India, the world’s largest democracy, has long faced a persistent terrorist challenge from Pakistan, a country whose leaders seek to distract their public from their own failings by sponsoring radical terrorist groups and inciting conflict. For decades, India simply weathered the storm, facing down Pakistan on their 1,809-mile border.
Through the years, of course, Pakistan often promised diplomats that it would be a responsible partner and would crack down on terrorism. Its actions suggest otherwise. Indeed, prominent ministers and allies of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif have campaigned openly with theoretically banned militants.
In recent years, India has been remarkably restrained. In the most famous example, in November 2008, members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-sponsored terrorist group, attacked several targets across Mumbai–India’s largest city–including the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, the hotel of choice among Western tourists. More than 100 died. India stood down and sought to address the problem with diplomacy. Western diplomats breathed a collective sigh of relief. Simply put, they prioritized quiet over a solution that would change Pakistan’s behavior.
In any democracy, it is the job of the government to protect the security of its citizenry. The decades-long quest for quiet and India’s willingness to absorb terrorism as the price of its existence may be coming to an end, and not a moment too soon. In the early morning hours of September 18, four terrorists attacked an Indian Army brigade headquarters in Uri along the line of control. They killed 19 Indian soldiers in the space of minutes. Evidence of Pakistani complicity was overwhelming.
Incidents along the line-of-control separating the two countries, especially in the disputed Kashmir region, are not uncommon. Seldom do they even receive much attention in the West. That has now changed. In the wake of the attack, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced that it will be the policy of the Indian government to conduct retaliatory strikes across the border into Pakistan. That may have happened in the past, but it was never so publicly acknowledged. Sadanand Dhume, easily the best analyst of South Asian affairs in the United States, discusses the implications in the Wall Street Journal:
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… 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… 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.
What is most surprising, as Dhume explains in his column, is that the Obama administration appears now to be backing India’s new policy. Perhaps it finally has reached its limit of patience with Pakistan which knowingly harbored al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden for years. Perhaps Pakistan’s blatant support for the Taliban and terrorists, as well as its steady stream of anti-American incitement, have finally led Washington to recognize that neutrality is untenable. Perhaps, to borrow from Winston Churchill, the Obama administration finally decided to do the right thing after trying every other option. Hopefully, American officials have recognized that not only morality but also realism dictates closer practical ties between Washington and New Delhi.
Regardless, India’s policy is long overdue. Countries sponsor terrorism because it is a relatively low-cost strategy that can reap significant rewards. A suicide bombing, for example, can cost as little as $2,000. The best way to counter terrorism is to raise the cost to terror groups and their sponsors. If Iranian leaders had to pay the price personally for Hezbollah’s terrorism, for example, they might reconsider the utility of their strategy.
Let us now hope that the White House’s willingness to support India’s right to retaliate does not get bogged down in concerns over proportionality and extends to other allies—Israel and Morocco, for example—which also face terror threats facilitated by hostile neighbors. Simply put, discussing let alone forcing concessions under fire only encourages further terrorism.