Washington should welcome New Delhi’s military strikes on terrorists in Kashmir.
By Sadanand Dhume
India last week turned nearly two decades of Pakistan policy on its head. By announcing attacks on terrorist “launch pads”—final staging posts for militants before they cross over from the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir to the Indian side—New Delhi signaled a new pugnaciousness in response to terrorism from across the border, such as the Sept. 18 attack that killed 19 Indian soldiers at a Kashmir border camp.
In another departure from the past, the U.S. appeared to back India rather than reflexively call for restraint on both sides. A White House statement following a phone conversation between National Security Adviser Susan Rice and her Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval, “strongly condemned the Sept. 18 cross-border attack” and urged Pakistan to “take effective action” against terrorist groups, including Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba.
The Obama administration is right to welcome—or at least accept—India’s new toughness. In the short run, an India that no longer turns the other cheek to violence by Pakistan-based terrorist groups may worry those who fear instability in the subcontinent. Over time, however, an India that stands up to terrorism is more likely to anchor South Asian stability than one that ducks the problem. It will also make a more reliable partner against both radical Islam and Chinese hegemony in Asia.
The Indian army says it conducted “surgical strikes” against terrorists at “launch pads along the line of control,” the de facto border between the Indian and Pakistani parts of Kashmir. The senior military official who briefed reporters added that the strikes had caused “significant casualties” to “the terrorists and those who are trying to support them,” an allusion to the Pakistani army.
Precise details of the operation remain a mystery. The government has already quashed an overzealous media’s more lurid speculation, including claims of a helicopter-borne raid modeled on the 2011 U.S. killing of Osama bin Laden. Some anonymous sources paint a more plausible picture: small teams of Indian special forces crossed on foot up to 3 kilometers inside Pakistan-controlled territory in several places, and killed an unspecified number of likely terrorists.
For its part, Pakistan says India killed two of its soldiers, but Islamabad emphatically denies any raid on territory it controls. On Saturday the Pakistani military took reporters to the line of control to speak with villagers who denied seeing any Indian soldiers cross over.
No matter which side you believe—and few serious analysts doubt the broad contours of India’s official claim—the Modi government’s decision to go public is significant. Instead of treating the line of control as a de facto border, as it has for decades, India is showing a willingness to openly breach it for counterterrorism operations. It correctly reckons that, unlike in the past, international pressure to prevent escalation between the nuclear-armed neighbors will fall primarily on Pakistan.
In terms of messaging, the strikes appeared designed to fulfill somewhat contradictory purposes. For a domestic audience they suggest boldness and embellish Mr. Modi’s muscular image. (The Indian media’s penchant for chest-thumping exaggeration didn’t hurt.)
For the international community, India underscores a sense of responsibility and continued restraint. New Delhi has framed its attack as a limited, pre-emptive strike against terrorists. By confining its actions to the disputed territory of Kashmir, not targeting regular Pakistani troops and not using air power, India arguably bent over backward to ensure that it delivered its message while minimizing the risk of escalation.
Indeed, though the cross-border strikes predictably garnered most of the headlines, Mr. Modi has placed diplomacy at the heart of his response to the Sept. 18 attack. Next month’s scheduled South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation meeting in Islamabad collapsed when Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Bhutan joined India in pulling out. Bangladesh and Afghanistan, in particular, share India’s displeasure with Pakistan’s role in fomenting Islamist radicalism in their countries.
India also said it would move to use its share of rivers from a 56-year- old water treaty with Pakistan more effectively, a veiled threat, albeit one with few immediate consequences. Meanwhile New Delhi is considering rescinding the “most favored nation” trade status it granted Pakistan 20 years ago, on the grounds that Islamabad is yet to reciprocate the gesture.
Pakistan won’t abandon its support for jihadist groups overnight, but at least India has begun to raise the costs of that support. Over time, this may force the Pakistani army to reconsider its policies. And if Washington wants New Delhi to play a more active role in East Asia, it can hardly expect elected Indian governments to ignore their most pressing security concerns at home.
Mr. Modi has rejigged the old calculus that made stability in South Asia largely India’s responsibility. If the gamble pays off by eroding Pakistani support for jihadists, it will make South Asia a safer region and India a more valuable partner for the West.
Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com.
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