India-Pakistan tensions: reflections of an ignorant interloper


Michael Kugleman

Truth, as the famous saying goes, is the first casualty of war. And yet this hasn’t stopped observers in both India and Pakistan from claiming to know the absolute truth about what happened on the morning of September 29, 2016.
In India, many insist, as the government and military claim, that Indian forces staged a “surgical strike” on terrorist “launch pads” in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, yielding multiple casualties. In Pakistan, many insist, as the government and military claim, that India merely carried out cross-border firing, killing two Pakistani soldiers. If you try to suggest that the truth may just lie somewhere in between these two positions, then you’d better grab a proverbial flak jacket.
This is especially the case if you’re a hapless American analyst. Question the two dominant narratives? Expect to get caught in the crossfire of the jingoist broadsides issued by India’s ‘bhakts’ and Pakistan’s ‘ghairat brigade’. You’ll be pegged as an ignorant interloper, and skewered on social media. At best, you’ll be branded a “biased journalist” (even if you’re not a journalist). At worst, you’ll be called a RAW agent or an ISI stooge, or in the spirit of the equal-opportunity insultry that prevails on social media, you’ll be labelled as both. (Of course, if we really were on the payroll of multiple foreign intelligence agencies, we’d have awarded our enriched selves an early retirement and spent our remaining years lolling about on our yachts. But I digress.)
All this invective and intimidation doesn’t change an immutable fact: the truth has never been more elusive.
India has provided no proof to buttress its claim of a surgical strike. Locals on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control (LoC) quoted in Western media outlets say they were aware of cross-border shelling but nothing else, including no aerial or ground incursions. A UN monitoring team in the area made similar comments. If India wants people to believe it did what it boasts it did, then why not produce the evidence? This all strengthens Pakistan’s contention that there was no surgical strike.
Or does it?
Those LoC locals and the UN monitoring team are not exactly star witnesses. There could have been a strike, and the locals could have been pressured by authorities to say otherwise. Or perhaps there was a strike that they simply didn’t hear or see. Covert operations, after all, aren’t meant to draw attention. As for the UN monitoring team, it simply said no incident was directly observed, a far cry from saying nothing happened. On October 5, an Indian media report cited accounts from eyewitnesses on Pakistan’s side of the LoC who said there had indeed been strikes on militant facilities there.
The safest line of speculation — not to be confused with reasoning — goes like this: something happened that was much less routine than cross-border firing. Let’s face it: routine LoC violations by India are not typically lambasted by Pakistan as “naked aggression” and don’t typically prompt calls to convene a joint session of parliament. At the same time, whatever happened was likely not as spectacular as what some Indian media reports claimed (while citing suspiciously vague “reports”). The idea of India, with its capacity-constrained armed forces, staging a remarkably well-coordinated four-hour mission that takes out several dozen terrorists is a bit fanciful.
But then again, we don’t know. Pakistan could reasonably argue that its far-from-routine rhetorical response was a reaction to India’s far-from-routine and very public and dramatic claim about a cross-border surgical strike, and not to an actual strike. India, meanwhile, could argue that its capacity to carry out cross-border raids — activities it has staged previously — is underestimated.
There’s so much we don’t know. But here’s what we do know: neither side is going to engineer the major policy shifts needed to ease underlying tensions in a meaningful way. New Delhi isn’t about to rein in what Pakistan describes as the “reign of terror” of Indian security forces in Kashmir. Indeed, if Irom Sharmila’s 16-year hunger strike failed to get New Delhi to rethink its infamous Armed Forces Special Forces Act, what will? India appears tone deaf to the grievances of Kashmiris. Meanwhile, Pakistan isn’t about to crack down on the anti-India terror networks and facilities on its soil, much less sever ties with them. In volatile and unpredictable times like these, Pakistan has a compelling incentive to tighten, not loosen, its embrace of these useful non-state actors.
This doesn’t mean war is in the offing, though it does mean formal dialogue is off the table for the foreseeable future. Pakistan wants to talk about Kashmir, and India wants to talk about terror. Each side’s core demand is a no-go area for the other. And at the end of the day, why would New Delhi want to dialogue with a Pakistani interlocutor that’s effectively ceded all India-related policy space to the armed forces?
Pakistan and India are poised to enter a new era of relations as uncertain as it will be volatile. This much is clear, however: the US government increasingly appears to be on India’s side. Here in Washington, this position is palpable in the official White House reactions to and statements about the Uri attack, which express robust support for India’s objective to combat cross-border terror. It’s also palpable in American perceptions about each country. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a critical mass, much less a handful, of members of the policy community here who doubt India’s general version of events from September 29, or who give credence to Pakistan’s denials. Americans are very mistrustful of Pakistan, and especially after the revelation of Osama bin Laden’s presence there. Meanwhile, Americans are not terribly convinced by Pakistan’s contention that India carries out acts of sabotage and terror in Pakistan.
This far-from-neutral US position — so different from the reflexive “the two sides need to resolve their tensions through dialogue” mantra of times past — is easy to figure. It’s a function of an ever-deepening US-India relationship, and of growing US impatience with Pakistan’s refusal to confront terror groups on its soil that target neighbouring countries. As people in Washington like to point out, Americans died as well in the Mumbai terror attack. And much more recently, they’ve died in Afghanistan at the hands of the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network. Contrary to what some in New Delhi may hope, Washington isn’t about to formally designate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terror or outright sever its relations with Islamabad; US interests dictate the need for a workable relationship with Pakistan. The aid and arms will continue to flow, albeit in smaller amounts. The overall cooperation will continue, albeit perhaps in more limited ways. And this is all a good thing.
But at the end of the day, US-India relations are going places, and fast. Expect more defence trade, technology transfers, and intelligence cooperation — all of which can strengthen India’s capacities to target terrorists on Pakistani soil. Washington isn’t about to encourage Indian military operations in Pakistan; with all it’s dealing with around the world, the last thing it wants is a conflict between nuclear rivals. Still, the United States won’t stand in the way of India’s efforts to target terror across the border. The interests of the United States and India are in close alignment when it comes to the matter of terrorism in Pakistan. Ultimately, what we don’t know about surgical strikes, potential Pakistani responses, and other issues being aggressively debated on social media and on those ear-splittingly loud television talk shows may matter less than what we do know: India-Pakistan relations are in for a particularly rocky ride, and Washington’s role in this story is changing in a big way. But then again, why take seriously the views of a biased journalist and double agent?