India is crowing after launching airstrikes into neighboring Pakistan for the first time outside of war, in retaliation for a Feb. 14 suicide bombing that claimed the lives of 40 members of the Indian security forces in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Indian officials say the predawn strikes killed more than 300 militants and destroyed the “biggest training camp” run by Jaish-e-Mohammed, the terrorist group that has claimed responsibility for the Kashmir attack.
Ruling party officials are boasting of the “decisive” action taken by a “New India.” Newspapers and TV networks are blaring giddily patriotic headlines and suggesting Pakistan has been taught a lesson it won’t forget. A burger chain is offering 20 percent discounts in celebration, under the hashtag “#SorryNotSorry.”
Pakistan has denied that Indian bombs hit anything but a deserted hilltop and vowed to bring journalists to the site to prove it. Even if there’s some truth to India’s claims, though, and even if the two sides somehow prevent hostilities from escalating further, it’s hard to see the airstrikes as anything but a temporary victory. They’re unlikely to prevent future attacks in Kashmir, nor the ensuing need for even more spectacular retaliation, nor the risk of provoking a conflagration between two nuclear powers.
This isn’t a new conundrum. India and Pakistan fought their first war over the disputed region of Kashmir, a majority-Muslim kingdom whose Hindu ruler opted to join India at independence in 1947 only to see Pakistan-sponsored tribal fighters seize control of the western third of his state. At the end of that year, a frustrated Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru threatened to send Indian forces across the border to destroy the “bases and nerve centers” where the militants allegedly trained and resupplied.
The fantasy of a clean, quick military solution to the dispute has only grown more appealing over the past seven decades. Now as then, however, no such solution exists. Punitive strikes or covert action might be able to achieve tactical victories. But, the Pakistan Army has defined the “liberation” of Kashmir as one of the nation’s central goals; it’s not going to stop sponsoring groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba from fear of Indian retaliation, especially if it falls short of outright war.
Successful strikes also demand better intelligence than India has had historically, as well as actionable targets. The militants aren’t thought to possess extensive infrastructure; the Indian claim that hundreds of fighters had collected at a “five-star” terrorist camp (with a swimming pool!) near the town of Balakot warrants some skepticism.
Targeting the leaders of terrorist groups would require strikes deep into Pakistan, where they roam freely. And, even if that were logistically possible and not intolerably destabilizing, assassinating terrorist leaders hardly guarantees an end to attacks, as both Israel and the U.S. can ruefully attest.
Even a successful strike presents India with another dilemma. The natural urge is to gloat—and it’s reinforced by a frenzied, nationalist media that any Indian politician would be hard-pressed not to appease. The bigger the boasts, the less room for Pakistan to craft a face-saving denial that would allow the two rivals to de-escalate.
They may thread the needle this time. India has leaked its most graphic claims anonymously and on background rather than officially, while Pakistan says it chased off the Indian planes before they could do any real damage. Perhaps, as after the “surgical strikes” India launched into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir after a previous terror attack in 2016, they’ll ultimately be able to agree to disagree. That’s a risky bet, though, especially with India about to head into a fiercely contested election.
Even if cooler heads ultimately prevail, India shouldn’t want to find itself in this dangerous bind again. That means doing more during periods of peace to prevent and harden itself against the future attacks that are almost certain to come.
India hasn’t done nearly enough since the 2016 strikes to secure the de facto border in Kashmir, for instance, nor to protect its troops and paramilitary forces there. The bus attacked earlier this month was an unconscionably soft target. As the Carnegie Endowment’s Ashley Tellis has noted, “Indian defense forces, including the army units manning the Line of Control and those internal security components deployed in Jammu and Kashmir, are woefully underequipped and often lack even the most rudimentary technologies now available to combat terrorism.”
At the same time, the Indian government’s heavy-handed response to growing radicalism in Kashmir has indisputably made the situation there worse. The suicide bomber was a local Kashmiri youth, not a Pakistani recruit. An influx of troops and police into the state, and the brutal crowd-control measures they’ve adopted, have alienated many young Muslim men just like him. Treating those Indian citizens—and anyone who speaks up for them—as national-security threats only increases the scope for Pakistan-based militants to meddle in the state.
None of this is to shift the focus from Pakistan and its unconscionable support for terrorist groups. But, given geopolitical realities, India needs to adopt a more sustained and sophisticated approach to bring pressure to bear on Islamabad.
Adopting a gentler approach toward Kashmir and Kashmiris would help blunt Pakistani propaganda and aid that effort. The current U.S. administration is sympathetic to Indian frustrations but has less sway over Pakistan than its predecessors. Rather than relying on Washington, Indian officials should be trying to leverage U.S. support in international organizations: at the United Nations, through the International Monetary Fund and, importantly, through the Financial Action Task Force, which is threatening to blacklist Pakistan for not cracking down on terrorist financing.
While China presents a diplomatic obstacle, it’s not immovable. Beijing has proven helpful at the FATF, and its investments in Pakistan wouldn’t benefit from continued instability in South Asia. Continuing to shield terrorists such as Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Masood Azhar could eventually become more trouble than it’s worth.
This is slow, unglamorous work — and hardly as satisfying as touting target maps and strike packages. The alternative is to suffer more attacks and hope that any retaliation doesn’t provoke a full-scale war. That’s not a choice India should want to face again.
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