The latest terrorist outrage in Kashmir, claimed by Pakistan based terrorist group Jaish-e –Mohammed has left the Indian subcontinent teetering on the brink of another crisis.
40 Indian CRPF police officers were killed by a vehicle borne IED (VBIED) - a sharp escalation. The political circumstances of this latest attack however indicates a high likelihood that PM Narendra Modi will strike at Pakistan militarily.
Can he contain the inevitable escalation that this will entail? On that question hinges the future of his premiership, the stability of the subcontinent and the economic well-being of the world at large. It is probable that Modi will not strike back using his powerful military yet. He will explore diplomatic-legal options first, including a downgrade of diplomatic relations and further stressing Pakistan’s water supply by beginning a pull-out from the controversial Indus Water Treaty. Some of these potential punitive countermeasures have been put in place already at the time of writing, with Pakistan’s Most Favoured Nation status for bilateral trade withdrawn earlier this morning.
There are solid reasons for India not to strike back- immediately- with military force. Politically and for deterrence purposes the prime imperative is that any military strike, whether using airpower or ground troops need to be successful. This is significantly less likely if the target in question is ready and anticipating a strike. Not acting in haste is the best thing that the Indian government could do at this moment in time. Establishing a firm basis for effective action in logistics, concentrating military firepower and above all achieving the element of surprise are maxims that will dictate the timing and nature of the Indian response. One notable thing however is that a military response to the latest atrocity by Pakistan is no longer seen as unviable, which is a testament to Modi’s effort to reequip and modernise India’s military. From stand-off air and missile strikes to deep artillery barrages to surgical incursions by Special Forces, there is a plethora of options now available to Indian military planners unlike a decade ago.
A number of salient political points stand out about this latest terror incident. The terrorist group, Pakistan based Jaish-e-Mohammed targeted Indian police officers. This appears to reflect a new pattern of attacking police or military in the hope of avoiding large scale global disgust and condemnation. If that is the case, it is not effective as every major power barring China has condemned the attack. India has substantial diplomatic headwind behind it now. The timing of the attack is also striking. With barely three months to go until the Indian General Election PM Modi has no choice but to order a robust response, including a military strike. This has both downsides and potential rewards for him. He cannot afford a full scale war right now and faces some constraints but on the other hand a successful limited strike, potentially including air power would likely be a major election winner for him. The latest polls show the BJP led alliance just short of a majority. It could be a big boost for Narendra Modi if and when he acts.
Geopolitically this incident has a lot to do with China. Beijing has long been shielding the head of the JeM, Masood Azhar from censure at the UN Security Council, ostensibly based on a lack of consensus against him. The real reason may be to continue to have an armed terrorist group that China can continue to pressure India’s fast growing economy with. It is now likely that Beijing will have an increasingly assertive India to contend with in Tibet, Xinjiang and East Asia overall.
That may be the biggest strategic and geopolitical impact of this latest terrorist atrocity, so close to India’s General Elections.