There is less than meets the eye to the Indian Army’s statement, on Tuesday, that it has been targeting Pakistani posts across the Line of Control — less, in any case, than those glued to television sets might have been led to believe. The Army’s measured statement has said only that, “as part of our anti-terror strategy, punitive fire assaults are carried out from time to time” on Pakistani posts, a less-than-startling revelation. It made clear, moreover, that the fire assaults had been carried out from the Indian side of the Line of Control.
The Army was at pains to cast the fire assaults as a means of deterring infiltration by terrorists, not as reprisal for the recent beheading of two Indian soldiers. Fire exchanges like these have been routine all summer, claiming the lives of several civilians and soldiers. In India, authorities in the border districts of Poonch and Rajouri had to evacuate thousands of civilians from villages in the line of fire. The situation is no different across the LoC.
Both countries have reached this point more by accident than design. Ever since 2011, there has been an year-on-year increase in levels of firing across the LoC, as the unwritten ceasefire between both countries slowly unravelled. After Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office, New Delhi moved away from its traditional policy of pursuing early de-escalation of LoC clashes.
The thinking was that showing willingness to sustain hostilities would deter the Pakistan Army from providing covering fire to jihadists, since each clash inflicted asymmetric costs on it in terms of ordnance and facilities. Faced with a grinding insurgency in its north-west, the argument went, Pakistan could ill-afford to move more troops and equipment to face India along the LoC.
In practice, things haven’t quite worked out according to plan. Though Pakistan has had to rein in jihadists based on its soil — there has been no major terrorist attack outside Kashmir since last year’s cross-LoC strikes on terror launching pads — camps of groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad continue to operate. The fighting on the LoC, moreover, has imposed costs on India, too.
For example, cross-LoC fire makes it harder to maintain the fencing that defends Kashmir against infiltrating militants. Perhaps most important, the duels have done nothing to choke the insurgency within Kashmir, which has received a fresh lease of life from political mismanagement. Hammering Pakistan’s border posts, it should be evident, is a tool, not a strategy — and it’s a tool being used for increasingly unclear ends.