Gurdaspur, Pathankot, and Now Uri: What Are India’s Options?

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Gurdaspur, Pathankot, and Now Uri: What Are India’s Options?

Once again, Indian officials are blaming Pakistan for a terrorist attacks. What options does Delhi have?

Gurdaspur, Pathankot, and Now Uri: What Are India’s Options?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/US Army

On Sunday, armed gunmen successfully penetrated and attacked an Indian Army brigade headquarters, leaving 17 dead. The Hindustan Times notes that the incident was the single deadliest attack on the Indian Army in at least 26 years. The Diplomat‘s Shawn Snow has a helpful rundown of the reactions from within India after the attack. Predictably, given the proximity of the attack to the Line of Control–the line demarcating India-administered and Pakistan-administered Kashmir–and the sophistication of the fidayeen (suicide squad) attackers, Indian leaders were swift in blaming Pakistan.

In the coming days, Indian authorities will probe the circumstance of the attack and the identities of the perpetrators. Indian Director General-Military Operations (DGMO) Lieutenant General Ranbir Singh believes that Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), the same group responsible for the strike earlier this year on the Pathankot Air Force base in Punjab, carried out the Uri strike. The Pathankot attack, along with the July 2015 attack on a police station in Gurdaspur, Punjab, highlights a growing frequency of high-profile fidayeen attacks against hard targets. All three attacks have come in relatively quick succession after a relative lull in alleged Pakistan-sponsored attacks in India after the 2008 Mumbai attack, which, by contrast, involved a large-scale coordinated strike against softer civilian targets.

As Shawn highlighted earlier and as Siddharth Varadarajan has noted in the Wire, the time and place of the Uri attack take on special significance. The Indian Army has come under sharp Pakistani criticism for its heavy-handed tactics in suppressing protesters in Kashmir following the killing of Burhan Wani, a Hizbul Mujahideen militant, earlier this summer. With more than 80 civilian deaths in the Kashmir valley and hundreds of injuries, an attack on a hard Indian Army target inside Kashmir not only gives Pakistan the advantage of potentially internationalizing the issue of Kashmiri self-determination on the eve of the open of the 71st UN General Assembly’s debate, but also confers a degree of plausible deniability. With tensions high in the Kashmir valley, Pakistan can claim that the attack was simply the Indian Army reaping with it had sowed over the course of the summer. (Moreover, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s historic mention of Balochistan in his Independence Day speech a month ago may have reinvigorated Pakistan’s proxies.)

Of course, this won’t bear out in reality and certainly New Delhi will be in no mood to entertain the idea that this attack was a direct result of the legitimate grievances of Kashmiri youth. Hours after the attack, Indian Home Affairs Minister Rajnath Singh, after calling Pakistan a “terrorist state,” added that “There are definite and conclusive indications that the perpetrators of [the] Uri attack were highly trained, heavily armed, and specially equipped.” For India, Uri is the latest in a string of provocations that began with Gurdaspur and was followed by Pathankot. Uri, on the southern bank of the Jhelum River, is roughly 12 kilometers from the Line of Control. And while militant infiltration across the LoC has grown more difficult with time, the line is far from watertight.

Where do India and Pakistan go from here? Well, we’ve seen this story play out repeatedly at this point. Pakistan’s already offered its denial of having anything to do with the attack. “This is an old tactic of India. They immediately put the blame on Pakistan without investigation,” Nafees Zakaria, a Pakistani foreign ministry spokesman, told the BBC. Indian leaders, meanwhile, are feeling the pressure to do something differently after what is essentially the third such attack in 14 months. However, apart from strongly condemning the attack and vowing vengeance, it’s not clear that there’s any potential path of kinetic retaliation that New Delhi can implement without risking a sharp escalation in Kashmir.

Manoj Joshi and Prashant Jha both offer excellent rundowns of the reasons New Delhi’s hands are tied. In short, India’s desired strategic end-state–convincing Pakistan to abandon its use of cross-border sub-conventional warfare–is not attainable by lashing out. Moreover, the risks of escalation can’t be understated–India and Pakistan have fought four wars in their history, most recently in 1999 after their successive nuclear tests in 1998. Today, the nuclear sword of Damocles hangs over the two South Asian neighbors; Pakistan’s lack of a no-first-use pledge and dalliances with low-yield battlefield nuclear weapons lower the threshold at which a conventional war in South Asia could go nuclear.

The Uri attack, above all, appears to be designed to light a match under the Modi government, which is coming under increased public scrutiny for its willingness of engage with Pakistan despite the continuation of attacks. For instance, the Pathankot attack was read as an embarrassing inversion of the goodwill Modi forged with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif during a surprise stopover in Lahore on his way back from Afghanistan in December 2015. Meanwhile, after the Pathankot attack, not only did the Indian government exercise its usual restraint, it invited a Pakistani Special Investigative Team. For the more bellicose critics of the Indian government’s handling of Pakistan in the aftermath of Pathankot, Uri is tragic vindication. Moreover, with the Indian Army suffering its highest casualty count in a single attack in 26 years, some in India are already describing Uri as an “act of war.”

For Modi, Uri may well mark the end of a confused period of marrying India’s Pakistan outreach with Indian electoral politics. The combination has lead to a dangerous mix of speaking loudly and carrying no stick at all. If there ever was a time for this government to alter course and cut its losses on more than two years of amicable outreach to Pakistan (beginning, remember, with Sharif’s participation in Modi’s inauguration back in 2014), this might be it. Modi might find it best to simply push Pakistan to the diplomatic backburner, leaving the diplomacy to India’s diplomatic bureaucracy.

As a final thought, I do suspect that the timing of the attack will all but ensure that the Kashmir question ends up being addressed at this year’s UN General Assembly debates. If Pakistan’s goal was to internationalize Kashmir after years of the issue moving to the backburner of territorial disputes, then the Uri strike, India’s energetic response, and the momentum of international interest in Kashmiri self-determination after this summer make it very likely that Kashmir will be back on the UN agenda. Both Modi and Sharif’s speeches in New York will be worth watching closely.