On the morning of September 18, four men identified by India as members of the Pakistani terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) stormed an Indian Army base in the town of Uri in India-administered Kashmir and killed 18 troops.
Just a few hours later, a video surfaced on social media that quickly went viral in India.
In the video, an Indian soldier, standing in a bus and surrounded by other troops, energetically recites a violently anti-Pakistan poem. He warns that Pakistan will pay for its attempts to hurt India, and he identifies the names of Pakistani cities that could be destroyed. His fellow troops join him in belting out the poem’s main refrain: “Pakistan, hear this loud and clear: If … war breaks out you will be obliterated. Kashmir will exist but Pakistan won’t.”
Many Indians were singing a similarly bellicose tune in the hours immediately following the Uri attack. Some members of India’s notoriously hawkish media corps openly called for war on Pakistan. A top television news anchor, Arnab Goswami, implored India to “cripple” Pakistan and “bring them down to their knees.” Prominent print journalist Minhaz Merchant declared, “Let guns now talk with Pakistan.” The Indian government got in on this jingoistic act as well. “For one tooth, the complete jaw. So-called days of strategic restraint are over,” a top official with the ruling BJP party, Ram Madhav, posted on Facebook.
Pakistan, meanwhile, responded with its own flurry of angry rhetoric. In a corps commanders conference on September 19, Army Chief Raheel Sharif declared that his country was “fully prepared to respond to the entire spectrum of direct and indirect threats” from India. Pakistan, he vowed, “will thwart any sinister design against [the] integrity and sovereignty of the country.” He was even more direct on September 23, vowing that the Army will defend “each and every inch” of the country “no matter what the cost.”
The Uri attack came at a time of deep crisis in India-Pakistan relations. India is still smarting from an earlier attack on a military base in India, in the town of Pathankot in Punjab state in January, which it also blamed on JeM—a group with close ties to Pakistani intelligence. In March, Pakistan claimed to have arrested an Indian spy in the insurgency-riven province of Balochistan. Meanwhile, India has responded to recent uprisings in Kashmir, a Muslim-majority Indian state claimed by Pakistan, with characteristically brutal shows of force that have contributed to nearly 90 deaths in the unrest, outraging Pakistanis.
In the days leading up to the Uri assault, India and Pakistan were waging a nasty war of words, with Islamabad excoriating India for its abusive acts in Kashmir and accusing it of committing terrorism in Pakistan, and New Delhi lambasting Pakistan for its brutal tactics in Balochistan. On the very night before the Uri attack, Pakistani Defense Minister Khawaja Asif threatened in a television interview to use nuclear weapons against India if Pakistan’s “defense and survival” were endangered.
All this saber-rattling prompts a troubling question: Could the two countries go to war?
The good news is that the terrifying prospect of an India-Pakistan shooting war—two nuclear-armed nemeses locked in conflict—is highly unlikely. The bad news is that a more shadowy war, marked by covert activities, is quite possible, if not inevitable.
The main deterrent to a hot war on the subcontinent is nuclear weapons. Pakistan refuses to adopt a no-first use policy, meaning that it could conceivably respond to India’s use of conventional military force with a nuclear strike. This means that for India, any substantive military action against Pakistan—and even modest uses of force such as targeted airstrikes—would be dangerously risky. To avoid crossing any nuclear red lines, Indian military actions would need to be very modest and targeted—thereby hampering efforts to degrade and destroy terrorist compounds, Pakistani military facilities, or whatever India’s desired target may be. And yet such actions could still prompt Pakistani responses—such as the sponsoring of terror attacks in India.
The two countries have fought three major wars, but they all occurred before 1998, when both nations became declared nuclear weapons states. A fourth war occurred in 1999, but it was a limited conflict, with Pakistani soldiers infiltrating into Kashmir and fighting Indian troops for two months before withdrawing back across the border. According to Bruce Riedel, a former top U.S. official on South Asia, U.S. President Bill Clinton successfully pressured Pakistan to withdraw its troops—after the CIA concluded that Pakistan was preparing to deploy and possibly use nuclear weapons.
Another reason a hot war is unlikely is that India has limited capabilities to wage one. Research by South Asia security analysts George Perkovich and Toby Dalton, drawing on interviews with Indian military officials, concludes that the “surface attraction” of limited airstrikes is “offset significantly, if not equally, by risks and inadequacies.” Additionally, it contends that “there is vast room for improvement” in intelligence collection capacities. It also asserts that India’s capabilities to stage joint air and land operations are wanting. “Even at the level of exercises,” Perkovich and Dalton write, “the Indian Army and Air Force have not inspired each other’s confidence in their capacity to conduct effective combined operations in realistic warfare conditions.” In effect, India’s military has more than sufficient numbers—only the militaries of the United States and China have more than its 1.3 million active personnel—but less than sufficient capacity.
Not surprisingly, India has signaled its hesitation to retaliate militarily to the Uri attack. Indian military commanders have reportedly counseled the government against any “rash” use of force. Indian Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad declared that any Indian response “will be done with full diplomatic and strategic maturity.” That’s a far cry from the jaw-for-a-tooth rhetoric emanating from New Delhi immediately after the attack.
One more reason India may hesitate to use military force in retaliation to Uri is that it lacks sufficient evidence to tie Pakistan to the attack. Indian journalist Shivam Vij recently pointed out that a widely believed and reported claim in India—that the Uri terrorists had Pakistani markings on their weapons—actually lacks conclusive proof and has not been confirmed by New Delhi.
All this said, something has to give. India’s government campaigned on a pledge to take a tougher line against Pakistan. New Delhi’s anti-Pakistan rhetoric has grown increasingly shrill in recent weeks, and many Indians are unhappy that their government did not retaliate against Pakistan after the Pathankot attack. For India’s Hindu nationalist government, passivity in the face of Pakistani provocation is an increasingly precarious position—and could prove politically damaging.
To this end, there’s good reason to believe India could in due course launch a campaign of covert operations in Pakistan—mainly in the form of lightning strikes across the border to take out Pakistani terrorists. Several Indian media accounts have suggested this war has already begun, with one report claiming Indian Special Forces crossed into Pakistan and killed 20 terrorists. The accuracy of the report, however, has been disputed, particularly given that Pakistan has said nothing about such a raid.
For India, covert activities inside Pakistan would have numerous advantages. They would allow, in some cases, for plausible deniability. They would fall short of any nuclear red lines. They would require less capacity and coordination than large-scale military action. And they would be less risky overall. Additionally, New Delhi could receive indirect support from Washington. Deepening U.S.-India cooperation could provide opportunities for Washington to share more intelligence about the location and activities of Pakistani terrorists. Additionally, India is keen to secure drones from the United States. Such an acquisition would dramatically enhance its surveillance capacity, and, if the unmanned craft are armed, strengthen its ability to stage covert airstrikes as well.
To be sure, covert operations, while not as dangerous as full-scale conflict, could nonetheless be highly destabilizing for the subcontinent. Pakistanis already accuse India of waging covert war in Pakistan, from colluding with the Pakistani Taliban to collaborating with Baloch separatists. A wave of attacks on Pakistani troops or an assassination campaign against terrorists—regardless of whether there is clear evidence of Indian complicity—could lead to Pakistan-sponsored terror attacks in India. Given that Pakistan’s conventional forces are vastly outnumbered by India’s, it depends on asymmetrical tactics—such as providing support to anti-India terror groups—along with its nuclear umbrella to keep India at bay.
With India scaling up its security cooperation with Afghanistan and launching a new transport corridor project in Iran, it will be increasingly visible in the broader region and therefore more vulnerable to assaults on its nationals and interests many miles from home.
The uptake? Even limited, covert uses of force are fraught with considerable risk.
Michael Kugelman is the senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.