Author : Sushant Sareen

Expert Speak War Fare
Published on Feb 26, 2019
Striking terror camps in Pakistan

After the Pulwama suicide bombing by a terrorist belonging to the Pakistani terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammad, it was virtually a given that India would retaliate. The ‘surgical strikes’ in 2016 had drawn some red-lines and Pulwama clearly breached those. The shape of retaliation was however not clear. What was clear was that it would be a lot more visible than the surgical strikes.

Given the weather conditions and the fact that the Pakistanis would be prepared for some limited action across the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir, another foray looked unlikely. That left open the possibility of a) artillery exchanges – which had been done to death and so wouldn’t have the necessary impact or resonance; b) precision missile strike on terrorist camps/bases – but this would be a significant escalation and perhaps was not the best opening gambit; c) air strikes on terror camps – this too would be a major escalation but would be visible, undeniable and not as escalatory as a missile strike.

The air strikes carried out earlier this morning was therefore not entirely unexpected. But what was a little unexpected was that it wasn’t limited to just the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir but went much beyond and hit the long operating Jaish camp in Balakot in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

In other words, the strikes were in Pakistan not PoK. Balakot is incidentally a place where the original jihadist Syed Ahmed Barelvi was killed by the Sikh army of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the 19th Century. Barelvi serves as an icon for most modern day Pakistani jihadists. Therefore, striking Balakot is both symbolic and substantive move from India.

One implication of this is that now the old restraint of not crossing the LoC no longer obtains. Terrorist facilities are now fair game regardless where they are. This time it was Balakot in KP, next time it could be Muridke, Bahawalpur or any other place. The gloves are off. More importantly, the Pakistani bluff has been called. Before the attack, the Pakistani military indulged in the usual bluff and bluster about how they will defend the country in the event of any attack from India. That psy-op has failed to deter the Indians.

Now that India has attacked, the Pakistanis are caught between a rock and a hard place. If they retaliate, what will they retaliate against? India has no terrorist camps. The only thing Pakistan can hit are civilian or military targets. This will not be taken lying down by India and there will be a massive retaliation, which next time will not be limited to only terror camps but also military and civilian targets in Pakistan. Can Pakistan afford this escalation? Does it even want this escalation? The other choice before Pakistan is to play down the Indian attack. Unlike the ‘Surgical Strikes’, deniability is not an option.

Initial indications are that the Pakistanis will deny that India hit anything (Initial reactions from Pakistan are still awaited). The ISPR statement suggests that Pakistan is trying to avoid getting into a commitment trap of retaliation. The way the Pakistanis are playing this is that the Indian’s attacked, we repulsed them, they withdrew in haste, no damage, no casualty was caused, hence nothing needs to be done. This means the Pakistanis will lump this attack, just like they lumped the surgical strikes. This also means that no escalation ladder is in play for now.

However, the Pakistan military will find it difficult to live this one down. While the ISPR will be able to bludgeon the mainstream media which is pliable, controlled by, and embedded into the ‘establishment’, to toe the line, it will have trouble in controlling the narrative on the social media, which is today fast becoming the only source of information on Pakistan. The bottom line is that the prestige of the Pakistan armed forces has taken a hit.

The question is in attempts to recover their image, whether it will be enough for the Pakistanis to resort to the usual terrorist action. or will they respond with some kind of conventional attack. The dilemma is that a terror strike will invite another retaliation, as will the conventional strike. What is more, a terror attack will also boomerang diplomatically.

On the international front, the Pakistanis have been agitating a lot and trying to present themselves as a peace loving country and impressing on their interlocutors to ask India to stand down. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much comfort coming Pakistan's way.

The UN Security Council resolution as well as the FATF setback has been given a spin that all is well. The Pakistanis would now be hoping that the big powers will try and intercede and cool things down. But what is important from the Indian point of view is that until now, because India played by the rules, everyone paid lip-service and sympathised with India but also leaned on India to not hit back. Now that India has retaliated, the pressure will be on Pakistan to clean up their act and not take any precipitate action that could spiral out of control, especially since India isn’t going to hold back in the event of any provocation from Pakistan.

The ball is now in Pakistan’s court. If it wants to escalate, then it must be ready to pay a very heavy price, and that too at a time when it is going around the world with a begging bowl. Pakistan’s economy cannot bear the cost of a confrontation. It might make more sense for Pakistan to realise that its strategy of bleeding India by a thousand cuts might have run its course. India has no interest in Pakistan, much less in occupying Pakistan. India’s only interest is the stopping the export of terrorism into India. If Pakistan now cleans up the swamps of terrorism which it has used to create trouble in India, the process of normalisation can proceed. But if Pakistan prefers to indulge in false bravado, dare India and continues to display bloody-mindedness, then it will have to be prepared for a robust response.

Finally, a word of advice for the Indian politicians. Politicising this strike would be a folly because it will impact on the national consensus that has been developing of delivering a riposte to ever challenge from Pakistan. There will be a political dividend for the government even if it doesn’t indulge in grandstanding. For the opposition, by supporting the armed forces and even the government, they won’t lose votes and might in fact win some votes for their maturity. Making carping sounds against the government will probably alienate more votes.

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Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. His published works include: Balochistan: Forgotten War, Forsaken People (Monograph, 2017) Corridor Calculus: China-Pakistan Economic Corridor & China’s comprador   ...

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