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Some brief thoughts on the Uri attack

A couple of months ago, I was in Karachi discussing with a friend the recent troubles in Kashmir. Some strategic genius in GHQ, I postulated, was assuredly rubbing their hands, ready to party like it was 1991 again. “This is it!” I imagined some nameless dude with a mustache saying behind a desk. “This is what we’ve been waiting for!” Kashmiris’ mobilization in the aftermath of Burhan Wani’s death, and the Indian state’s overwrought and pellet-gun-heavy reaction, was the equivalent of setting a needle and dope in front of a junkie. It would be too tempting for an organization for whom “indirect” intervention in Kashmir is deeply ingrained both as institutional memory and operational behavior to consider staying out.

It is of course much too early to speculate where exactly on the security establishment-jihadi attacks-collusion-o-meter Uri lies. Is it closer to the “not directly behind it but not sorry about it” end of the spectrum (e.g. Pathankot)? Or closer to the “in the room when orders were being sent over satellite phone” end of the spectrum (e.g. Mumbai)? We just don’t know right now.

But in many ways, the precise level of involvement of the Pakistani security establishment does not matter. These are predictably nonsensical reactions from the likes of Zaid Hamid and Ahmed Qureshi, wait, woah, didn’t see you there, NFP.

RIP, “liberal” journalists in Pakistan. I’m old enough to remember when NFP’s stuff was all about either leftist student politics in the 1980s or made-up conversations with fake passengers on fictional PIA flights that were meant to make mullahs look stupid (both journalistic pursuits which I could eagerly get behind). I’m afraid, however, that “We had nothing to do with it, how dare you accuse us” is a statement lacking in credibility, and anyone making it looks silly. It lacks credibility because of (a) history, whereby Pakistan has supported violent insurgency in Kashmir for over two decades and tried plenty of times before that, (b) there being little evidence of changes in history’s trajectory, notwithstanding NAP/Zarb-e-Azb/#thankyouRaheelShareef hashtags. Exhibit A:

“Bharat ka aik ailaaj, al-jihad” (“The cure to India is nothing but jihad”), the crowd chanted at the start of Jamaat-e-Islami’s anti-India rally near Nasir Bagh, Lahore. The rally, which was destined for Wahga, on Pakistan’s side of the India-Pakistan border, was filled with a mix of emotions – anger, frustration, and hatred. It was attended by Jamaat-e-Islami’s top leadership, including its chief, Siraj-ul-Haq. Accompanying him was Hizbul Mujahideen’s chief, Syed Salahuddin.

Earlier in the day, vehicles full of Jamaat-e-Islami and Hizbul Mujahideen volunteers, announcing the rally and singing jihadi tarana, roamed freely around Lahore. Even before the rally, which was scheduled for July 31, camps set up by Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Hizbul Mujahideen could be seen outside the Punjab Assembly building on the Mall Road in Lahore. With full Islamic zeal and zest, the people at these camps chanted pro-Kashmir slogans, encouraging the common citizens to take arms against India.

This was only one of the many rallies and processions organized by Islamist groups in the past few weeks.


As the renewed protests in Kashmir erupted, it appeared to be a rebirth of jihadi organizations’ activities in Pakistan as well.

Jamaat-ud-Dawa was the first one to take the lead with its “Azadi Caravan.” Setting out from from Lahore on July 19, the caravan was destined to arrive in Islamabad on July 20. Stretching for several kilometers, the caravan consisted of buses, trucks, and cars. As the caravan traveled on the Grand Trunk road, it was received warmly in cities on the way, as participants kept joining the ranks. Buzzing with slogans like “Bharat ki barbadi tak, jang jaari rahay gi” (“The war will continue until India is destroyed”), the rally was led by Hafiz Saeed – a founder of  Lashkar-e-Taiba and an internationally declared terrorist.

This rally was the first of the three stages of the movement, which Saeed described at its start in Lahore. The stated purpose was to “wake up the parliamentarians” in Islamabad. The second stage, Saeed announced, would be to march to Chakothi, a small border town on Pakistan’s side of the Line of Control (LOC). “And in the third phase, we will march into occupied Kashmir (Jammu and Kashmir) and we will continue marching till Kashmiris get freedom,” he declared.

During his speech in Islamabad, Saeed announced that the people of Pakistan were at Kashmiris’ side. “Where your blood is spilled, ours will also flow with you,” he said. In his 20-minute speech, Saeed targeted the Nawaz Sharif-led civilian government several times, while not bringing up the military leadership even once.

I know this is really hard for talk show hosts and “strategic thinker” generals and bullshit artists in op-ed pages, but “blame Pakistan” is not some PR game. It is a natural implication of Pakistan’s behavior in international politics (then again, in a country where Malala getting shot in the face and head was apparently a PR ruse too, this should not be surprising).

Anyway, I have some other unrelated, unorganized thoughts.

Whither “Cold Start”?

The whole point about the “Cold Start” doctrine or to use the more anodyne, bureaucratic moniker, “Proactive Strategy Options,” was to give the Indian political decision-makers military flexibility when reacting to Pakistan-sponsored/origin terrorism.

Where are we on that? Not very far, evidently. H.S. Panag wrote last month that “A prerequisite for such an action is overwhelming technological military edge that prevents quid pro quo or makes a response prohibitive in cost. USA has this edge and has effectively used this option in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. India does not have such an edge and Pakistan is capable of and will respond in a quid pro quo manner for which we have to be prepared.” This morning (eastern time) on NDTV, Ajai Shukla flat out said that India does not have the capabilities for any serious military option.

The episode which Cold Start was a response to took place in the winter of 2001-02, which is fifteen years ago. Since then, it is not clear whether India’s central strategic conundrum — that any action sufficiently punitive to yield concessions will also be sufficiently provocative to cross Pakistan’s nuclear red lines — is any closer to being solved. For instance, the idea that India can salami slice 30-50km into Pakistani territory and not seriously risk nuclear use is fanciful. More clear is that India’s doctrinal adjustments, at least a decade into their ostensible imposition, have been watered down in parts and walked back entirely in others. Vipin Narang writes that Cold Start is now not about any doctrinal changes per se, just reducing mobilization times from 21 days to 5-6, a far cry from what it was meant to achieve.

The point is there are no good options for India that at once (1) militarily hurt the Pakistani state and (2) satisfy the Bakhts on Twitter/Arnabs on TV and (3) don’t risk nuclear war. Cold Start type stuff does (1) and (2) but not (3). Calling back ambassadors and saying mean things at the UN Assembly may do (3) and possibly even (2) but certainly not (1). Future covert action in Balochistan, or in support of Taliban types, may do (1) and (3) but not (2) (and does India really want risk a Pakistan further beholden to Islamist violence?) The only thing I can think of is targeted assassinations by covert assets (e.g. Hafiz Saeed magically ending up with a bullet in his head from a dude on a motorbike) but does India have the capabilities for this type of thing?

War may not be “likely” but times are dangerous

The above thoughts lead me to conclude that we are unlikely to see a shooting war between India and Pakistan (for now). However, it is getting very hard to be complacent about such a prospect. At the very least we are about to gauge the relative weight of audience-cost-type dynamics vs. deterrence-and-logistics-type dynamics. The idea of audience costs, or being held to the terms of your previous rhetoric by an attentive domestic population, is really important to a certain corner of the IR world (for example). The implication in the Indian case would be that because Modi and the BJP made such a hue and cry about responding aggressively to Pakistani provocation during the UPA government, it would be forced to “do something,” despite the lack of good options discussed above.

Another way of thinking about this is that there are a lot of factors pushing in the direction of the outbreak of war: the aforementioned audience costs, to be sure, but also a Pakistan military increasingly comfortable and ascendant vis-a-vis the bloody civvies at home (never a good sign for regional or global stability) and the basic facts of a worsening political relationship since the surprise Modi-Nawaz one-on-one meeting last December, thanks to things like Pathankot and Modi’s remarks on Balochistan. On the other hand, there are very few factors pushing in the direction of not-war: nuclear deterrence and, uh, not much else. I would prefer to live in a world where a few of those important “switches” were switched to the not-war direction, rather than their current position.

Only Nawaz Sharif has fewer options than Modi

Poor Nawaz. Dude came to office dreaming of trade corridors to India. Three short years later, his address at the UN will in all likelihood make Krushchev’s shoe-thumping look like Malala’s Nobel acceptance speech.

On the civil-military side of the equation, the Panama papers fallout didn’t help. On the India side of the equation, his credibility was murdered slowly over his tenure. You can see the interaction of these two dynamics very vividly in this tidbit about the aftermath of Pathankot:

After the Pathankot attacks in January, India claimed to have traced a few numbers that were in contact with the terrorists back to Pakistan. The numbers, which were publicly available, could easily be traced on the internet to the Al-Rehmat Trust’s social media presence. Speaking to India Today, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s adviser on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz confirmed that the numbers provided by India traced back to JeM’s headquarter in Bahawalpur.

A Joint Investigations Team, which was formed on Sharif’s instructions to probe into the Pathankot attack, concluded that there was no evidence of Pakistan’s involvement in the attack. India’s National Investigation Agency chief also confirmed that Pakistan wasn’t helping JeM plan or execute the attack.

Though Pakistan denied that any of the attackers infiltrated India from Pakistan, a well-positioned official inside a civilian Law Enforcement Agency (LEA) confirmed that there were proofs of JeM’s involvement in the Pathankot attacks: “The evidence provided by India, after investigations, revealed that Masood Azhar’s closest ally was the brains behind the attack.” Masood Azhar is the founder of JeM.

Explaining the reason for Pakistan’s inaction, the official said that instructions from the prime minister were clear – to arrest or kill the members of JeM. Initially, Islamabad did just that; the Counterterrorism Department (CTD) raided several seminaries and houses across the country to arrest JeM members. Then, “In a high-level security meeting, PM Sharif was pressured by [Chief of Army Staff] General Raheel Sharif to let the army handle the operations, instead of the CTD,” the official told The Diplomat.

“No one knows what happened after that,” he added.

Same story on Mumbai attacks trials, for which Pakistan continues to ask for “evidence,” all the while ensuring that no one actually pays for the attacks.

Sufayan Zafar was accused of financing Rs 14,800 for Mumbai attack and providing Rs 3.98 million to co-accused Shahid Jameel Riaz prior to the attack.

“The FIA has found no evidence against Zafar during investigation,” an official of FIA said.

He said the allegation that he had financed one of the arrested suspects in Mumbai case could not be proved after thorough investigation.

The official said: “Zafar’s role in providing finances to a Mumbai attacks suspect[s] has not been established.”

He said Zafar would not be charge-sheeted in the court for alleged allegations. “FIA will submit a challan in the trial court in this regard on next hearing on September 22 but will not frame charges against him,” the official said.

Zafar was hiding after being declared proclaimed offender in the Mumbai case. He was arrested early last month from his hideout in Kyber-Pakhtaunkhawa province.

A resident of Gujrawala district of Punjab, some 80km from Lahore, Zafar is among 21 other (absconding) suspects wanted in this high-profile case.

Six other suspects — Abdul Wajid, Mazhar Iqbal, Hammad Amin Sadiq, Shahid Jameel Riaz, Jamil Ahmed and Younus Anjum — have been lodged in the Adiyala Jail Rrawalpindi since 2009 for abetment to murder, attempted murder, planning and executing the Mumbai attacks.

Prime suspect LeT operations commander Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, believed to be the mastermind of the Mumbai attacks, has been in hiding after getting bail over a year ago.

Even some nominal movement on either of these could have bought Nawaz some breathing space from Modi. India has such exceedingly low expectations of Pakistan on this front that it would not have had to have been an especially significant gesture to earn some goodwill or credibility. Just get one accomplice or planner or financier behind bars or killed in an encounter, something, anything. Instead we get this:

Just to clarify, that’s Pakistan’s Minister of Defense calling Uri a false flag operation.

Pakistan missed a serious opportunity this summer

This is purely a thought exercise, but I can’t help but wonder what Pakistan’s foreign policy would look like were it less beholden to the idea that all of Kashmir belongs to it (hahaha, yes I know). I believe a Pakistan with a more flexible/content sense of nationhood and territory could have significantly advanced its national interests with a course that is impossible in the real world, but fun to think about nonetheless.

If one assumes that (1) Kashmir is at the center of the dispute between India and Pakistan, and (2) continued conflictual relations with India is not in Pakistan’s long-term interest (here’s a graph that might help convince you of the validity of this assumption)

then it stands to reason that Pakistan helping India find a solution to its Kashmir problem would go a very long way indeed towards ameliorating the potential for (nuclear) war and making itself more secure and prosperous. Make no mistake, Pakistan’s cooperation is necessary (but not sufficient) for India quelling dissent in the Kashmir valley in the medium term (aside: this is not a symmetric issue. For some strange reason, I see some op-eds and RSS online warriors talking about Gilgit-Baltistan as if it were Balochistan or Indian Kashmir, let me assure you that is a very imperfect comparison).

India is aware that it faces a two-pronged problem in Kashmir: a domestic rebellion that at times veers into violence and/or full-blown separatism, and an interstate dispute with a recalcitrant neighbor. Having spoken to a fair number of people from different backgrounds and perspectives in Kashmir and “mainland” India in the last year, it is very clear to me that there is little hope that India has the dexterity and adroitness to manage both problems at once. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to win the hearts and minds of the Kashmiri Muslim while also preparing for international war against Pakistan in the same damn place. In other words, there is a seriously high premium attached to getting rid of at least one side of the problem to make the other more solvable.

A Pakistan led by your humble blogger (a laughable proposition but bear with me) would have gone to India this summer after Burhan Wani’s funeral and the attendant protests and said something to the effect of: relax. We are not going to do the whole 1989-1994 thing again. That was really bad for everyone: you, us, and especially the Kashmiris. We will help you find some sort of settlement on the interstate side, so that you are freed to tackle the domestic side. Everything is on the table for discussion: LOC as a border, Musharraf’s four point plan, whatever. But you have to give us something, anything, for me to point to when I get on TV to announce the deal.

You offer that and see what happens. Maybe Modi thinks you’re full of shit and completely rebuffs you. In this case, you look nice to the rest of the world, and Modi still has to deal with the drip-drip-drip of Kashmiris dying by pellet guns. Maybe you start talking but Modi doesn’t give you enough. In this case, you remind him of how much he needs your help to end this. Does he really want his entire economic and reform agenda beholden to what exactly NJ9842 refers to? Or maybe, just maybe, you reach some sort of half-baked agreement that is ambiguous enough for all parties to pretend like they won something, and you wash your hands of both Eastern Kashmir (as it comes to be known) as well as the militant groups that lay claim to it, as a consequence of which they come to be seen as the Bad Taliban.

Yes, yes, I know, “lol just lol”, “pass some of what you’re smoking”, “I don’t believe you’re allowed in front of students”, “GMU should fire you just for these last 6 paragraphs” etc. I did say it was a thought exercise, didn’t I? My only point is that Pakistan’s Kashmir obsession really hurts it, the Indian state, and the Kashmiri people in the Indian state, and all parties would be better off if Pakistan cared less about Kashmir. The present course only guarantees a non-trivial risk of nuclear war and sullying Kashmiri nationalists’ quest for autonomy and freedom.

About Ahsan Butt

Assistant Professor, Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University


  1. This is quite interesting and plausible. I’d be interested in Indian motivations behind their actions prior to this event. I’m sure they had their own motivations – they weren’t just happenstance. I mean they killed that kid which provoked an indigenous revolt, which they then subsequently tried to quite violently put down. All the while screaming that Pakistan was behind the whole thing. And for good measure lets bring in Baluchistan and Gilgit too (after one of their guys was caught in Baluchistan). This all happened prior to Uri. I’d be curious what you think of the strategic calculus that was behind this. As implausible as you may think your hypothetical is at the end of the post – surely its even more implausible given the chain of events leading up to Uri.

    • The kid, Burhan Wani, was a Hizb commander. He was shot. His successors will be similarly killed.

      Though it is true that Indian army treats civilians in the state like dirt because of the impunity provided by AFSPA, the protesters (except few kids and others who were clearly inside their homes) deserved what they got, like CM Mufti said none of the protesters went to military posts to buy milk. You deserve real bullets if you want to be part of arsonist mobs.

      India should revoke AFSPA, repeal Article 370, and resettle the Kashmiri Pundits. This is a long game requiring multiple generations and India will continue to hold it till then. It wants to maintain status qua.

  2. Your thought exercise should start with a strategic shift in civil military balance so that the army somehow becomes subservient to elected Govt & stops manipulating foreign policy to gain primacy in national policy. Raheel Sharif ends up with a flat instead of 6 DHA plots after retirement

  3. Roy Schiramael- Resettle Kashmir Pundits?! Can you please tell me how? Kashmiri Pundits face extreme hostility from the Kashmiri Muslims. Their houses are burnt. Girls raped,killed and bodies are hanged outside the house for every Kashmiri Pundit to see.
    As an outsider it’s very easy to comment and advice on India and Pakistan. It’s the women of both the countries who are losing their father’s,husband and sons in this mindless war. We want peace can’t see this bloodshed.
    And as far as use of pillet guns is there and killing of “innocent” people. Let me tell make one thing clear. Children and women are used as human shields by these stone Pelters.Pak can’t have “Biryani” and “Bullet” policy with India.
    For “Armchair warriors” like Ajai Shukla its extremely easy to sit in a TV studio and talk about India’s incapability to fight a war. He should infact tell why did he took premature retirement from the AFs. If he would have stayed back ,Indian would have been more capable to deal with international problems

  4. Don’t you know, World Bank is an Indian, American and Zionist stooge? That they’ll publish any statistic to discredit Islam and Pakistan? In truth, the red line should have been where the blue line is currently.

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