Uri terror attack: India mulls diplomatic offensive against Pakistan

India wants to punish Pakistan for allegedly sending armed infiltrators across the border to launch one of the deadliest terror attacks on soldiers who were sleeping at an army camp near the border. But any military option would carry risks and costs. Hence, Delhi has opted for a diplomatic approach for now and will provide hard evidence of Pakistan’s complicity in attacks on India to isolate Islamabad at every international forum.

Eighteen Indian soldiers were killed and over 20 others injured when four heavily armed militants attacked an Indian Army camp at Uri in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) in the early hours of September 18. The army camp is near the Line of Control (LOC), the de facto border between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, and plays an important role not only in thwarting any aggression from Pakistan but also in preventing infiltration of militants from across the border.

Indian army soldiers carry the coffins of their colleagues who were killed after gunmen attacked an Indian army base in Kashmir's Uri on Sunday, during a wreath laying ceremony in Srinagar

Indian army soldiers carry the coffins of their colleagues, who were killed after gunmen attacked their base in Kashmir’s Uri on Sunday, during a wreath-laying ceremony in Srinagar, September 19. Indian Army/Handout via REUTERS

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack yet.  However, the Indian Army has blamed the Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Pakistan-based terrorist group that is reported to have the backing of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s intelligence agency.

All four militants who carried out the attack were killed by the Indian security forces. “They were all foreigners and belonged to the Jaish-e-Mohammed,” the Director General Military Operations (DGMO), Lt Gen Ranbir Singh told reporters, pointing out that articles and weaponry found on them had “Pakistan markings.” The army is “ready to give a befitting response,” he said, without elaborating.

The attack is likely to escalate already soaring tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbors.

Pakistan has rejected the Indian allegations as “totally baseless and irresponsible.”

In terms of fatalities, the attack on the Uri army camp makes it the largest on the Indian army in Kashmir in over a decade.

In May 2002, an army camp at Kaluchak near Jammu was attacked. Militants stormed into the camp’s family quarters and killed 31 people, 18 of them kin of the army personnel posted there. Coming close on the heels of an attack on India’s parliament building, the Kaluchak assault triggered enormous outrage in the country.

Then as now, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headed India’s federal government. The party generally takes a more hawkish position on India-Pakistan issues.

Following the Kaluchak attack, India toughened its stance towards Pakistan. Its mobilization of troops along the International Border and the LoC, which increased after the December 2001 attack on the Indian parliament, accelerated with the assault on Kaluchak.

Both sides massed their troops along the border. The possibility of war loomed. Western analysts warned that South Asia was on the brink of a nuclear war.

As in 2002, so also now, public outrage is high.

Interestingly, less than a year ago, bilateral relations seemed to be marked by bonhomie rather than bellicosity.

In November-December last year, relations were on an upswing. A flurry of high-level meetings happened, including a “pull-aside meeting” at the Paris Climate Change Summit, where Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif shook hands and chatted “for a few minutes” without officials or aides by their side. This was followed by the National Security Advisors of the two countries meeting at Bangkok, which paved the way for Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj to attend the ‘Heart of Asia’ meeting in Islamabad.

Then on Christmas Day, in a move that took South Asia and the world by surprise, Modi dropped in at Sharif’s home in Lahore on the latter’s birthday. The visit indicated that the two prime ministers were willing to take risks to get the peace process going.

And then on January 2, Jaish-e-Mohammed militants carried out a major attack on the Indian Air Force Base at Pathankot, killing seven military personnel.

India’s response was largely patient, although the strain in relations had set in. The Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh called for patience, saying that there was “no reason to doubt them [Pakistan], at least for now.”

That patience seems to have run out.

On Sunday, Singh described Pakistan “a terrorist state” and called for its isolation. This is markedly different language from that articulated by the home minister after the Pathankot strike although there is little difference between the two assaults.

The “despicable attack” would “not go unpunished,” Modi said just hours after the strike on the Uri camp. Fellow BJP leader, Ram Madhav, went further. “The days of strategic restraint are over,” he thundered, calling for a “jaw for tooth” policy.

India-Pakistan relations have worsened considerably since January. Indian missions in Afghanistan have come under attack from Pakistan-backed terrorists and terrorist strikes in Kashmir are increasing.

Importantly, the situation in the Kashmir Valley, the main bone of contention between India and Pakistan, has deteriorated. Following the killing of Hizb-ul Mujahideen ‘commander’ Burhan Wani by the security forces in July, the Valley has been in turmoil, with clashes been stone-throwing crowds and security forces occurring daily. Scores of protestors have been killed in these clashes and several have lost their sight due to rubber bullets fired by the security forces. This has deepened Kashmiri alienation and anger with the Indian state.

And Pakistan added fuel to the fire in the Valley. Sharif declared Wani a “martyr” and has sought to embarrass India at international forums by raising the situation in Kashmir.

A war of words between India and Pakistan has broken out since, with the Indian prime minister too drawing attention to the situation in strife-torn Baluchistan and asserting India’s claims over Gilgit-Baltistan.

Over the past few months, the Modi government has raised the ante, signaling that India will not stand by quietly in response to Pakistan’s repeated provocations.

It is amidst this mounting tension that the Uri attack happened.

Several options are being discussed by Indian analysts. Many are calling for a “robust response” but differ on what this should be. Some suggest sustained artillery strikes on Pakistan’s border posts. But this would put an end to the ceasefire agreement reached in 2003. Others have called for strikes on militant camps based in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, perhaps even elsewhere in Pakistan.

Any military option would carry risks and costs. One would be the almost certain retaliation by Pakistan whether through terror attacks in Indian cities or assaults on Indian posts in Kashmir and elsewhere. There is the possibility too of escalation of the exchange into a war, even involving nuclear weapons.

Any military option that India may be considering would need to be put into effect now i.e. before international pressure on it to act with restraint kicks in. Such delay in 2002 resulted in international pressure forcing India to back off from exercising the military option.

At a top-level meeting on Monday that was chaired by the Prime Minister and attended by senior ministers, Army chief Dalbir Singh Singh among others, the Modi government appears to have decided in favor of a diplomatic approach for now. India would refrain from a knee-jerk reaction. It would provide the international community with hard evidence of Pakistan’s complicity in attacks on India to isolate it at every international forum.

Additionally, it is likely that Modi will not attend the upcoming summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation that Islamabad is hosting. That would be a major embarrassment for Pakistan.

The restraint that India showed by not crossing the LoC during the Kargil conflict in 1999 or escalating the crisis during the 2001-02 military standoff and after the November 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai earned it international support on its struggles with Pakistan-backed terrorism and on the Kashmir question. These are huge gains.

These would be lost should India retaliate militarily to Pakistan’s provocation at Uri.

India has decided on restraint rather than retaliation for now. Some may be tempted to push for covert retaliation in Baluchistan. That path is fraught with risks.

Simultaneously, India needs to get its house in order. The attacks at Pathankot and Uri reveal poor perimeter security at military camps. It needs to make this security water-tight. Additionally, it needs to reach out to Kashmiris to reduce the anti-India sentiment there. Lack of support among the local Kashmiri population could prove difficult in countering Pakistan-backed terrorism.

 Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at sudha.ramachandran@live.in

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