13 December 2019

What are India's options against Pakistan after Kashmir attack?

KONFRONTASI-With India's general election barely months away, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is under heavy pressure from his supporters to punish Pakistan for a suicide attack on an Indian paramilitary convoy that killed at least 42 soldiers in India-administered Kashmir.

India placed the blame for Thursday's bombing squarely on neighbouring Pakistan, which India accuses of supporting rebels in Kashmir, a charge that Islamabad denies.

A look at some of the retaliatory steps India is likely to consider:

Diplomatic isolation

India's first public reaction to the attack was to withdraw the most-favoured nation (MFN) trade status given to Pakistan and take all possible diplomatic steps "to ensure the complete isolation from international community of Pakistan".

New Delhi insists "incontrovertible evidence is available of [Pakistan] having a direct hand in this gruesome terrorist incident".

The Greater Kashmir newspaper reported that the armed group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), headquartered in Pakistan, claimed responsibility for the attack.

India's foreign ministry on Friday briefed New Delhi-based diplomats from key countries, including China, which has in the past blocked its proposal to list Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar as a "designated terrorist" by the United Nations.

The ministry demanded Pakistan take "immediate and verifiable action against terrorists and terror groups operating from territories under its control to create conducive atmosphere in the region free of terror".

Pakistani Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua rejected allegations about its involvement in the attack, saying on Saturday that it was part of New Delhi's "known rhetoric and tactics" to divert global attention from human rights violations.

Military attacks

After a 2016 attack on an Indian army base that killed 19 soldiers, India's army said it carried out a campaign of "surgical strikes" against fighters across the highly militarised frontier that divides the Kashmir region between India and Pakistan.

Pakistan dismissed reports that India's military had targeted "terrorist launch pads" inside the Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

Islamabad said that two of its soldiers were killed in "unprovoked" firing by India across the border.

Following the latest attack - the worst against Indian government forces in Kashmir's history - Modi warned that those behind it would pay a heavy price and that security forces have been given a free hand to act against violence.

The Times of India newspaper reported on Saturday that the military options - short of two nuclear-armed rivals going to war - could range from "shallow ground-based attacks and occupation of some heights along the Line of Control [ceasefire line] to restricted but precision air strikes against non-state targets in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir".

G Parthasarthy, India's former high commissioner to Pakistan, said a possible military response can't be discussed in public.

"We have said that Pakistan will pay a price," he said. "For obvious reasons, we are not going to spell out how that cost would be imposed."

Paul Staniland, a political science professor and South Asia expert at the University of Chicago, said Pakistan's army is assuming it will be attacked and that Indian forces are preparing for a serious incursion of some sort.

Domestic pressure

Indian analysts say political parties will be watching public reaction closely ahead of India's election. Already, protesters have chanted "attack Pakistan" and fiery debates on television channels demanded retaliation.

"I think the situation is extremely tense," said Amitabh Mattoo, professor of international studies at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University.

"The mood in the country is extremely angry at what has happened. And moreover, there are elections in the offing. No party could afford to neglect public opinion."

Staniland said the stakes are too high for India to do nothing at all.

"Modi is in a tricky position," he said. "Indian forces are quite capable, but it's not obvious what kinds of strikes would accomplish the core goal. Kashmir and Pakistan are among the few foreign policy topics that have real electoral resonance."

The general election is scheduled to be held in less than two months.

US response

The United States singled out Pakistan in a statement condemning the attack and said it had strengthened US resolve to bolster counterterrorism cooperation with India.

To improve India's military capabilities, the US has offered to sell it unarmed Guardian surveillance drones, aircraft carrier technologies and F-18 and F-16 fighter aircraft.

There are sticking points, however, including the purchase by India of Iranian oil and the Russian S-400 ground-to-air missile system, which could trigger US sanctions on India.

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