This week begins with India and Pakistan perched on the edge of a full-blown crisis. The prospect of missteps plunging the two states over the edge is real. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is under pressure from parts of its own rank-and-file, from inflamed public opinion, and from sections of the military, to authorise the retaliation it has long vowed against cross-border terrorism. The generals across the border believe he will be tied down by strategic circumstances. It is likely the Jaish-e-Muhammad, and its Inter-Services Intelligence backers, did not expect Sunday morning’s attack to register as much success as it did — but cold numbers tell us its consequences will not be ordinary. The 17 fatalities in Uri, the largest ever in a single attack in Jammu and Kashmir, exceed, by over a third, all Indian police and military personnel lost in fighting terrorism in the state this year. They are well over half the number of army soldiers killed in action there last year; they are greater than all the security force personnel who gave their lives in 2012, the most peaceful year Kashmir ever saw.
For India’s political leadership to craft a meaningful strategic response to this crisis, though, will require that both self-deception and bluster are excised from their vocabulary. First up, by all accounts, the Uri strike was not, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi described it on September 18, a “cowardly terror attack”. The attack appears to be, instead, part of a well-thought through strategy designed to breathe life into the Kashmir jihad, carried out by an adversary who has come to understand India’s strategic and tactical limitations. BJP leader Ram Madhav’s promise of “for one tooth, the complete jaw” may play well on television — but the generals across the border apparently calculate that his claim that the “days of so-called strategic restraint are over” is easier made than done.
And it is. Ever since 26/11, at least, India’s strategic conundrum has remained the same: How might Pakistan be deterred from sponsoring terrorism, without ending up in a conflict that jeopardises India’s big strategic aim, high economic growth? The easy-reach answers — cross-border shelling, or raids on Pakistani forward pickets — will achieve little; they did not deter Pakistan from 1990 to 2001, when the Line of Control was ablaze. Targetting jihadist leaders inside Pakistan might work better, but could invite reprisals, which India’s police forces and intelligence services haven’t been prepared for. Full-scale conflict, of course, is possible —but the outcomes are always uncertain, more so in a nuclear battlefield. The choices are hard, the stakes are high. Reason rather than rage should mark the road ahead