Photographer: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

With 18 Soldiers Dead, Modi Faces Pressure to Strike Pakistan

  • After Kashmir attack, analysts say Modi’s credibility at risk
  • Escalation possible with artillery attacks, covert operations

Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces pressure to launch a military response against suspected terrorist training camps inside Pakistan, after militants killed 18 Indian soldiers in disputed Kashmir.

Sunday’s predawn raid on an army camp in the Kashmiri town of Uri was the worst attack against the Indian army in the restive region in years, prompting Home Minister Rajnath Singh to label Pakistan a terrorist state.

After a more measured response of late to Pakistan provocations, analysts said Modi must retaliate in order to avoid a domestic backlash. "He will respond militarily," said Deepak Sinha, a retired 30-year veteran of the army who helped train India’s special forces. “There is no other option.”

Modi held a meeting on Monday with top ministerial colleagues and the army chief, after tweeting on Sunday "those behind this despicable attack will not go unpunished." Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar and army chief Dalbir Singh on Sunday visited the site of terror attacks in Jammu and Kashmir.

A military response from India toward Pakistan, which has denied any involvement, raises the specter of escalating tensions between the nuclear-armed rivals, who have fought three conflicts since the partition of British India in 1947. A flaring of their rivalry could dent investor sentiment and further set back faltering efforts to bolster South Asia’s economic integration.

Credibility Risk

Pakistan has said it "categorically rejects" any involvement in the raid, calling Indian statements of its complicity "vitriolic and unsubstantiated." On Monday, Pakistan’s army chief said the armed forces were closely watching the region and were prepared to respond to any threats from India.

Modi has criticized the last Congress government for being weak on Pakistan. Noting Modi’s rhetoric on Pakistan, Sinha said: "He has to respond. If he doesn’t, he is completely discredited."

One immediate option before India is launching artillery attacks and covert raids across the so-called Line of Control, the defacto border separating Indian- and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir -- a Himalayan region claimed by both countries in full. Likely targets would be camps that Indian observers suggest are used to train and stage militants before they launch attacks in Indian-controlled Kashmir, Sinha said.

"We are coming to a point where India will have no choice but to inflict some punishment on Pakistan,” said Lalit Mansingh, India’s former foreign secretary.

Earlier Attack

Harsh Pant, a professor of international relations at King’s College London, said given the high casualty count, India is likely to retaliate across the Line of Control via covert maneuvers. “There will be voices within the government that will be advocating that.”

The attack in Uri follows an assault in January against India’s Pathankot air base, which was also blamed on cross-border militants from Pakistan.

"After the previous attack in Pathankot, the Indian government’s response was measured and reasonable,” said Ashok Malik, a fellow with the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. The room for a measured and reasonable response this time “is that much smaller.”

Pant said Pakistan was continuing efforts to internationalize the Kashmir issue to gain attention ahead of the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week, at which Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is expected to speak.

‘Zero Sum’

India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj is also likely to raise the Kashmir attack at the UN meeting, Junior Defence Minister Subhash Bhamre said on Monday in New Delhi.

"As in the past, Pakistan will deny any involvement with the Uri attack, say that if India resolved the Kashmir issue there would be no terrorism and seek the attention of the major powers for its stance," said Husain Haqqani, who was Pakistan’s envoy to the U.S. from 2008 to 2011. 

"From the Pakistani establishment’s perspective, India-Pakistan relations are a zero sum game. Every proxy attack in India without retaliation is a win in that strategy. It draws attention to the virtually forgotten Kashmir dispute."

India’s director general of military operations, Lieutenant General Ranbir Singh, said in a statement on Sunday initial reports suggested the four militants killed in the raid were members of Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Pakistan-based terrorist group.

India’s options are limited, though. Airstrikes on Jaish-e-Mohammed camps, for example, are likely unfeasible given Pakistan’s air defenses and the possibility they might prompt further escalation, according to Ramani Hariharan, a former Indian army intelligence officer. 

There is also the risk Beijing -- which is pursuing a $45-billion strategic project called the China Pakistan Economic Corridor that traverses Pakistan-controlled Kashmir -- might get involved, Sinha said. China might begin agitating on its own contested border with India in the Himalayas near Ladakh, he added. China and India fought a border war in 1962.

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