Where do we go from here? The surgical strikes across the Line of Control (LoC) is a remarkable, though not unique, achievement for the Army (there have been many cross-LoC/IB operations in the past, though without the present publicity), but it is unlikely to bring Pakistan-backed terrorism to an abrupt and conclusive end.
It is useful to recognise that, despite 3,520 soldiers of the international coalition, including 2,285 Americans (as well as tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers and civilians), having been killed as a result of Pakistan-backed terrorism in Afghanistan, and numerous leaders and cadres of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda successfully targeted by the US on Pakistani soil (most prominently including Osama bin Laden in the heart of the Abottabad Cantonment) Pakistan has not abandoned its support to terrorism directed against Kabul, even a decade and a half after America re-entered the Afghan conflict.
There are many among India’s partisan jingoists who were demanding that Pakistan be ‘taught a lesson’ in the wake of the Uri attack, and believe that this is the principal yield of the surgical strike. This is nonsense. It is not India’s purpose to educate Pakistan and, in any event, despite all the ‘lessons’ it has been taught by India in the past, and by the US in a more proximate time frame, Islamabad remains quite uneducable.
Moreover, there are many who think that Pakistan can be ‘shamed’ into terminating its association with Islamist terrorism, and consequently emphasise the continuous sharing of intelligence and evidence with other nations of the world. But India has tried to do this for decades, with little or no effect. It is only now that the West is suffering repeated harm at the hands of Islamist terrorism that is squarely linked up with Pakistan that they are beginning to take cognizance of the problem – evidence or no evidence. Crucially, Pakistan is not a country that can be ‘shamed’ into anything; its leadership has demonstrated a complete lack of any sense of honour or adherence to principles of civilised behaviour. Pakistan will change direction only under the influence of fear, or the complete erosion of its capacities to continue support to terrorism without risking its own survival.
What does this mean for India in the immediate aftermath of the surgical strike? First, despite the general opprobrium Pakistan now attracts, and despite the fact that not a single country in the world has directed even the slightest criticism against India for this operation (even China has chosen to sit on the fence, exhorting both countries to resolve their difference through “dialogues”), there is likely to be some retaliatory action. Present indications, including Islamabad’s efforts to deny or downplay the surgical strike, do not, however, suggest disproportionate escalation. Pakistan will also seek to inflict harm by escalating street and ‘indigenous’ terrorist violence in Kashmir – though it may find some reluctance among its allies and affiliates to go along with its plans now.
For all the satisfaction the surgical strikes have rightly given Indians – frustrated by long decades of Pakistan-backed terrorism and the Indian state’s paralysis in response – it is best treated as no more than an incident; an important, incident, no doubt, but nonetheless transient in its impact unless it is integrated into a coherent and sustained strategy, pursued with unflagging attention certainly over the coming years, and possibly decade and more.
A polity obsessed with electoral cycles will find it difficult to sustain both will and attention for long, and there would likely be intervening changes of government as well. Worse, Pakistan has a long experience as a ‘minimal satisfier’; indeed, despite the fatalities it has inflicted in Afghanistan, despite unambiguous condemnation by a string of American and Nato military commanders of its support to terrorism in that theatre, and despite Pakistan’s visible footprint in an overwhelming proportion of terrorist attacks across the world, Islamabad continues to receive billions of dollars in US and Western aid even today (though this gravy train looks like it is slowing down drastically). Pakistan’s capacity for deceit and manipulation has been extraordinary, and it will quickly be turned to India if any sustained regime of discriminatory sanctions or sustained non-military penalties is imposed.
Indeed, this process already appears to have commenced just a day after the surgical strike. After his crass and offensive speech at the UN General Assembly, Nawaz Sharif has already shifted gear and, virtually lifting the language of Narendra Modi’s Kozhikode speech, declared that he sought peace in the region “to make economic progress and to battle poverty and unemployment.”
As time passes and the sting of the surgical strike diminishes, Pakistan will try to mollify India by talking about partnerships to fight poverty and backwardness; but terrorism will persist, calibrated to suitable levels given changes in the domestic, regional and global situation. It would be utter folly on New Delhi’s part if it is seduced by this deception as long as any trace of the terrorist infrastructure remains on Pakistani soil. Pakistan will not yield its only instrument of leverage in the region and in the world unless unbearable costs are imposed, or a sheer lack of capacity is inflicted through processes of gradual attrition, in what is clearly conceptualised, planned and implemented as a strategy of protracted war.
(The author is the executive director of Institute for Conflict Management & South Asia Terrorism Portal.)