Sunday morning's attack on an army support facility in Uri is one of the largest such attacks since the start of the Pakistan-sponsored insurgency in Kashmir in the 1990s. Through a meticulously-planned operation that showed a keen awareness of that facility's vulnerability in an otherwise heavily-fortified area, Pakistan has signalled to India that it is willing to stir the pot in Kashmir with greater vigour, and that it is not averse to ratcheting up the sub-conventional conflict there.
It is also not clear whether the Uri attacks were prosecuted by proxies alone or by a Pakistani Border Action Team (BAT) — a mix of Pakistani special forces and proxies. While the Army DGMO has suggested that the Uri attackers belonged to Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), intelligence officials have told The Indian Express that they had passed along information to the army that a Pakistani BAT was planning an attack on Uri, prior to the Sunday attacks.
Early reports have also suggested that the infiltrators may have used incendiary ammunition which resulted in the disproportionately-large number of casualties in the attack. If this was indeed the case, then the finger of suspicion points more towards a premeditated military attack by Pakistani special operators and less towards garden-variety (albeit sponsored) jihadists. An immediate challenge for the security agencies will be to firmly determine the identity of the perpetrators — for any Indian response will be contingent on this. If the attackers were not all JeM members and, instead, one or more attackers were Pakistani special operators, the Uri attack is an act of war, perpetrated by one sovereign state against another, armed forces against armed forces.
It will have to be met as such.
The larger questions, however, are these:
What advantage does Pakistan gain through this dramatic escalation?
How does it see India responding to this latest provocation?
And finally, how does the Uri attack fit into Pakistan's larger strategy when it comes to Kashmir?
The Uri attack has taken place in the backdrop of one of the gravest insurgencies in Kashmir since the unrest began there more than a couple of decades ago. The current round of insurgency in Kashmir undoubtedly has a strong indigenous colour — and more than a whiff of political incompetence in managing malcontent. Having said that, it is clear that the insurgency could not have been sustained for as long as it has without active financial or political support from Pakistan. With Indian security forces stretched thin in Kashmir, and increasingly under pressure to do more (policing) and do less (use of force) at the same time – from the political masters as well as civil society in New Delhi, it finds itself being forced to meet the twin, and often incompatible, objectives of counter-insurgency as well as battling state-sponsored terrorism from across the border.
Even beyond this, the civil-military relationship in India is at a low, with new disputes flaring up with alarming regularity around pay and perks. By timing the Uri attacks (as well as the other thwarted attacks in Poonch and elsewhere), Pakistan seeks to magnify psychological attrition within the Indian Army. The Pakistani calculation is that the political leadership in Delhi will, once again, choose to overlook the attacks and rein in the more vocal voices within the Indian security establishment who have called for a military response to Pakistan's intransigence. This will, in turn, lead to deeper resentment in the military for the political class and drive a wedge between the two. Alternatively, Pakistan is betting on a military overreaction in its local counter-insurgency functions, thereby deepening the fissure between the armed forces and the Kashmiri society.
Pakistan has signalled to India that it is willing to stir the pot in Kashmir with greater vigour, and that it is not averse to ratcheting up the sub-conventional conflict
The timing of the Uri attack also points to it being sanctioned by the Pakistani deep state. The world expects a war of words between India and Pakistan in the upcoming session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). However, because of the very fact that the UNGA meeting is on the horizon, any military response by India — in the form of a limited cross-border special operation, or even a symbolic air-strike against suspected terrorist camps in PoK — will have to wait till the meeting in New York is over. This gives Pakistan ample time to take preventive measures, military and otherwise. Meanwhile, Pakistan is expected to embark on a fresh round of initiatives to internationalize the Kashmir problem at the UNGA, with the idea of firmly focussing international attention on the possibility of Kashmir emerging as a potential nuclear flashpoint.
Such international alarm, counter-intuitively enough, actually works to Pakistan's advantage — as seen by western calls for restraint in the past which has, in turn, fortified the default Indian posture of pusillanimous self-deterrence. Even limited Pakistani success in internationalising Kashmir will bring about tremendous diplomatic pressure on India and make any limited Indian military engagement across the border unlikely.
The author is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and a national security columnist for Firstpost. Views expressed here are personal. He tweets @AbhijnanRej