The government’s announcement that Indian forces conducted surgical strikes against terrorist launch-pads within Pakistan is to be welcomed. Since the terrorist attacks on the army base in Uri on September 18, it has been clear that Islamabad’s unrestrained, unrepentant use of proxies to strike on Indian soil needed a stronger response than the usual expressions of anger. The Modi government wisely avoided the temptation of an immediate punitive counterattack, reckoning that the risk of escalation in hostilities outweighed any visceral satisfaction that instant revenge might bring. Instead, it displayed strategic patience, taking the best part of two weeks to make India’s case in the court of international opinion to isolate Pakistan. It also promised economic measures against Islamabad; these may include stripping Pakistan of its most-favoured nation status, and closing Indian airspace to flights from that country.
But inflicting a diplomatic and economic cost on Islamabad was never going to be enough. The death of 18 Indian soldiers in the Uri attack meant there had to be a cost imposed on the terrorist groups, not only on their patrons. This has now been achieved through the surgical strikes. Given where the launch-pads were located, close to the line of control, it is a safe assumption that the terrorists amassed there were highly trained and motivated, the best of their breed. Taking them out of the equation alters the security calculus, at least until their masters have found adequate replacements.
Islamabad’s response, a blanket denial that the strikes took place, is both predictable and, in the Pakistani context, smart: it allows military and political leaders to make chest-thumping pronouncements without having to take any real military action. The Pakistani leadership is well-versed in this form of kabuki, making theatrical threats that are designed to please a domestic audience, but require no follow-through. We can expect Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his army chief Raheel Sharif to vow dire vengeance. There will also be the usual Pakistani appeals to the international community to intervene, as well as some predictable bromides from world powers about the need for New Delhi and Islamabad to exercise restraint. These can be met with equally formulaic responses from New Delhi.
The real, rather than rhetorical, reprisals will come in a familiar form. The launch-pads will be moved to safer, better protected havens within Pakistan-controlled territory, and will be resupplied with men and material. For a few weeks, perhaps months, Indian security forces will be on high alert; in time, human nature will compel them to lower their guard, making India once again vulnerable to terrorist attacks. How to stop this cycle must now be the question uppermost on the minds of India’s leaders, even as they take satisfaction from the revenge, served cold and in good measure, for Uri.