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India Stops Turning the Other Cheek

NEW DELHI – For two and a half decades, Pakistan has pursued a policy of inflicting on India “death by a thousand cuts” – bleeding the country through repeated terrorist attacks, rather than attempting an open military confrontation which it cannot win against India’s superior conventional forces. The logic is that India’s response to this tactic would always be tempered by its desire not to derail its ambitious economic development plans, as well as the Indian government’s unwillingness to face the risk of a nuclear war.

But this predictable and repetitive pattern of India-Pakistan relations was suddenly disrupted on September 29, when India’s Director-General of Military Operations (DGMO), Lieutenant-General Ranbir Singh, announced that Indian commandos had conducted “surgical strikes” across the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir, the de facto international border between the two countries. The DGMO stated that the strikes, in the early hours of that morning, had destroyed terrorist “launch pads” and eliminated significant numbers of militants poised to cross over for attacks on the Indian side, as well as some who were protecting them (presumably a reference to Pakistani soldiers).

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The Indian public and the country’s notoriously fractious political class reacted with great pride to the news, unanimously hailing the decisive action as long overdue. For the preceding quarter-century, Indians had watched helplessly as their attempts at peace-making with their belligerent, military-dominated neighbor had collapsed repeatedly, thanks to terrorist attacks from Pakistan that the government in Islamabad seemed unable or unwilling to prevent.

The most horrific of these attacks, the assaults on multiple locations in Mumbai, starting on November 26, 2008, killed 166 innocent civilians. But India confined its response to diplomatic action. This exercise of “strategic restraint” in the face of repeated Pakistani assaults – partly in order to avoid provoking a full-fledged war with its nuclear-armed neighbor – had left many Indians seething in impotent fury. It seemed to them that Pakistani terrorists could strike at will in India, with the government’s reluctance to hit back guaranteeing the killers’ impunity.

In January, militants struck across the frontier at the Indian base in Pathankot. As usual, India tempered its response, even inviting Pakistan to join in an official investigation of the attack. The Pakistanis sent over a team of military and intelligence experts, which examined the site of the assaults, went home, and proclaimed it a false-flag operation intended to inculpate an innocent Pakistan.

Indians, sickened by this perfidy, found themselves mourning again in September, when another cross-border assault killed 18 soldiers at an Army base in Uri. Still, there seemed little Indians could do – until the DGMO’s statement announcing a decisive military response.

Pakistani reactions were a curious mixture, ranging from dismissive declarations (backed by orchestrated bus tours of journalists to selected parts of the LoC) that no surgical strikes had even occurred, to angry statements declaring that irresponsible Indian firing across the LoC had killed two Pakistani soldiers. For once, the Pakistani military appeared to have been caught off guard by Indian action.

Indians braced themselves for the international community’s disapproval – the fear of nuclear war between the sub-continental neighbors usually dominates world opinion whenever bilateral tensions flare. But this time, thanks in part to the DGMO’s measured and precise statement and an absence of military triumphalism in India’s official tone (the braggadocio of the ruling party’s publicists came later), the world seemed to consider India’s response justifiable.

Pakistani attempts to seek support against India were widely rebuffed, with Pakistan’s usual supporters, China and the US, mildly calling for both sides to defuse the tensions. In the days following the strikes, fears of further military escalation have subsided.

India also tightened the diplomatic screws on its recalcitrant neighbor, persuading other members of the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) to call off a planned summit in Islamabad as punishment for Pakistan’s bad behavior. India’s government also announced that it was undertaking a review of the Indus Waters Treaty, under which India has conceded to Pakistan, on generous terms, the waters of the Indus River, which originates in India, not even using the share to which it is entitled.

It has since emerged that the operation announced by Singh was not India’s first military strike across the LoC; several had occurred under the previous government as well, in response to military raids on Indian territory. But the strikes were the first to be announced publicly, providing a clear signal of intent and a bold statement that business as usual – Pakistani pinpricks followed by Indian inaction – is no longer to be expected.

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With its calibrated and targeted strikes, India has made clear that inaction is not the only possible response to terrorist provocations. It is a brave and slightly risky strategy, because it obliges India to pursue a similar course of action when the next significant terrorist strike occurs. Still, a country that refuses to suffer repeated body blows earns more respect than one whose restraint can be interpreted as weakness.

If this determination, and Pakistan’s ensuing diplomatic isolation, prompts Pakistani generals to rethink their policy of sponsoring terrorism as an instrument of state policy, peace between the neighbors could once again become a possibility. But, for India, such hopes have been betrayed too often in the recent past for it to continue to turn the other cheek.