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15 January 2013,

India-Pakistan: A tactical response

Pakistan's barbaric act of beheading an Indian soldier cannot be dealt in the same coin by a civilized country. A tactical, passive-aggressive response along a new front is the need of the hour.

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India so far has shown remarkable restraint in the face of Pakistani provocation – the deaths of two Indian soldiers and the gruesome beheading of one might have drawn a much sharper response from many others. But the Indian army chief has come out saying that the ceasefire along the Line of Control is still valid, and that the recent violations are “localized”.

Beneath the restraint, however, there are clear indications that Indians – and especially the armed forces – are seething with anger at the inhuman violence shown by the Pakistani troops. Air Force Chief N.A.K. Browne voiced this frustration when he talked of looking at “some other options for compliance” if such incidents continued. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh echoed this sentiment when he said that after this barbaric act, it cannot be “business as usual” with Pakistan. India has also put on hold the new visa-on-arrival regime for senior Pakistani citizens at the Wagah-Attari border.

Tensions are being ratcheted up even as violence in Kashmir has been ebbing, creating a more conducive atmosphere for the bilateral peace process to go ahead. In 2012, only 72 militants were killed, compared to 100 in 2011 and 232 in 2010. The security forces suffered only 15 casualties in 2012, compared to 33 and 69 in the earlier two years respectively. Since the violent protests of 2010, the Kashmir valley has settled down into a phase of productive calm, with increased tourism specially helping the economy to prosper.

But while these are positive indicators for the people of both countries who want peace, they are completely against the interests of those in Pakistan who need to keep the Kashmir fire burning for their own interests. Lashkar-e Taiba founder Hafiz Sayeed was first off the block saying the situation could turn into a war. Militant groups which perform as extensions of the Pakistan army, giving them deniability for incursions, have more than a passing interest in ensuring that the 2003 ceasefire breaks down.

For the Indian government, it is Catch-22. On the one hand, television hawks and the political opposition have been giving wild calls for revenge; yet India has more to lose if the ceasefire is breached. At official talks Pakistan suggests putting the past behind, whilst resorting to medieval violence.

What India needs is a passive-aggressive response that signals its anger without endangering the ceasefire. This is not easy. Tactically, the army must do it by aggression on a new front, rather than escalating the same front where the earlier attack took place. The choice of that new front and the level of the response is what military tacticians must decide. There is unanimity amongst military sources that a response is required for Pakistan to understand the levels of outrage in India – and India’s elected politicians are likely to acquiesce.

But beyond the immediate tactical response, India needs to consider the ramifications of the imploding internal situation across the border. The Supreme Court has ordered the arrest of the prime minister on corruption charges; sectarian violence in Baluchistan claimed 87 Hazara lives last week; thousands of protestors in Islamabad are demanding the dissolution of parliament and a return to some order.

The Islamabad protests, if they succeed, can only be a precursor to an army takeover – why else suggest dissolving Parliament when elections are around the corner? An overly aggressive response from India will certainly strengthen the non-democratic forces in Pakistan. At the larger, strategic level India must have a clear idea on which kind of dispensation in Pakistan suits its interests. Should India continue to suffer pinpricks in order to strengthen democratic forces, or is it necessary to take a hard-line position at the risk of emboldening the hawks in Rawalpindi? Does it really have much to lose by doing the latter, considering that the army calls the shots when it comes to India-Pakistan relations?

A rudderless Pakistan, with its army bogged down by internal strife, is a weak but unpredictable opponent for India. The Indian response must take into account that the last resort of the Pakistani government looking to divert attention from its internal failings could be an assault on the external enemy.

Sambuddha Mitra Mustafi is a Senior Researcher at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

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