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Responding to Uri Attack: What Are India’s Options?

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The Pulse

Responding to Uri Attack: What Are India’s Options?

India has three main options: a surgical strike, covert ops, or a diplomatic offense to isolate Pakistan.

Responding to Uri Attack: What Are India’s Options?
Credit: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod

Just when New Delhi was finding its way out of the latest Kashmir imbroglio, which has now entered its third month, the Uri attack of September 18 dragged India much deeper into the conflict. A pre-dawn ambush by four heavily armed militants killed 18 Indian soldiers and wounded 30 in Uri, a town of Baramulla district just 10 kilometers away from Line of Control (LoC). Hours later, the terrorists had been killed; however the aftermath witnessed a furious blame game from both India and Pakistan. In a tweet, Rajnath Singh, the Indian home minister described the attack as a cross border infiltration by militants trained and equipped by Pakistan and thus labeled Pakistan yet again “a terrorist state.” Likewise, Indian politicians and the media also joined the spree of calling Pakistan solely responsible for the Uri killings. In some corners, a punitive strike to avenge the attack became inevitable.

Ten days later, there seems to be no end to the war of words. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in his address to the 71st session of United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) underscored Indian atrocities in Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK) by saying that “Indian brutalities are well documented” and that “these will not suppress the spirit of the Kashmiris.” Sharif also demanded a “free and fair plebiscite held under UN auspices.” Indians were already reeling over Pakistani moral and political support to Kashmir and Sharif’s speech at UNGA added fuel to the fire. A multi-level debate has started inside India about waging total war or a limited strike against Pakistan.

Currently, India has several options in the wake of Uri attacks.

After the Mumbai Attacks of 2008, it was feared that India could launch a surgical strike in parts of Pakistan against Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jamaatud Dawa (JuD), militant groups that carried out the Mumbai carnage. However, the plan never materialized. This time, the debate has once again emerged calling for limited strikes inside Pakistani territory to retaliate for the Uri attack. Advocates of this option argue that such actions would comprehensively repel future attacks. Aside from the preventative effect, the retaliatory nature of this option is clear, a prevalent notion calls for strikes inside Pakistan since India has been the recipient of a series of militant attacks, the January 2016 attack in Pathankot and July 2015 Gurdaspur attack, for example. This option is technically feasible; however, it may see an equally stubborn Pakistani response. The international community could plunge in to forestall any such adventure, fearing the outbreak of nuclear war.

If the intention is to show muscles to Pakistan and to satisfy burgeoning public anger, India may go for small interconnected covert operations. Sending a bunch of special forces to the border area to eliminate alleged militant camps is also doable, yet it is also full of risks. This option would unleash a new row of underground activities by both sides; thus the trust deficit would reach new heights. Moreover, in an age of sophisticated modern technology, such covert physical operations have less chances of success.

Pakistan in the recent past has witnessed the collapse of its foreign policy and almost complete regional and international isolation. China alone has maintained cordial connections with Islamabad, and Beijing has rescued Pakistan before in times of need. The current period of isolation is not over and India could well grab this opportunity. New Delhi has already relished robust economic and defense ties with the United States and Russia. It has been vigorously involved in Afghanistan after 2001 and further strengthened ties with successive Afghan governments, thus putting Pakistan on the back foot from its western flank. India has also inked a deal of $500 million with Iran to develop Chabahar port, which is strategically and economically a strong challenger to Pakistan’s Gwadar port. By establishing good economic and political engagements with Pakistan’s neighbors, India pushes Islamabad to a new low. This is the best modern day remedy to compel somebody to act on the desired terms.

Former Afghan Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad during a U.S. Congressional hearing in July 2011 stressed the need to isolate Pakistan and make it a “second North Korea” if it doesn’t cooperate on the terms that Washington and Kabul want inside Afghanistan. Five years later, this strategy may be unfolding. Washington has remodeled its policies toward Islamabad owing to shrinking trust in this non-NATO ally during the War on Terror. This year, the United States refused to grant a subsidy for Pakistan’s purchase of F-16 aircraft and later blocked $300 million in aid from the Coalition Support Fund (CSF) to the Pakistan Army. The idea of sanctioning Pakistan for its non-cooperation in Afghanistan and continuous support to factions of the Taliban is also gaining popularity in Washington, D.C. mounting pressure on the U.S. government. Mark Toner, deputy spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, in a recent statement ruled out any such plan, but here India can again play its anti-Pakistan lobbying card and exert pressure for U.S. sanctions on Pakistan.

All these Indian options to bring Pakistan to its knees are doable. However, the situation in Kashmir –where the curfew has entered in third successive month and over 100 have died — raises unpleasant questions about Indian efforts to label Pakistan as a terrorist sponsor state. The world’s largest democracy, together with its more than half a million deployed army in Kashmir valley, is clueless about how to resolve the situation. New Delhi must revisit its Kashmir policy first and then put its case for presenting Pakistan as a troublemaker in IOK. An effort to isolate Pakistan needs marathon homework and a realistic approach with compact proof of allegations. Otherwise, the Uri attack just ahead of the UNGA session and in the wake of Kashmir uprising appears more like an Indian orchestrated blueprint than one from Pakistan.

Muhammad Daim Fazil is Lecturer of International Relations at University of Gujrat, Sialkot Campus, Pakistan. He was July 2016 Visiting Fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center Washington D.C. He tweets @DaimFazil.