Ten days after an attack on an Indian Army base in Kashmir, New Delhi launched surgical strikes across the Line of Control (LoC) that divides Indian and Pakistani Kashmir to neutralize terrorist bases and prevent future attacks against India. The Indian strikes represent the first time India has crossed the LoC to conduct attacks inside Pakistani territory since at least 1999, when the two sides fought a limited border war.
Pakistani Army officials denied that India had conducted cross-border strikes, saying, “The notion of surgical strikes linked to alleged terrorist bases is an illusion being deliberately generated by India to create false effects.” Likewise, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry issued a statement charging that “such falsified, concocted, and irresponsible statements can only escalate the fragile security situation in the region.” Instead, Pakistani officials claim Indian soldiers fired on Pakistani positions from their side of the LoC, something that occurs on a fairly regular basis.
Indian Director General of Military Operations, Lt. General Ranbir Singh, on the other hand, said Indian surgical strikes had hit seven terror “launch pads” two to three kilometers inside Pakistani territory, causing “significant casualties.” Indian media reports said the operation combined heliborne and ground forces and that Indian Special Forces had been para-dropped for the operation.
U.S. reaction to the news of the Indian strikes has been measured. White House Spokesperson Josh Earnest said on Thursday that India and Pakistan should avoid escalation and continue discussions aimed at defusing tensions. Before news of the strikes, U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice on Wednesday had made a pointed statement in support of India, which called on Pakistan “to take effective action to combat and delegitimize United Nations-designated terrorist individuals and entities, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad, and their affiliates.”
The Indian strikes demonstrate the Modi government’s unwillingness to merely absorb Pakistani provocations. The attack in Uri on September 18 was the second major Pakistani provocation in the space of nine months. In early January, a Pakistan-based terrorist group, the Jaish-e-Mohammad, attacked the Indian air base at Pathankot, just days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi reached out to Pakistan by paying a goodwill visit to Lahore. The Uri attack appeared to show Pakistani willingness to up the ante in order to draw international attention to Kashmir at a time when civil protests had been wracking the region.
While the U.S. is concerned about military escalation between the nuclear-armed rivals, U.S. officials may be loath to criticize India for operations aimed at preventing future attacks on its territory. Washington’s own frustration with Islamabad’s failure to crack down on terrorist groups, like the Haqqani network that operates in Afghanistan, has piqued in the last six months. For the first time, in June of this year, the U.S. Department of Defense decided to block military funding in the amount $300 million for Pakistan due to its failure to crack down on Haqqani sanctuaries.
China’s reaction following the Indian strikes has also been muted. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang said Beijing was communicating with both countries and hoped they would deal with their differences in a way that maintains peace and security.
Pakistani officials could be overestimating the level of support they will receive from China in times of high tension on the Subcontinent. For instance, on September 19, a prominent Chinese academic with close ties to the government strongly condemned the Uri attack and said that escalating India-Pakistan tensions would endanger plans for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
The issue of China and its role in the Indo-Pakistani dispute was raised in a panel discussion on Wednesday at The Heritage Foundation. In that discussion, I mentioned India’s concern that China’s promised $46 billion investment toward CPEC projects in Pakistan has boosted Islamabad’s confidence in its regional position and discouraged it from engaging in dialogue with New Delhi. I further noted that Washington must convince Beijing that if it wants to see the Islamist extremist threat diminished in South Asia, it must convince Islamabad to crack down on terrorist proxies that attack India.
U.S. officials almost certainly are working assiduously behind the scenes to calm tensions between the nuclear-armed rivals. NSA Rice’s hardline statement against Pakistani support for terrorism on Wednesday may have been aimed at deterring Indian military retaliation for Uri. Today, however, we are in a different ballgame and the U.S. must call for restraint from all sides.