India strikes terror camps in Pakistan alongside non-military offensive

India has launched moves against Pakistan in the past few days that have culminated in an announcement that the Indian army conducted “surgical strikes” last night against alleged terrorist camps across the disputed Line of Control (LoC) border in Kashmir.

This is the first time that India has declared such military action inside Pakistan for many years. Previous governments have rejected such a move in response to terror attacks because of the risks of escalating military retaliation between the two nuclear-armed neighbors.

The attacks were based on “very specific and credible information” that “some terrorist teams” had positioned themselves for attack, the director general of military operations, Lt. Gen Ranbir Singh (below) said today. “Significant casualties have been caused to the terrorists and those who were trying to support them”. Media reports suggested that the attacks had involved helicopters and ground troops operating one to three kilometers inside Pakistan territory in seven locations.

Pakistan has however played down the significance and denied heavy casualties, apparently to avoid the need for immediate escalation. Its army denied that there had been “surgical strikes”, and said there had only been heavy Indian firing.

A stronger line was taken yesterday by Pakistan’s defense minister, Khawaja Muhammad. He accused India of organizing the Uri attack for internal reasons and warned that, if attacked, Pakistan would respond with nuclear weapons “to annihilate India”. That was interpreted in India not so much as a real threat, but as an attempt to ratchet up international concerns about a nuclear war so that the US and other countries to increased pressure on Modi not to escalate anti-Pakistan initiatives.

India’s action was a direct response to an attack on an army base at Uri in Kashmir on September 18 that killed 18 Indian soldiers and led to intense media and public pressure for retaliation. This afternoon, the government has briefed opposition politicians and international diplomats about the situation, including an escalation of tension on the border where villagers have been evacuated. Its line is that it is attacking terrorist camps, not the country of Pakistan.

Isolating Pakistan

Narendra Modi, the prime minister, has also taken other initiatives in the past few days that over-turn decades of India’s regional diplomatic policy, and could change the alignment of countries in South Asia. “We will leave no stone unturned to isolate Pakistan in the world,” he said last weekend.

His mostly co-operative approach to Pakistan since he was elected in April 2014, and especially personal approaches to the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, have failed to stop the terrorist attacks. He has been widely criticized for lacking focus and consistency. The aim now, which fits with his hard-line image, is to weaken Pakistan to such an extent that it stops the militancy, say well-informed diplomatic observers.

Declaring that “blood and water cannot flow together,” the prime minister held a meeting on September 26 with senior officials of the water resources and external affairs ministries to discuss limiting the flow of rivers from India under a 1960 India-Pakistan Indus Waters Treaty. It was decided at this stage only to increase India’s take-off from rivers flowing through Jammu & Kashmir to the maximum allowed under the World Bank-brokered agreement. That would reduce what is available to Pakistan without breaching the treaty.

India has also pulled out of a big South Asia co-operation (SAARC) summit due to be held in the Pakistan capital of Islamabad in November. Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Bhutan have also withdrawn, citing terrorist activity, which is significant because it shows an unusual alliance with India over Pakistan. Next week these and other countries belonging to a regional grouping called BIMSTEC, which excludes Pakistan, will be meeting in India to push trade and other ties that have been largely stymied by Pakistan since SAARC was set up in the mid-1980s.

Today Modi was to have considered taking action over Most Favored Nation (MFN) trading status that India gave to Pakistan in 1996. India could possibly cancel the status on the grounds that it has not been matched by Pakistan, but this would only have a limited effect because indirect informal trade via countries such as the UAE far exceed some $2.6bn annual formal trade. Discussion on this was deferred, maybe to next week, because of Modi’s preoccupation with the army strikes.

Balochistan stir

India has also opened up a new pressure point with Pakistan over the country’s south-western province of Balochistan, which borders Afghanistan, Iran and the Arabian Sea. In response to Pakistan alleging Indian army human rights violations in Kashmir, Modi has publicly lined up with Balochistan separatists to accuse Islamabad of atrocities in the impoverished province that has been crippled by tribal wars as well as an independence movement for decades. Sushma Swaraj, India’s foreign minister, told the UN General Assembly on September 26 that Pakistan’s action in Balochistan was the “worst, form of state oppression”.

India has for many years been accused by Pakistan of fomenting trouble in the province, and it is widely believed that its RAW secret service is active there. Now the area is especially sensitive because of disruption to China’s planned Pakistan economic corridor (CPEC), which runs from the two countries border at the northern end of the Karakoram Highway in the Himalayas down through Balochistan to the port of Gwadar that it is building.

China’s reaction to last night’s attack will be significant. While it backs Pakistan causing disruption on the LoC, it has never wanted that to escalate into a border war. There were reports today that it is appealing to both countries to tone down the confrontation. Last week officials said it was concerned about the risks of an economic spin-off from the Uri attack. It has its own separate differences with India over their Himalayan border and also over other issues including the South China Sea.

Modi’s new aggressive stance ends the pattern under previous governments where a terrorist attack would lead to a heightening of border tension and empty Indian threats against Pakistan that would be replaced with US-encouraged bids for fresh co-operation after a few months or a year or so. Modi criticized such an approach before he became prime minister and has now taken the tough military line he promised. Internationally there will be critics of such a line but domestically Modi will have widespread support. How Pakistan responds remains to be seen.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent