long drawn out proxy war will enter a phase of more such attempts that will have to be thwarted — each time. The second strand — the diplomatic offensive — has been revived, and Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif will go hammer and tongs at the UN General Assembly to project Kashmir as a victim of Indian oppression and Pakistan as the victim being intimidated for providing “moral support” to the “freedom fighters”.
The third prong of the Pakistani offensive is the narrative-cum-perception about India and Kashmir that has been assiduously irrigated at every global forum. In today’s politico-military environment, while ensuring an operational military advantage is imperative, winning the “story” is equally if not more important — especially in LIC and proxy war exigencies. Here, India has a chequered track record in relation to how it has dealt with the Kashmir issue over the years — and the political management of the Burhan Wani-related violence and turmoil in the Valley have not helped matters.
Post Uri, and the righteous national anger that is palpable, India will need to avoid the temptation of falling into the trap of impulsive indignation whenever Pakistan plays the terror card. The pressure on the Modi government to act decisively “now” is visible but this should be tempered by objective cost-benefit operational analysis.
Politically, India must acquire the steely resolve to increase the cost to the adversary and the need for political consensus on such national imperatives is critical. Uri should not be allowed to become a divisive issue in the domestic debate and the Modi government must also demonstrate that its recent initiatives in relation to Pakistan have been well thought through — and that all likely exigencies have been anticipated.